We are creatures of habit, says David Tomlinson, often sticking with the same breed of canine companion throughout our lives. Would you dare to be different?
We are inordinately conservative in choosing our canine companions but there are many different gundog breeds, says David Tomlinson. Would you ever consider breaking with tradition?
Pick a puppy from working stock, they say. But some unlikely breeds actually make fantastic gundogs. Read alternative gundogs: a puppy for shoot or sofa.
DIFFERENT GUNDOG BREEDS
When it comes to dogs, especially working gundogs, most of us are inordinately conservative. The majority of us remain faithful to the same breed throughout our lives: if you were brought up with labradors or spaniels, then they are the breeds that you will acquire. There are, of course, many people who have changed allegiance but they are the exceptions that prove the rule. I’ve been a spaniel person for all my life. I had a cocker spaniel as a child and have subsequently had English springers for nearly 40 years, but when my last spaniel died I gave serious thought to getting something different.
As a professional gundog correspondent, I’ve had lots of experience of different working breeds. I’ve spent time in the shooting field with almost every gundog breed you can think of, from cockers to Clumbers, setters to spinones. I’ve met examples of every breed that I have liked, while I’ve come across surprisingly few that I didn’t.
One breed that has long appealed to me is the English setter. I have always harboured a secret desire to train one as a proper rough-shooting dog, a sort of English HPR that can hunt, point and retrieve. It’s a radical idea – we British simply don’t ask setters to retrieve – but as anyone who has shot on the Continent will know, it’s something they’re quite capable of. Not for nothing is the English setter the most popular breed of gundog in Norway, while sportsmen all round the Mediterranean love them. Most of the English setters that I’ve seen in Greece and Spain have been a handy size, too, not much bigger than an old-fashioned English springer.
There are two reasons why I rejected the setter idea. The first was the fact that I am not the best of gundog trainers, and to achieve what I wanted with a setter would have required a better handler than me behind the whistle. The second was the fact that I have little opportunity to go rough shooting, so there would have been no point in spending hours trying to train the dog if it was never going to be used as a hedgerow-hunter.
HANDSOME AND INTERESTING
I have always been a hunter rather than a shooter, which means that the pursuit has always appealed to me more than pulling the trigger. Thus the Continental HPRs would suit my approach to shooting, and there are some handsome and interesting dogs available today that few of us had even heard of until recently. Take the Braque d’Auvergne, for example. It’s a very old French breed, with an athletic build reminiscent of a slightly heavy and deep-chested English pointer but with a distinctly hound-like head, its ears long and low set.
The colouring is black and white, with solid black ears and black on the head, usually with lots of mouchetures (speckles) on the body, giving what we would call a blue-roan appearance.
It is a relatively recent arrival in the UK but has the considerable merit of being a proper shooting dog, not a showbench special. If you want to see these dogs working, then the best place is still in the Auvergne in the Massif Central, a rural, heavily wooded and mountainous area in south-central France. This is a remarkably handsome, eye-catching animal. Drawbacks? It’s still a rare breed in the UK, so not many puppies are available, while it’s a big dog.
Most of the HPRs are big, but one exception is the Spanish water dog. An all-rounder, the Spanish use them for everything from rounding up sheep to going shooting. It’s an attractive, curly-coated breed, with more than a passing resemblance to a cockerpoo. I first saw one in action at the Game Fair some years ago. It was lightning fast on its retrieves and certainly a match for the best cockers. I was impressed. However, my wife couldn’t be persuaded that a Spanish water dog was the breed for us, suggesting that we might just as well get a cockerpoo.
Cockerpoos are currently fashionable. Because they are not a recognised breed there’s no record as to how many are being bred every year, but my guess is that the cockerpoo’s current popularity would put it in the top five breeds in the UK, possibly even the top two. There’s no doubt, too, that if you cross a poodle with a working cocker you have the potential for a good working dog. I’ve watched cockerpoos in the beating line where they have more than held their own. The disadvantages are that they are so popular that they are expensive to buy, while the curly coat is high maintenance.
In the end we opted for a compromise: a sprocker, the offspring of a liver-and-white working English springer dam crossed with a lemon-roan working cocker sire. Unlike a cockerpoo, a sprocker can’t be accused of being a designer dog, as both cockers and springers are descended from the same spaniel stock, so it’s really a matter of turning the clock back. However, it’s a healthy outcross, greatly reducing the chances of hereditary diseases as there’s not a single shared ancestor in the pedigree. Sprockers may not be recognised by the Kennel Club, but who cares?