Labrador or spaniel? Traditional or rare breed? How does one go about choosing that perfect companion for shoot days, asks Janet Menzies
The Kennel Club recognises thirty-eight breeds as gundogs, making the choice of shoot day companion a wide ranging and difficult one. Would you prefer a labrador or a spaniel? A traditional or rare breed? Do you value reliability or personality? Janet Menzies discusses how to go about choosing the best gundog.
Even when you have selected a breed, there are more factors to consider. For example, which coat colour should you choose? We weigh up the options in best gundog coat colour: colour coding. And should you choose a spaniel there are six breeds to choose from, so read best spaniel breed: a new companion.
THE BEST GUNDOG
Thirty-eight breeds of dog listed by The Kennel Club are recognised as gundogs. The official gundog group includes Munsterlanders, large and small; German pointers (in three different hair types); Slovakian rough-haired pointers (one hair type); Braques d’Auvergne; and, of course, that pub quiz winner, the Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever. Doubtless, if there are duck to be tolled, the Nova Scotia is your ideal gundog. Or if you are shooting in a marshy area in Spain, then the Spanish water dog is obviously the only breed to have – though if you cross the border into Portugal, you would have to switch to a Portuguese pointer.
This cornucopia of furry willingness tells us something about gundogs – that there is basically no such thing as one ideal breed or type of gundog. It all depends on the terrain, the type of shooting and local traditions. Yet certain breeds have come to dominate the shooting field, while others have been consigned to the show ring or left behind in Europe. So some dogs are obviously more ideal than others. Let’s face it, those smarter than your average dogs are usually retrievers (especially labrador retrievers); springer spaniels; and, increasingly, the Continental hunt/point/retrieve dogs. Despite the growing trend for various spaniels, especially cockers, the most popular dog in the field today is still the labrador retriever.
Springer spaniel man Ray Dermott wanted to find out what all the fuss was about. “At the end of the drive the horn goes and all the labradors start picking up the game that has been shot, so I thought to myself that I would fancy training a labrador and got Redd as an eight-week-old puppy.” It took Dermott a couple of years to form a team with Redd but, he stresses: “Redd was very quick learning and now he has matured into a handsome, loving dog. He never lets me down and always wants to please. He is a joy to be around. He has fathered two litters and his pups have been the same. Redd has it all: a very handsome, loyal, lovable gundog – a great representative of his breed.”
For Dermott, Redd is the ideal gundog but does that make the labrador retriever breed as a whole ideal? Or are there other more ideal breeds? Another spaniel man, Nathan Hawkins, went down a different route when he decided to branch out from springers. Hawkins explains: “I wanted to try training a different breed of spaniel but I liked the idea of investing and contributing to a rare breed rather than just getting a trendy cocker. So I now have a Clumber spaniel, Roux. Personally, I think Clumber spaniels are an incredible breed with more than 250 years of history behind them. It gives you a sense of wonderment, going back to the infancy of our sport walking behind them. At times Roux has been challenging but she’s improved immensely and impressed some field trial judges, which I’m massively delighted with. I don’t think working-bred Clumbers are slow nowadays. Their nose is spectacular and they must find what’s on the end of it. Roux has bags of drive getting into cover – put a pheasant under her nose and boy, does it kick up a gear.”
If you are looking for a gundog with the charisma and rarity value to match its working performance, then a Clumber is more ideal than a labrador retriever, the many qualities of which do not necessarily include being a talking point on the shoot. This begs the question of what exactly we are looking for in the ideal gundog. I turned to the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), where the gundog officer, Kate Dymock, pointed me to their objective view on gundogs, which reads: “BASC strongly recommends that anyone who goes shooting should be accompanied by a trained and competent gundog. Using a well-trained gundog ensures that everything possible has been done for the humane recovery of the quarry and shows a responsible attitude.” It is a timely reminder that, despite our personal preferences for companionship, ease of training, willingness to bash cover or field trialling success, the primary quality of the ideal gundog is to put game on the table.
ST HUBERT’S WINNER
Using this criterion, Newmarket-based vet Rob Gould officially has the ideal gundog, in that he and his German long-haired pointer, Djynn, are the current World St Hubert Champions. The St Hubert Championships, which were held in Spain last season, test every aspect of game shooting – for both dog and handler. Unlike British field trials, the competitors run singly, shooting over their own dog as a partnership. The rules include everything from obedience and drive of the dog to safe handling of the gun and shooting knowledge, and require the dog/handler team to show, “their understanding and ability to hunt the ground respectfully and thoroughly”. Gould says: “Djynn and I spend a lot of time together. We do a lot of rough shooting. The teamwork aspect of St Hubert’s is really important and the great thing is that it is what we are doing naturally, and what we enjoy doing at home. It is a great pleasure to work Djynn. You wouldn’t go hungry with this dog. We eat game all year round here. If I had to live on what I shot, this is the dog to have – I know she will put food on the table.”
Djynn is far more than just a super-efficient game provider. Gould lists her qualities: “She is so exciting to watch. She has also a great hunting instinct – and it is a question of controlling that. Her retrieving is very good and she is very good on runners. She is good on grouse. She has bags of energy; during the season I was working her for guns for three hours at a time. She is very keen to get out with the gun and yet she will curl up at home and would be a lap dog if she could.” Gould concludes: “You can win trials by being steady and not taking risks, or you can do it with some style.” Which sums up in a nutshell why, although many would consider the labrador retriever the ideal gundog, others prefer a German long-haired pointer like Djynn. Yet the Kennel Club was at first reluctant even to acknowledge the breed, as Gould explains: “When I applied to register Djynn, the Kennel Club didn’t recognise the breed and you had to have enough of them to show. It took me more than four years to get the Kennel Club to change its mind.”
No matter how hard we aim for objectivity, even the ruling bodies can’t avoid the subjective elements of defining the ideal gundog. Meryl Asbury is president of the Pointer Club and captained Team GB in the World Championships for Pointing Breeds and the World Championship St Hubert competition. She also sits on the Kennel Club’s Field Trial Committee. She doesn’t believe there is an ideal breed of gundog but, instead, stresses: “The ideal gundog for me is the one you like best. If you really like a dog you will put in the endless hours of training, love the good points and forgive the weaknesses and idiosyncrasies your dog may have. There are numerous breeds of gundog, each with its own characteristics to suit different owners’ personalities, preferences and types of shooting. Owning a gundog is such a delicate balance between the temperament of the owner and the temperament of the dog. What suits one person may not suit another.”
So the ultimate ‘ideal’ is probably in the eye of the handler. Yet Asbury agrees that there are objective considerations to take into account: “Having owned different breeds of gundogs for 40 years, there are some general essential traits that make an ideal dog. First and foremost a dog must have a good temperament. This is essential – a good temperament affects the dog throughout its whole life, as to how it behaves in the company of other dogs and people.
“This then leads into the second essential trait, which is trainability. Dogs with the combination of a good temperament and trainability will bring years of pleasure. The next vital ingredient is natural ability and intelligence. Once a gundog is trained and starts to build on its experience, it is such a delight to watch.
“Lastly, I love what I call the ‘Wow factor’. When a dog is fully trained and experienced, they often will do things that make you think, ‘I could never have taught my dog to do that.’ This usually comes under the category of game sense and gun sense. Some dogs develop these traits to a remarkable degree. Breeders have bred for these traits over centuries and if looking for the ideal gundog it is essential to acquire a well-bred dog.”
For Asbury personally, this all adds up to the pointer. “My perfect day is shooting grouse over pointers and setters. A day spent in good company with the grace and agility of a pointer ranging over the moor, coming to a sudden point with nostrils flaring, motionless until commanded to go in and the grouse lifting from the heather is still so thrilling. The bag may be small at the end of the day but each bird is hard earned. But it is a specialist breed and it’s no accident that the labrador retriever is still the most popular gundog of all – they are such an adaptable breed.”
Annette Clarke has every reason to agree about labradors, as she had an amazing 2018/19 season with her labrador, Bertie: they were selected for the England gundog team; were fourth in the IGL Retriever Championship; and Bertie became a champion (FTCh Castleman’s Gobi of Garronpoint). Yet Clarke, too, points out: “There is no such thing as the ideal gundog. Last year I would have said Bertie didn’t have much nose and probably not thought he would have gone on to achieve what he has. He is a real character, we love him, but he is really fast. I couldn’t hold him in the working area in competition – I had gone to five trials and walked the walk of shame. But then I worked all year on holding the area and this season has been a delight. He goes everywhere at a thousand miles an hour and he says, ‘Yes, Mum’.”
It all points to one thing: the ideal gundog is your gundog. There he is, sat in the back of the vehicle, full of ideal potential. Now all you have to do is become the ideal gundog handler – but that’s another story.