Scurries and scrambles at country fairs are great fun for you and your gundog, just as long as you don’t mind ending the day a bit hot under the collar


Dogs are great levellers. Picture the scene: you have gone to the local country fair and paused to watch the gundog scurry. The standard isn’t high, so you decide to give your dog a run. It may be several months since the end of the shooting season, but a retrieve as easy as this should be simple.

You queue for ages but when your dog finally gets its turn it fails to spot the dummy that has been thrown for it. Instead, it ambles out, stops for a sniff and then cocks its leg, causing a ripple of laughter from the spectators. It then ignores the whistle, until, eventually, you have to catch it, retreating thoroughly humiliated.

Scenes like this are to be seen at all gundog scurries, even at the CLA Game Fair. As with all sports, the secret of success is training and preparation, so if you plan to run in a scurry this summer it’s essential that your dog understands what is expected of it. Just chucking a few dummies on your next walk isn’t likely to help. What you will have to do is replicate the event you are going to enter.

Most scurries have a similar format: a blank shot is fired from a starting pistol and an unseen dummy-thrower casts the dummy some 30yd or 40yd from where you are standing. Usually the dummy-thrower will try to attract the dog’s attention so it sees the retrieve. Seasoned dogs will be looking for it, while those with no experience will more likely be looking at you.

To practise, you need to recruit a friend to act as a dummy-thrower; chucking it yourself won’t do. Replicating the blank shot isn’t essential but may help. However, some dogs dislike the crack of a .22 blank and this may put them off. In most tests, dummies are thrown into cover, usually a pile of brashings, so if you take your preparation seriously this is what you need.

A common alternative to the standard scurry is a blind pick-up, when the dog has to find and retrieve several dummies that have been hidden. Most retrievers love doing this but, again, experience is essential for success, though this is one event you can replicate without help. Both scurries and pick-ups are invariably against the clock, so the more you practise the fitter and faster your dog will get.

Fortunately, most gundog competitions are divided into two classes, novice and open, ensuring that dogs with little or no experience don’t have to compete against serious handlers running field-trial champions. The novice is for dogs that have never been placed in a competition. As with all canine competitions, professionalism is creeping into the world of the scurry and there are a number of serious handlers with specialist scurry dogs. These are rarely trialling dogs but are, typically, spaniels or labradors trained to run – and retrieve – as quickly as possible.

These scurry-specialists travel the country competing, for there are serious prizes at stake. The biggest competition in the UK (and almost certainly the world) is the Great Wall Motor World Series Gundog Championship with Chudleys Dog Foods. Qualifying events are held at the four Countryman Fairs, with the final at the Midland Game Fair in September. Here a Great Wall pickup, worth £14,000, is awarded to the winner.

The first time I won a prize was in the scramble at the CLA Game Fair (both dog and handler have to compete a course against the clock, collecting dummies on the way). My spaniel and I ran at 9.30am, setting a pace that remained unbeaten until 4.30pm. Frustratingly, a labrador then shaved a second off our time and so we had to settle for second.

Organising and running a gundog scurry for a charity dog day has been an illuminating experience, revealing just how little training most dogs receive. The majority of my entrants have been pet gundogs that have never retrieved anything other than a tennis ball. Thus most prefer balls to dummies, so I give handlers a choice of retrieve. It’s remarkable how many owners are convinced their dog can do better, so make repeated entries at a pound a go. It’s a great fund-raiser.

Lastly, a word of warning. Most serious scurries can only be won by proper gundogs. At the CLA Game Fair a few years ago, a lurcher trained as a gundog outpaced the labs and spaniels, performing spectacularly quick retrieves. Unfortunately, it was disqualified for being the wrong sort of dog, despite claims in the programme that “all breeds are welcome”. They are until they start winning.

David Tomlinson is organising the scurry at the Elveden Dog Day in Elveden, Suffolk, on 14 July 2014.