Joining some show-bred golden retrievers on the moors, David Tomlinson is surprised to find that they are impressive workers. So why not try training your show-bred dog to the gun?

The rules of the gundog world stipulate that if you want a good shooting dog, you must buy a puppy from working-bred stock. But David Tomlinson finds that show-bred gundogs are impressive workers. And they may even be a better option for families that want a pet first and foremost.

Considering show- or pet-bred stock over working is one thing, but how about considering a rescue dog? Many canine charities are looking to rehome gundog breeds, and you could end up with a fantastic shooting companion. Read David Tomlinson’s advice in how to rescue a gundog.

SHOW-BRED GUNDOGS

One of the inarguable rules of the gundog world is that if you want a good dog for shooting, then make sure that you buy a puppy from working-bred stock. Show- or pet-bred animals are unlikely to have the same flair, drive or ability, are going to be harder to train and will probably be less satisfactory once they have been trained.

This is all sound advice that I wouldn’t dream of disagreeing with. However, over the years I have seen many excellent gundogs that were not bred from working stock, so just because your new retriever or spaniel puppy isn’t working bred, don’t give up. The hunting instinct is so deep in the genes of many of our gundog breeds that it is often easy to reawaken. It is also true that anyone who wants a shooting dog for perhaps a dozen days a year and a pet for the rest is almost certainly better off with a dog that hasn’t got any field-trial winners in its pedigree. Ferraris don’t make great shopping cars and, similarly, high-performance gundogs seldom make good pets.

Some years ago I wrote some less than flattering comments about the potential working ability of the golden retrievers I saw reclining on the benches at Crufts. As a result, I received several letters from owners of show-bred golden retrievers pointing out that their dogs worked in the winter and went showing in the summer and they did well at both. As evidence, photographs were enclosed of the dogs at work; I had to admit that they were persuasive.

However, to be convinced I decided that I really needed to see some of these dogs in action, so I asked one of my correspondents, Angie, if I could join her for a day picking up grouse on a top moor in the North Yorkshire National Park, where she had worked her dogs for several years. We met on a bright, sunny day in late August. Angie was accompanied by no fewer than eight show-bred goldens, plus one of mixed breeding and three of pure working stock.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WORKING AND SHOW DOGS

It was easy to tell the working from the show dogs by their lighter build. Another reliable indicator is that show goldens tend to be much paler than their working cousins. Angie’s dogs, however, were all a wonderful rich shade of burnished copper. I was amused to hear that goldens prefer to be as dark as possible and that between drives they like nothing better than wallowing in the peat hags.

It wasn’t so much colour I was interested in but how they worked. Angie told me: “Golden retrievers are much more air-scenting dogs than labradors, so many people mistakenly think that when they see them working the heather with their noses in the air they are just messing around. They’re not.”

She was right. These dogs were seriously impressive workers, each one scattering at the end of the drive as they hunted for birds that had dropped in the heather, working instinctively with little or no handling. Who said that show dogs can’t work? Golden retrievers certainly can.

Though a working golden retriever would be unlikely to win on the show bench, there’s not such a great difference between working and show lines as there is with English springer spaniels. Few owners of show-bred springers take their dogs shooting but there are exceptions. Some years ago I spent a day with the late Carolyn Muirhead, whose Shipden Kennel was renowned for breeding show springers that worked. Muirhead was picking up on a North Norfolk shoot with four big, handsome springers. They may not have had the pace and drive of their field-trial cousins but they couldn’t be faulted otherwise, hunting with enthusiasm and retrieving tenderly to hand.

A DECLINE IN WORKING SHOW DOGS

I’m told that in recent years there’s been a decline in the number of show springers that work, so I was encouraged to hear that last season Scottish-based enthusiast Diane Scott made up the first full champion English springer spaniel in 19 years. Her bitch, Islay, became a show champion in 2014 and went on to win best of breed at Crufts in 2015, before achieving her Show Gundog Working Certificate. To be a full champion, a dog has to succeed in both the show ring and the shooting field. Scott works Islay regularly during the shooting season.

According to Scott, “Islay’s achievement has created quite a lot of interest in the show section and there are efforts being made to encourage other owners of show-bred ESSs to get involved in the working side – I know from experience they would be surprised at just how much pleasure they would get from seeing their dogs doing the job they were originally bred to do.”

All breeds of gundogs were bred to work and, given half a chance, there’s no doubt most of them would like to do so. So if you have a show-bred dog, don’t be put off training it to the gun. You might be disappointed and find that your dog has neither ability nor potential but, on the other hand, you might be agreeably surprised. For further guidance, turn to The Pet Gundog by Lez Graham, which is full of commonsense advice.