We would all love to own a beautifully behaved gundog, says David Tomlinson, but lack of training time and temperament defeat us. Or do they?

Many of us dream of owning a dog that will obey your every command and hang on your every movement however it often seems not to happen and all we see is our canine companion vanishing over the distant horizon. David Tomlinson asks the question whether the trainers are the problem and what we need to do to turn our fiendish hound into a loyal pooch.


One of the consequences of writing professionally about gundogs is that, generally speaking, I see the best-trained dogs. These include the labradors that can be stopped at 300 yards on a single peep from the whistle, the spaniels that work from side to side like windscreen wipers and the pointers that only ever point grouse, never meadow pipits. 

Of course, in the real world of working gundogs it’s very different. The majority of so-called peg dogs are really corkscrew dogs, because that’s the only way to stop them running in, while there are certainly many more spaniels that hunt out of range than work neat patterns in front of their handler. And, to be honest, my own spaniels have always been a fine example of dogs that like to work for themselves rather than for me. Just because I write about dogs doesn’t mean that I am a talented trainer, as my friends will confirm. 

I’m sure that most of us would love to have beautifully behaved, well-trained dogs, but getting what is often the family pet to such a standard is difficult. Those brilliant dogs that I watched working at the IGL Retriever Championship last year are all the result of dedicated training, day in, day out. Surprising though it may seem, many of them may have never been out on a proper shooting day, only on dedicated training days without the distraction and excitement of a normal shoot. Many have professional or semi-professional handlers, so it’s no wonder that they are so good. 

Another aspect to bear in mind is that trainers will dispose of dogs that are clearly not going to make the grade as a top competition dog, only keeping those with exceptional ability. For most of us there’s no question of getting rid of our dog if it proves to be less than talented. Once a puppy has arrived in our home it’s generally there to stay, and any suggestion that it should be replaced would be unthinkable to most members of the family. Just because a dog is well bred, with an impressive pedigree of accomplished workers, is no guarantee that it’s going to be a successful shooting companion. Similarly, some dogs prove to be impressive performers in the field, even though their ancestry might suggest otherwise.

There’s no question that working a well-trained dog is much more satisfying than one that isn’t. Dogs that run in during a drive, then swap birds, are an irritation to everyone, as well as being an embarrassment to their owner. Similarly, the spaniel that runs riot in a cover, flushing all the birds before the beaters have even started, is a menace. However, sensible use of the lead can prevent many disasters, while do make sure that your dog responds to the recall whistle, even if it means having a pocket stuffed with edible bribes. Most dogs find hot gammon irresistible. 

All gundog trainers will agree that there’s only one way to train a dog and that’s the right way, whatever that might be. However, sometimes someone comes up with something different, as readers of From the archives in The Field’s January issue may have spotted. The article, first published in April 1953, was unsigned but written by a shooting man who clearly loved his dogs, enjoyed his shooting and had a healthy disrespect for the perfectly trained trialling dogs of the day. 

The writer warned his readers that what he wrote would be regarded as heresy by owners of field-trial champions: it still would be today, nearly 70 years later. But though his ideas haven’t caught on, there’s something to be said for them. His argument was that the best dog was a big, strong and very fast English springer, the likes of which we rarely see today. The ideal spaniel was one that would face the thickest cover or the roughest water without hesitating, retrieve fur or feather to hand, have a good mouth and be a brilliant, stylish hunter. The dog should also hunt with nose to the ground, which most springers do naturally, and be trained to the whistle.

So far so good, and nothing controversial. However, our anonymous writer had no time for trialling spaniels that dropped to shot, sitting “like the Rock of Gibraltar” at just the moment they were needed most. No, he wanted a dog that would run in “like lightning” at the sound of the shot, and, “if he sees a fall, must retrieve instantly”. The logic is simple. A pheasant can fall apparently dead, pick itself up and then run like the wind. If the dog isn’t after it at once, then the chances are it will be lost, and then possibly suffer a lingering death. I particularly liked the comment that a dog must be expected to chase and that the Gun should blame himself for missing, not the dog for chasing. 

I found myself nodding with agreement as I read the article, as I have had five generations of springers the author would have approved of. However, there was a touch of nostalgia, too, for these days the opportunities to go rough shooting with a semi-wild spaniel have become rare, along with the justification for having a springer that runs in. Shame.