A Kennel Club study looks at lifespan across pedigree breeds. While gundogs are among those considered long lived, our time with them is still far too short, says David Tomlinson

Gundog breeds are long-lived statistically speaking, but our time with them is still far too short, says David Tomlinson, as he considers the challenges and rewards of old gundogs.

For more on how to look after a retired gundog, read gundog retirement: looking after an old dog.


Some years ago I visited the kennel of a leading field-trial competitor. What was conspicuous was the lack of any retired dogs, so I asked what happened to them. I was told that dogs that were no longer competitive or not required for stud were rehomed, and I was assured that there were plenty of shooting people who would happily take on an eight-year-old field-trial champion. I’ve since come across a number of rehomed trialling dogs and can confirm that they generally make great shooting companions.

However, for most of us a dog is for life and we are happy to support our old friend when he or she has stopped working. Last autumn, I went for a walk with a 16-year-old labrador, a retired picking-up dog, that still relishes her daily exercise. Another encounter was with a 20-year-old terrier, the oldest dog I’ve ever met.

The trouble with dogs is that their lives are far too short. In a study of more than 5,000 Kennel Club-registered dogs, the average lifespan was just 124 months (10.33 years), with West Highland terriers living the longest (152.5 months/12.71 years) and dobermann pinschers the shortest (92 months/7.67 years). The study considered 25 breeds, not including the notoriously short-lived bulldog, which might well have lowered the average length of life of pedigree dogs even more.

For those of us with gundogs, the good news is that the study regarded them as long-lived, though with the notable exception of the flatcoated retriever – bone cancer is a major cause of premature death with flatcoats. Overall, the most common cause of death in young dogs was road traffic accidents, while the cause of death in the oldest dogs in the survey was, logically, old age (164.5 months/13.71 years). In between came all those horrible diseases you hope that your dog will never get, from cancer to liver failure, epilepsy to bloat.

Statistics can, of course, be misleading. The study was based on recorded deaths but it’s probably only a minority of owners who record their dog’s death. It was also based purely on pedigree dogs. I’ve had nearly 40 years of unregistered, though pure-bred, English springer spaniels, and all but one of the dogs I’ve owned or bred have lived well beyond 10. My last spaniel to die was 15, while her daughter, Rowan, is, at the time of writing, 14½, not on any medication and still enjoying life.


Rowan’s longevity may be partly due to luck but plenty of exercise and a good diet must be important contributory factors. She has been fed a natural, raw diet all her life. She was also out-bred, her dam a working springer, her sire from show stock, giving her valuable genetic diversity. Too many dogs today share the same ancestors on both sides of their pedigree.

Living with an old dog has its challenges. Most suffer from deafness as they get older, and Rowan is no exception. She can still hear a loud blast from the whistle but I don’t think she hears a spoken voice. On walks we have to be careful that she doesn’t wander off in the wrong direction but she generally watches us to make sure she doesn’t do so. Her eyesight is not as sharp as it was, so she will suddenly see things that she can’t work out and this can spook her into barking, something she never did when she was younger.

Her scenting abilities seem to be as sharp as ever – most dogs retain their sense of smell until they die. Her appetite has certainly not diminished, and food has become an increasingly important part of her life. Much of her day is spent snoozing, no doubt dreaming of the next supper. Above all, she likes routine. She prefers the walks she knows best and insists on her raw chicken wing after her morning exercise and having her dinner before 5pm each evening.

As far as I can tell, Rowan doesn’t suffer from arthritis. Most dogs of senior years do, so don’t require the exercise that well-meaning owners often insist on providing. Dogs like to be with you, so they will still come for walks even if they find it a painful ordeal. Retired gundogs often look longingly when they the see the gun in the hall, sensing that it’s a shoot day, but it’s far kinder to ignore them rather than relent and take them with you. It’s too sad to see an old dog attempt a retrieve and then not know who to take it back to.

Like humans, some old dogs suffer from a form of dementia, appearing blank and puzzled. Like other debilitating diseases that afflict old dogs, is up to us to decide whether the quality of the dog’s life is no longer good enough to keep it alive. Ask any vet and they will tell you that far too many people keep old dogs alive for too long for their own sentimental reasons. Making the crucial decision to have a dog put down is horribly difficult, but it’s something that nearly all dog owners have to do eventually. You will have tears in your eyes but you will know when the time has come.