If a young dog is good on the peg it's unreasonable to expect equal performance in the beating line.
By Janet Menzies of The Field
Monday, 29 September 2008
Do you practise with your all-rounder all summer but find yourself with a tearaway during the season? If so, says Janet Menzies, you've probably exposed your dog to too much beating and too many birds.
Having a good all-round gundog makes shooting even more enjoyable and rewarding, and training one takes little more work than with any other dog. So why is it that we dont see more of these versatile paragons out in the field, sitting quietly on the peg, hunting up a bit of cover or picking a strong runner as and when necessary?
Unfortunately, the gap between summers training in the theory of all-round dogwork and autumns practical experience has a depressing tendency to get wider with each days shooting. The dog which sat beautifully on the peg and picked-up dozens of birds in addition to taking its turn in the beating line on the first day of partridges has somehow become a running, flushing demon by the time pheasant-shooting arrives.
Experienced dog handlers say that the worst thing you can do with a promising youngster is take it beating. Not only is it the worst, but also the first thing many novices do with their potential all-rounders. These days few amateurs have easy access to a rabbit pen or a nice little sporting walked-up shoot which would make an ideal introduction to work in the field. But once it is known you have a decent dog, the offers of beating come in thick and fast. If you hope your dog will mature into a versatile, obedient animal that can do anything from sitting on the peg to bolting a rabbit, these offers must be resisted.
Most of us are tempted into beating because we fear there will be no other opportunity to practise the dogs hunting. In fact, beating is very different from proper dogwork. When your dog is hunting, his job is to produce the game for you to shoot easily and safely. So he has to quarter close to you, missing no game and flushing birds well within range, then sitting still (dropping) while you shoot. But when the dog is working in a beating line, all he is doing is driving game towards a waiting team of guns who may not even be in sight. Few beating lines give him an opportunity to quarter properly.
Game is usually bumped up by general disturbance rather than being genuinely flushed by the dog, and if he is lucky enough to get a contact flush, the line wont stop long enough for him to drop. Worse still, the beating line will be populated by wild-eyed things completely out of control, whose only aim is to get to the other end of the cover as quickly as possible and thats just the men.
There may be times in your shooting life, particularly if you are part of a stand-and-walk syndicate, where beating is unavoidable. To mitigate it, try these secret steadiness tactics. As far as possible, just walk your dog to heel in itself a good exercise for a dog who will be sitting on a peg as well as all his other duties. If challenged on that, then hunt him in a pattern that is very flat, that is, the dog passes in front of you right at your feet, to prevent him getting too hot or running-in. If the line is going too slowly for your strong hunting dog, then send him out wider to either side of you, rather than let him pull on in front. All the other dogs will be running on ahead in straight lines, missing tons of game and being generally wild. If your dog happens to get a flush, dont worry about making him sit, just pip him straight back to you and walk him to heel for a bit until the steadiness penny has dropped.
If beating is out of the question, how do you find opportunities to practise your dogs hunting skills? Virtual hunting is the answer even top field triallers use it. You dont need a gun because what you are really working on is improving the dogs quartering pattern and his steadiness. Your shooting and his retrieving are less important. Go anywhere with public access where there is a bit of game or game substitute seagulls on the beach or pigeons in the park will do! A bit of rough ground with rabbit scent on it is ideal. Hunt your dog, and if he flushes something (squirrel, mouse, courting couple), drop him as if it were game. Some handlers clap their hands or make a noise to simulate a shot, and you can throw a dummy at the same time. Although its not the real thing, it will work on his hunting technique and, more importantly, his steadiness.
Steadiness is the key factor, enabling your dog to mature into a reliable all-rounder. All the aspects of shooting that will tempt him out of steadiness beating, quantities of retrieves, seeing large volumes of game must be introduced in a very controlled way. A dog that has spent too much time beating will usually become too headstrong to shoot over successfully. A young dog that sees too much game and gets too many retrieves will find it difficult to sit and relax on the peg. Since you want your dog to be able to do all these things, you must be self-disciplined when you work him. Its tempting after a drive on which you have shot well to let him zoom out and hoover up all your birds, and you may get away with it once or twice, but eventually he will start running-in.
Instead, leave him sitting on the peg at the end of the drive while you go out and hand-pick a couple of close birds. Then go back to the peg and send him for the farthest bird. Dont let him have more than a couple of retrieves, so he wont make a strong association between sitting on the peg and a retrieve-fest to come. Avoid shooting very heavy drives over him, especially while he is young. With the noise and the action and the birds raining down, your dog can be forgiven for ending up twitchy. Leave him in the vehicle during that amazing drive; you can mooch off together looking for runners at the end.
It is important to be fully aware of the danger areas for all-rounders. Beating, heavy drives, too much retrieving and too much game are the things most likely to send your versatile youngster off the rails. Try to avoid these risk factors during the first couple of seasons. Inevitably, though, there will be times when you put your dog under stress. But dont panic. As long as you dont let things slide, no harm will be done. When you recognise that youve shot too many birds over your dog, put him in the vehicle to relax for the rest of the shoot. Always watch him carefully for signs that things are getting a bit much, and call it a day at that point. He is probably right anyway; there is such a thing as shooting too many birds.
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