David Tomlinson appeals to owners of retired working gundogs to complete an online survey to help increase knowledge and understanding of the reasons for ending a dog’s career

There is very little information and research about gundog retirement, which leading vet John Houlton is now attempting to change. If you have retired a working gundog, do take a moment to complete the survey, urges David Tomlinson.

And for more on retired gundogs, follow our advice on how to take care of our companions in their old age – read gundog retirement: looking after an old dog.


The trouble with gundogs, so the lament goes, is that no sooner have they become accomplished workers than they’re coming up for retirement. That is, of course, an exaggeration but not many dogs start working reliably until they are at least two, and by the age of 10 most will be approaching retirement. Some work until they are 12, but few continue into their teens.

Surprisingly, little has been written about gundog retirement; it’s not an exciting subject like puppy training. It is, however, a topic that has long intrigued John Houlton, a leading authority on small animal orthopaedics. Houlton’s expertise was gained during a long career in veterinary science. Although he describes himself as a semi-retired vet, his passion for working dogs ensures he continues to research into their welfare. However, the luxury of partial retirement allows him to work his picking-up team of six labradors around 80 days during the season. I have spent a day picking up with the Houlton team and his dogs are, as you might expect, accomplished performers.

It is this lack of information or knowledge about gundog retirements that has prompted Houlton to launch his own investigation into the subject. He is appealing to owners of working gundogs to fill in his 22-question online survey. He did a pilot study a couple of years ago, finding that around 40% of owners believed they had retired their dogs prematurely. Were their expectations over-optimistic? That is one of the questions he hopes to answer, along with whether it’s simply old age that prevents a significant proportion of gundogs from continuing to work.

There are numerous reasons for early retirement. Among the examples Houlton cites are deafness, aggression, lameness, unruly behaviour or even eating retrieved game. The latter strikes a poignant note for me, for my best-ever spaniel retired after snacking on a pheasant she had been sent to retrieve. There were extenuating circumstances — the bird had been dead for more than an hour and had fallen in snow, so was cold — but it was an unfortunate way to end a long and successful career. She was 12½, but did enjoy a happy retirement, remaining active until well past 15.

Houlton tells me he has retired four labradors in the past 10 years, three with cancer and one with a rare spinal cyst. All were at least 10 years old and he didn’t consider he had retired them early, although he does expect his dogs to work for 10 years, ideally, and so stop when they are around 12.


His survey starts by asking for the breed, its sex and whether it was neutered. One question I hope it may answer is whether spaniels enjoy, on average, a longer working life than retrievers. My suspicion is that they might well do if they remain fit, but they may be more liable to pick up injuries while working than retrievers, so the average length of working life might well be similar.

Further questions ask the sort of work the dog has done during its career — beating, peg dog, picking up or even wildfowling – along with how many days it worked in a year. The latter will be revealing. It might well be the case that a keeper’s dog, working more or less continually during the season, stays fitter and thus works longer than a dog that only performs every Saturday. The most telling question follows: how many years did the dog work for? I doubt whether anybody will be ticking the 13 years box, let alone the one for 15 years.

The question as to why a dog was retired has several options. If the answer was cancer, there’s a further question to answer — what sort of cancer? The survey may well demonstrate that working gundogs are more prone to certain cancers than pet gundogs that have never worked. Another question that might be answered conclusively is whether gundogs are more prone to lameness, perhaps through injury while working, than non-workers. Lameness is certainly a common cause for retirement.

Although I’ve had dogs seriously injured in the shooting field, I’ve never had the misfortune for one to be killed. However, Houlton points out: “Anecdotally, we hear of dogs being killed while working — some in tragic circumstances — but what is the true prevalence?”

Thus the survey does include a question about dogs that have died in the shooting field, and how they were killed. Houlton believes that if we discover the cause we may be able to lessen the risk with appropriate advice.

The success of the survey depends on as many people taking part as possible. If you have read this far, then the chances are high that you have retired a dog, in which case I urge you to go to survey-monkey.co.uk/r/M5J7K38. Filling in the survey is quick and easy. It shouldn’t take more than five minutes, although you are asked to fill in a separate survey for each dog you have retired in the past 10 years. Houlton’s aim is to publish the results in a veterinary peer-reviewed journal, but he has promised to share them with me, too. I look forward to reading them as they are bound to be fascinating.