Rough-shooting over dogs can sometimes get very rough indeed. Follow Janet Menzies' guide to rough-shooting over your dog to find that perfect balance between idyll and idiocy

Rough-shooting over dogs can be hugely rewarding, when it’s done properly and safely. Read Janet Menzies’ guide to rough-shooting over dogs for a rewarding day rather than descending into chaos.


Rough-shooting over dogs can sometimes get very rough indeed, not to say hairy.

I was rabbit-shooting with a group of inexperienced guns up in the Highlands a few autumns ago. As we approached a promising patch of gorse whins, all was in order. Shiny faced, with only a light dew behind the ears, four guns and their dogs fanned out in a line on either side of me and my cocker spaniels. “Get on,” I said to my spaniel, and within moments a rabbit had been bolted and shot. The line halted while my dog went off on the retrieve. So far, so textbook.
But this particular Highland estate was experimenting with a pheasant-shoot that season.

Rough-shooting over dogs. Lab

Many guns are inexperienced rough-shooters, so it is important to set rules.

It was as he set off on his retrieve that my dog happened to bump another rabbit. He dropped. The new rabbit was then shot (bad enough) but unfortunately not before it, in turn, had flushed a pheasant, which was also shot (worse). Perhaps it was the sight of a pheasant when we were on a rabbit-shoot, or maybe it was all the gunfire, but something seemed to inflame the guns. They surged into the furze patch like a Newquay wave engulfing a surfer.

Chaos escalated, with guns encircling whins and firing randomly in all directions. Bunnies bolted, pheasants flushed, dogs ran, guns blazed – even Bryn Parry would have been pressed to do the scene justice. I gathered up my remaining spaniel (the other had long since lost the plot), and took refuge in a dip. I have no experience of sheltering in a foxhole during the Somme, but I’m guessing it was similar.


Of course, rough-shooting over dogs doesn’t have to be like this, and yet it so often is. I cherish a naïve notion that things weren’t always so. It is said that the use of the word “hup” instead of “sit” to command spaniels dates back to the early days of shooting with muzzle-loaders over spaniel/setter-type dogs. When game had been shot, guns would be lifted hup to be reloaded, and everything would pause, dogs included.

If only. Looking through The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, the sole usage of the “hup” I can find is John Jorrocks MFH to his horse: “Come Hup! I say, you hugly beast”… oh, the times I have longed to address a fellow gun along similar lines.

I was shooting grouse over pointers a while back, but the wind wasn’t suiting the pointers, so I started to work my spaniel. He hunted tight and flushed a bird so close even I couldn’t miss it. Having dropped perfectly to flush, he waited patiently for the command and then went like an arrow for the retrieve. Job done, perfectly, in moments. What made it even sweeter was that the dog was mad, bad Dutch, who was having a good day. That night I cooked the bird for my husband, and we may even have had sex, I don’t recall. There is nothing like rough-shooting for providing you with all-time memorable days.


Successful rough-shooting over dogs usually revolves around finding a compromise between the two extremes of idyll and idiocy. While the days of striding over the heather to suit yourself and your dog are rare, with a little planning it should also be possible to avoid the wilder excesses of hedge-bashing. The first thing to do is go and watch a working spaniel field trial or a walked-up retriever trial. Don’t let people tell you a field trial is artificial and has nothing to do with “real” shooting. It’s rough-shooting as it should be conducted – something you may never get a chance to see elsewhere.

Rough-shooting over dogs. Retrieve

Attend a field trial to see what you are aiming for with your own dog.

The Kennel Club has a list of field trial societies. Joining one costs only a few pounds and gives you access to a fantastic knowledge source. At the trial you will see what you should be aiming at for rough-shooting over your dog. If you volunteer to a dogsbody job, such as carrying game to the vehicles, you will be even more welcome and get to know what is going on. It is also an opportunity to discover where rough-shooting over dogs is available, as it is not always easy to find.


The best form of rough-shooting over dogs for training (and for fun) is rabbiting but, since myxomatosis, opportunities have become rare. The best places are known only by the handful of professional trainers, who keep their secret to a Masonic degree. However, many lowland bird shoots are receptive to the idea of letting out small-bag and boundary days to be shot as walked-up. There are even some sporting agents beginning to specialise in this area, such as Outside Days. Farmers can also be very obliging in letting you walk their hedges and root crops.

But try hard not to be tempted into going out with a few friends on their rough-shoot. One of the worst things about becoming an older and wiser dog-handler is discovering that your best shooting pals turn into “hugly beasts” under the guise of so-called rough-shooting. Surprisingly few people know how to do it safely, efficiently and enjoyably. There is little that makes such a large dent in a friendship as a tiny pellet from a 12-bore in your cheek. And they will dash about irritatingly, getting in the way of the dog (for whose benefit you’re taking part).

The first time I worked my dogs for a shooting friend I highly respected, he asked me how long he should wait for the dog to get out of the way before firing, remarking that it was one of the things he found tedious about rough-shooting over your dog. It came as news to him that the dog drops to flush to allow safe shooting. He was also surprised to discover that dogs quarter close in front of the gun so that game will be flushed within shooting range. “It’s so much easier than chasing after the dogs when they run up the hedge,” he yelled.


Rather than take on the job of training your friends to rough-shoot, find a few like-minded dog trainers and set up a day together. You can shoot over each other’s dogs, which makes training a lot easier, and you all have a pretty good idea of what you are trying to do.

Rough-shooting over dogs. Spaniel

Find like-minded trainers for a day’s rough-shooting over young dogs.

Inevitably though, the day will come when you are working your dog for other people who are not dog-wise, possibly on a rough-shoot you don’t know. Things probably won’t go as you plan. Stay calm. Work your dog extra close to you so that you have a greater chance of damage limitation (and of preventing either of you being shot). Don’t get bossy with the guns when they start charging around, but don’t be bullied by them either. If your dog needs a rest, give it one, no matter how much the excited guns want to go on. And if a piece of ground looks too thick or dangerous, don’t work it.

In times of last resort, the best way to defuse situations is to fall back on the safety argument. Even the most bull-headed of guns realises the greater safety requirements of rough-shooting over your dog. If you have a shooting battle-scar you can show, so much the better – depending where it is, of course. That really could defuse a situation….


A day’s shooting over your own dogs with friends is one of the great sporting experiences. The more considerately and safely you all shoot, the more fun you can have. To avoid mishaps, follow these rules and, if anyone disagrees, tell them it’s what The Field does.

Put someone in charge

Because rough-shooting is informal we forget that it still needs a captain of the day. Decide before you start who it will be and then support him absolutely. That way everyone knows what they are doing and the opportunity for confusion or dispute is minimised.

Keep a straight line

Many guns are inexperienced rough-shots, so you must explain about keeping guns in a straight line at right angles to the direction you are all walking. You must keep the line, even in woodland or when there is a hedge between you. Check each side of you, and if someone is getting too far ahead or behind, halt the line. A perfect line makes for great shooting because you can safely shoot behind as well as in front.

Never swing through the line

If you are going to take a shot behind, take the gun out of your shoulder and do not re-mount it until you are in a stable shooting position facing where you want to shoot.


Tell the rest of the line what you are planning to do. If you are working a dog and you are going to change dogs, explain it to everyone.

Be aware of dogs at work

Some handlers prefer you not to shoot too close to a young dog. It is also not considered good form to blaze away at birds or ground game flushed while a dog is working on a retrieve. Just make sure you know where the dogs are and what is happening.

Remember your manners

Shooting etiquette springs primarily from the need for safety. The more consideration you and your fellow guns show for each other, the more you will all enjoy your day.

Stay calm

With dogs working and game everywhere, the adrenalin starts to pump. Staying cool improves your shooting and makes you safer.