Working with your own gundog can make a shoot day – or unmake it, as Robert Gibbons discovered...
Guns with an obedient, well-behaved dog at their side are a select society. But often the story is one of blushing guns, furious headkeepers and naughty gundogs – as Robert Gibbons discovered.
To spare your blushes in the field, follow The Field’s 9 gundog training tips.
When I first took up shooting seriously, and by that I mean when I was shooting one or two days a week during the season, and having taken over the running of our family shoot from my father, I made the decision to acquire a dog. The obvious person to ask about getting a trained gundog was our headkeeper, Ian. My request to him was to break away from the labrador mould – would he get me a cocker spaniel bitch of the small variety. He said he knew a keeper near Melrose in the Borders who could supply such an animal.
My request for a dog that spring was made on the basis that I would have a dog ready for the start of the grouse in August and a companion to see me through the season and beyond. A few weeks after my request, Ian told me that his friend had telephoned him to say he had had a three-year-old, fully trained, black-and-white cocker spaniel returned to him by the owner who had retired to live abroad. If I agreed, he proposed to tell the keeper to bring the dog up at the weekend, put the dog through its paces and, if I was satisfied, the dog would be mine. I remember that early May Saturday morning well. I was excited to see the dog as I waited for the keeper to arrive. Just before lunch, Ian arrived with the keeper, who was accompanied by his wife. On her lap was a bright-eyed black-and-white cocker spaniel. Difficult not to be charmed by such a dog. The keeper proceeded to put the dog through her paces. He started by throwing a large, weighted stick embedded with pigeon feathers a fair distance left and right while the dog sat still until given the command to “fetch”. When alerted she made her move, picked-up the feathered object bringing it back slowly to the keeper. This was repeated a number of times. Next a small whistle was produced. The keeper then rolled across the lawn a ball covered in what appeared to be rabbit skin. Without a word the spaniel chased towards it. After a brief moment the keeper blew the whistle sharply twice, stopping the dog in its tracks.
“Heel,” he called out and the dog slowly turned and came back.
“You see, she won’t chase a rabbit.”
It seemed to me the dog was perfection. I won’t tell you what I paid for her. It was a lot of money.
“Do you have a name for her?” I asked the keeper, as he made to leave. His wife turned to me.
“She’s called Gotcha.”
“Really?” I said, somewhat surprised. “How did she come by that name? Bit unusual.”
“We didn’t name her, we bred her. The previous owner named her. He served in the Navy in the Falklands. He told us it was something to do with the sinking of a ship there.”
I had to leave Gotcha with Ian as I was obliged to be away on business. He said he would be able to keep the dog in work and I could have her at weekends. Gotcha seemed to be perfectly happy when I finally had her at home. Walking at heel and when asked to sit, she sat. When she did wander off I would blow the whistle and she came back quickly to sit beside me.
That August, I was invited to shoot by a friend with a grousemoor on the Lammermuirs. Settling into my butt with Ian loading for me, I felt an inner glow. At last I was a member of that select society who, on a shoot, had an obedient, well-behaved dog at their side. After the first drive I slipped Gotcha off her lead to pick-up the six birds that I shot in front and three behind. Gotcha sprinted out of the butt. She ran well ahead of where my birds were located and I used the whistle, blowing it to no effect to call her back. At this point, we lost sight of the dog.
Other dogs belonging to the pickers-up and keepers on the estate, in the meantime, made quick work at picking-up my birds. I was not happy. We had no idea where Gotcha had got to. After 10 minutes or more, standing despondently in the butt waiting to move off, I looked down to see a panting Gotcha at my feet, looking enquiringly up at me.
“First time out on the hill, you know,” Ian said to me plaintively. “All a bit strange, you’ll need to be patient.”
I demurred, slipping the lead round the dog’s neck. I would give Gotcha the benefit of the doubt. There were four drives before lunch. After each drive, Gotcha again disappeared, slipping silently back to the butt at the end of the drive. “She’ll see what the other dogs do and soon get the feel for it,” was Ian’s only comment. I took him at his word.
After lunch, there was one drive and Gotcha repeated the exercise. Disappearing out of sight then reappearing in the butt after the drive was over. Fortunately, none of the other guns seemed to notice and, as I walked back to the Range Rover, Gotcha obediently followed at my heels without a care in the world.
I had several more days at the grouse with neighbours with Gotcha behaving no better. On my last day at the grouse that year, I left her at home to avoid further embarrassment.
I raised my concerns with Ian.
“I don’t know what the dog’s about,” I said. “Got a mind of its own. Pays no attention to the whistle.”
“Cocker spaniels, you know what they are like,” he replied, not prepared to share my concern.
“Well, I’m beginning to wonder about that,” I said.
“She’ll be fine.” A response I was beginning to doubt.
I spent two days that September in Hampshire, accompanied by Gotcha, staying with an old friend who had a renowned partridge shoot. Before departing, I asked Ian if he could put Gotcha through her paces to try and settle the dog. This he did, assuring me it was just a question of my getting to know her and her getting to know me and commenting that she was still a young dog that needed experience. The two days in Hampshire were a nightmare. On the opening day after the first drive, Gotcha ran off and I didn’t see her again until the end of the day’s shooting, when she suddenly appeared at the side of the Range Rover as if nothing had happened.
“Where on earth have you been all day?” I said, looking down at the dog who looked, tongue out, happily up at me with brown eyes blinking, oblivious to my concern. The same thing happened the following day.
The partridge season over I had my first day at the pheasants in late October with a friend in Argyll. On the first drive I took quite a few birds. Looking down at the end of the drive to get Gotcha to pick-up, I saw she had gone, having quietly slipped her lead. Walking to the second drive, my host said to me, “I’m afraid we have a problem. Some damn dog has run wild into the woods and put out all the birds for the next two drives. Probably belongs to one of the beaters. I’ll shoot the bloody thing if I see it.”
I went quite pale. I knew exactly whose dog it was. There was a delay while it was decided by the headkeeper where the guns were to go next, in view of the disruption. Sitting on my shooting stick, nervous and anxious as to what had happened but expecting the worst, I saw in front of me the black-and-white image of Gotcha. I started blowing the whistle quickly and urgently but Gotcha took no notice and went back into the wood. I felt ill.
The new, hastily arranged drive was not a success as a furious headkeeper came walking up the line of guns. “I’m afraid there’s a dog loose in the covert, ruined the drive.” I cannot tell you my embarrassment. It was only at the end of the day that Gotcha appeared as if from nowhere at my side. I quickly put the lead round her neck holding her close. Whether it was reported that it was my dog that had ruined the day or not, I will never know. I was not invited back. I was now seriously concerned that Gotcha and I were not getting on at all. I rang Ian and told him what had happened.
“She’s nervous. Just not used to a big day,” Ian said.
“Nervous? What about me? My nerves are shot when the animal’s with me.”
“Cockers can be difficult,” Ian confided as if I was ignorant of the fact.
The next occasion was an important ducal pheasant shoot in Perthshire. I was nervous about taking Gotcha but I felt bad at leaving the dog. Ian could be right, all she needed was experience. We would get there in the end, so I convinced myself all would be well. Arriving at the shoot, I made sure that Gotcha was firmly tethered on the first drive. I shot a dozen or more pheasants but decided I would not let Gotcha retrieve them. Let her watch and see how the other dogs worked had been Ian’s advice. Gotcha quivered and whined a bit as the drive progressed but stayed as still as a cocker spaniel can do, when firmly on a lead. The second drive Gotcha seemed more settled. I shot a lot of pheasants and, as it was open ground, I slipped her collar and said, “Go on, fetch.” Gotcha left the pin like a bullet out of a gun and ran forward, completely ignoring the birds on the ground in front of her before disappearing into some woodland a fair distance away. I felt desolate.
Walking to the third drive, Gotcha-less, we gathered round as his Grace offered us all a drink of a special brew of homemade orange liqueur, which was his particular fancy. As I was standing somewhat disconsolate talking to the other guns, Gotcha appeared. She had in her mouth a bantam hen. As his Grace was pouring me a second glass, Gotcha dropped the bantam at his feet.
“Good Lord, that looks like one of my bantams,” he said.
The small chicken, quite dead, lay motionless on the ground in front of him.
“Is that your dog?”
“I’m afraid it is. I’m awfully sorry,” I stammered in reply. “I can’t think where she got it.”
“I can,” his Grace replied dryly. “From my chicken house. Not to worry, I like a dog with initiative.”
You can imagine how I felt. I picked up the dead bantam and handed it to Ian.
“Get rid of it,” I said.
The fourth drive I kept Gotcha firmly on her lead, with no intention of allowing her to participate further in the day’s shooting. It was a good drive and I shot well, despite Gotcha’s whining. Just as the drive ended, I looked down and saw that the lead with which I had attached Gotcha to a post had been bitten through.
“That bloody dog’s disappeared again,” I said to Ian.
“I didn’t notice,” was all Ian could say. “You were busy shooting.”
Depressed, I walked back through the park to the castle for lunch. As we prepared to go inside for luncheon, Gotcha appeared, carrying in her mouth a bantam. His Grace looked at me. “That your dog again?”
“Yes, I’m afraid it is.”
“Got another one of my bantams.”
“I’m so awfully sorry, I don’t know what has got into the animal.”
Gotcha dropped the bird at his Grace’s feet. Ian, noticing the bird was heavily mauled, picked it up and said, “I don’t think, your Grace, it’s another bantam. It’s the same one. The dog must have gone back and picked it up from where I disposed of it.”
His Grace looked up at the sky. “Let’s hope so.”
“Put her in the vehicle, lock her in and don’t let her out,” I instructed Ian.
The stress of having Gotcha was just too much for me. I told Ian that the best thing was for him to take charge of the dog. I said if we had to take her out again I would end up on Valium. I had become so unnerved that I didn’t want the dog anywhere near me. So it was that after shooting that day Ian took Gotcha and I never saw her again. What he did with her I’ll never know.
Since that day, and that’s now 25 years ago, I’ve never had another gundog. I go on shoots happily without the problem of canine comfort and observe with a smile the bad behaviour of other dogs and watch some of my fellow guns shout and whistle aimlessly at their animals.
I was reminded of my late father’s observation about dogs on shoots (he never had one). “Either you’re going to take the dog for a walk or go shooting. You can’t do both.” I appreciate such a view will not find favour with the majority of the shooting fraternity but it works for me.