The weather was wonderful; the food was great; the birds were plentiful and flew well; we even shot satisfactorily.
But as a day’s shooting, the experience was excruciating for the team of guns. It wasn’t traffic on the motorway, an encounter with protesters or even interruptions from mobile phones that spoiled the day.
It was the antics of the dogs.
From the first bird flushed, to the game count at the end of the day, the place was bedlam.
There were dogs speaking in the beating line, which set off the picking-up dogs, at which point puppies in the back of estate vehicles chimed in. There were dogs rushing about hither and thither, running in, switching retrieves, chasing and occasionally pegging.
For the previous generation of guns and dog-handlers the issue of gundog faults wasn’t even up for debate. If the dog had one of the recognised faults it was either successfully retrained or retired from the shooting field, and certainly not bred from. A handler whose dogs regularly misbehaved found himself with few shoots on which to work.
So, a whole new generation of guns has grown up with very little experience of what good dogwork is like, or any understanding of why we should recognise and discourage faults. And these guns are beginning to demand more from their shooting.
But while commercial driven shoots get away with these faults, rough-shooting is the acid test of dogwork. Here faults such as these are not only obvious to the gun, but also make shooting impossible. Chasing is a form of running in, where the dog not only runs in to the fall of shot quarry, but chases it from the moment it has flushed it. Chasing is commonplace in the beating line on a driven shoot and has little impact because the bird is generally shot high in the sky at a considerable distance from the chasing dog.
So it is important to recognise gundog faults and put a stop to them no matter what a defensive beater or picker-up may tell you about ‘all that being just for trialling people’. The truth is without good dogwork, sporting shooting is impossible. That is why we should all plan to make our dogs steadier in time for the coming season.
THE SEVEN DEADLY GUNDOG SINS
Instead of waiting for a command to retrieve when a bird has been shot, the dog runs straight in to the fall and either retrieves the dead quarry or starts hunting for the wounded quarry. In extreme cases the dog will run in just at the sound of the shot.
When the dog finds and flushes live quarry, it chases it immediately rather than sitting (dropping to flush) and waiting for the quarry to be shot. A dog that chases ground game makes it impossible for the gun to shoot.
Pegging usually follows on when a dog is allowed to chase – if it catches up with the live game it will ‘retrieve’ it unshot. Pegging can also occur when game is sitting very tight (usually due to wet weather) and does not flush. This is a minor fault as long as the game remains uninjured.
The dog crushes the ribcage of the bird during the retrieve, or even shakes and kills the game. Thanks to selective breeding few gundogs are born with a hard mouth now, but some develop it if allowed to chase or peg regularly. Some good gundogs become rough with game in the later stages of their careers.
The dog is returning from a retrieve carrying game when it comes across more fallen game and drops its first retrieve in order to pick-up the other. This fault develops when a dog is allowed to run in unchecked.
The dog barks (or in some cases even gives tongue like a hound) either while on the peg during the drive, when flushing game or generally during the shooting day.
The dog cowers or runs away at the sound of gunshot or, to a lesser degree, becomes nervous and ‘sticky’ when asked to flush game. Though few modern spaniels or retrievers are gun-shy the problem is more often met with in pointer/setter breeds, especially if a gun has shot too close to them early in their careers.