Is it my imagination, or do fewer game shooters now have a gundog than 25 years ago? These days, whenever I look at the Gun line on a let day the number of folk with one sitting quietly at their peg (or tethered to it!) is noticeably down on how things used to be.

Back before let days really caught on the few pickers-up who plied their trade ran a couple of dogs, three tops, and it was down to Guns to unleash their own mutt at the end of the drive to hoover up the slain before this ‘pro’ went to work.

All was fine and dandy if the dogs were reasonably trained and worked to command because the pick-up would be done tidily, quickly and prettily. If they weren’t, all hell usually broke loose with dogs running hither and thither in the direction of whichever retrieve took their fancy.

Yet as long as the chase didn’t take too long and nobody’s dog hoofed it into a later drive, such ‘work outs’ were pretty much integral to a day’s shooting. They greatly added to the fun of things; if a dog let you down it gave Guns, keepers and beaters something to rib you about later in the bar. And a dog that caught the eye for all the right reasons was never forgotten either. It could lead to a future mating, or the sale of a puppy.

Seasons later you might revisit a shoot or bump into someone at a country fair to be asked: “Where’s your black lab these days? The retrieve he made from those floods on ours with a brace of mallard and a woodcock is still talked about up here. In fact didn’t the underkeeper next door eventually end up buying one of his pups?”

How the wheel has turned…

Happy memories. Yet this niggling thought that dog ownership among game shooters might be dwindling won’t go away. Maybe it’s not yet particularly apparent across the hundreds of farm shoots and less formal syndicates that still account for much of the UK’s shooting activity.

But dog-free signs are there to see on the corporate and commercially let day shooting scene – apparently now the sport’s biggest single source of new recruits by far. You don’t need a gundog to get started, just a gun. And there isn’t a problem if you haven’t yet bought one – you hire one for the day, and use it under supervision.

Back in my boyhood the usual route into shooting was very different: you went to shoots with your father or another male relative and joined a beating line full of dogs, including your own. The fun and joy of the whole thing was incredible.

Eventually, when you were old enough and could be trusted you were given sole control of dad’s dog. Which meant that by the time your voice had broken and it was your turn to be taught how to use a gun, you’d already served an apprenticeship of several seasons at the ‘coalface’ so to speak. Learning how to shoot was actually the last link in the learning process – not the first as seems the case for so many people today.

I’ve never subscribed to the view that ownership of a gundog should be a compulsory thing, but it’s funny how folk do warm to the idea after having had to wade chest deep in an icy pond to retrieve a shot bird, or get on their hands and knees and drag a few from the middle of a frosted bramble patch or blackthorn bush.

As far as I’m concerned, shooting isn’t shooting without a dog in tow. It lacks colour and interest.

A new breed of game shooter

Be that as it may, not everybody agrees. From what I see and make out, there’s a new breed of game shooter in the general mix that appears quite happy to remain dogless. And they are popping up more frequently on a shoot near you.

Their existence first became apparent some seasons back when a farmer friend asked me and a pal to join him on a small rough day with his son and friends: two teams of five taking it in turns to dog out rough bits, hedges, copses and strips of wild bird cover.

The Guns arrived at the appointed hour. But the dogs didn’t. In fact the only two dogs to fall in on this particular parade were mine, and my pal’s. We both thought it was a strange state of affairs, but the rest of the party weren’t in the slightest concerned. The shortage of dogs didn’t dampen their spirits and, to be fair we still made a day of it; everybody enjoyed some shooting with enough game at the end for each to take home a brace or more. But with more dogs to share the workload, the bag could’ve easily been doubled.

dog with bird

Why so few dogs?

Or more pertinently, NO dogs at all? Things became clearer over a pint later when we found out a little more about our new found friends – safe, tidy, roving syndicate Shots whose shooting consisted almost entirely of bought let days with an occasional invitation thrown in by way of change. None owned a gundog because there was no point in it; as far as they were concerned whatever was shot was taken care of by pickers-up or other guests, like us, with a dog to their name.

While dogs had never featured in their own family life, two could see some attraction in “eventually” getting a gundog but none knew enough about keeping one, or its training. They weren’t interested in wildfowling, rough shooting... even pigeon decoying unless it was in the company of a guide. Crucially they all said work, where they lived and lifestyle ruled out having a dog at home. Others I’ve talked to since on shoots large and small have said pretty much the same.

Refreshingly honest, or a cop out?

The simplistic view is that in an ideal world anyone who shoots should own a gundog but I readily understand and accept not everybody has the sort of empathy with dogs to get the best from one, or the right environment in which to keep it. It has always been the case. But could today’s let day and corporate scene be acting as some sort of new excuse in the mix? Are shoot days now more about the luncheon menu and underlying business possibilities than the dog work unfolding around them?

The rich irony here is that sharing your life with a dog of your own is not only huge fun and rewarding beyond measure, it can also open all sorts of doors and create opportunities you didn’t know existed.

Never mind ‘Linked In’ – when it comes to finding shooting and meeting new friends, getting ‘Leashed In’ has a lot more going for it!

A life-changing puppy

Everybody has empty moments in life and mine have always come when no dog has been around the house and garden to gee me along and get the day going. The worst and longest dog-free stretch I remember came after leaving home to start work as a trainee newspaper reporter, renting rooms in a large town house with a ‘no dog’ policy in place.

Thankfully I loved the job, and the other constant was getting away at weekends to shoot pigeons and rabbits on my cousin’s farm, 30 miles away. Sitting in a pigeon hide for hours at a time stroking the head of his yellow labrador, Bandit as he leant against my leg was great therapy. The lad peered through the net constantly, wagging his tail whenever a bird came our way.

Life, doubtless, would’ve continued in much the same sweet way had Steven then not lobbed a spanner into the works...

I knew that Bandit had ‘done the business’ so to speak with a bitch from the locality but little was said after the encounter, and I heard nothing more until several weeks later. In fact I was five miles from home on the Sunday night drive when the unmistakable sound of a mewling puppy hit me from the back of the darkened mini van. Surely Steven wouldn’t be so stupid as to...?!

Safely parked, interior light now on, I turned to confront the horrid truth: there, staring at me with dark brown eyes was a chubby yellow lab puppy in a bed surrounded by bags of food, bowls and a blue rubber bone. Of course I should’ve turned around and returned him then and there. But I didn’t. When we got to my place I put his bed in the corner of the bedroom, gave him a run around the enclosed garden, fed him, then turned in. He didn’t make a peep. And the next morning, before he even had time to think about emptying himself, out he went again.

dog by men's feet

The ultimate ice-breaker

The next few days were feverish, to say the least. Mrs Harrison, our brilliant newspaper office manager, created beds with used duvets in boxes under my desk, and hers. She also put one in the back of the van so that if I was out for the day, the pup could come too. Which he did on a frequent basis. Most important of all, Mrs H. quickly tracked down a farm cottage owned by one of her many relations for me to rent and before we (or my landlord at the old place) knew, we had moved. Job sorted.

With so many fields and streams around the place, training proved something of a doddle.

From a ‘Leashed In’ point of view and finding new shooting opportunities, taking a dog on news stories proved a masterstroke – especially on market days in the many dales towns covered by the newspaper.

Yorkshire farmers aren’t naturally talkative people until they get to know you but having a pup under a bar stool in their favourite watering hole made the job a darn sight easier. So much so, by the time the young dog was coming up to his first season in the field, we had secured pigeon shooting and duck flighting on farms in a 40 mile radius. And before the year was out, invitations to game days too.

Never a dull day with a dog in tow

Since then I’ve been privileged to share my life with other dogs – some better at their job than others – and not one has failed to enhance my shooting experience in some way or another. Each in their own way has enriched even the wettest, dullest of days.

And that, if you don’t mind me saying, is a priceless characteristic of whatever breed takes your fancy.

Want to recapture and relive memories of shoot days from the past? No let day card and accompanying luncheon menu is going to do it for you.

For this to happen you need a dog. Trust me.