Slowly but surely
Eschewing the need for speed, David Tomlinson explains why he would always opt for a docile, biddable working gundog over a flighty field-trial champion
Faster and faster: increasing pace in sport is something we’ve come to expect. tennis players hit balls at speeds that would have been unthinkable just 30 years ago, running the 100 metres in under 10 seconds is now the expectation and not the exception and even marathon runners achieve times that would have been regarded as impossible until recently. Following the same trend, trialling dogs—both spaniels and retrievers —are much faster than they used to be.
Watch an open stake for springers or cockers and the dogs appear to be turbocharged. although no one could have failed to be impressed by the speed of the top dogs in last year’s retriever championship at ampton in suffolk, I was unmoved.
top trialling dogs might be bred for speed, but they also have to be highly biddable and trainable, which they certainly are. However, handling them takes the sort of skill and natural canine intuition that most of us lack. It’s difficult to measure how important a good handler is, yet there’s no doubt that their skill plays a major part in a dog’s trialling success. Just as a talented jockey brings out the best in a horse or a skilled driver a racing car, a leading trialling dog is a high-performance athlete that requires a gifted handler to control it.
there’s no doubt that recent years have seen the increasing use of top trial dogs at stud. Puppy buyers pay a premium for red ink
(field-trial champion or FT Ch) in a pedigree: I’ve seen cocker pedigrees in which virtually every dog was either an FT Ch or a field-trial winner.
Many gundog pundits argue that an input of top trialling blood will do nothing but enhance a dog’s ability in the shooting field, which is true to a certain extent—it’s much easier to train a dog to the gun that’s been bred from working stock rather than one that lacks it. Truthfully, however, many of us prefer a solid and reliable worker over a highperformance and often hard-to-handle animal.
Many—possibly most—shooting people want a retriever or spaniel to be a pet for 345 days a year and a shooting or pickingup dog for the remaining 20. Most of us would prefer a docile, biddable animal that wants to please, not a retriever that relishes 500-yard blind retrieves, nor a spaniel that can hunt an entire wood in the blink of an eye.
We also like dogs that can work on their own initiative, using their common sense and instinct to find the fallen bird. One of the criticisms of modern trialling dogs is that, although they handle beautifully, even at long range, they depend far too much on their handler and not enough on their nose.
For evidence of this, you only have to go to a retriever trial and watch the handlers. Several, you will note, will be wearing white caps rather than the more traditional tweed hats. The white cap (removed from the head and held like a flag) is a handling aid, used to gain the dog’s attention and change its direction at long range. Handlers without one will probably have a handkerchief for the same task. I’ve never seen anyone use such aids on a proper shooting day.
It’s no coincidence that the most successful gundog handlers have an extraordinary ability to remember exactly where a bird has fallen and to handle their dog onto that very spot. It’s great to watch, yet has very little relevance to a shooting day. You’ve enjoyed a good drive and know that you have eight birds down, but can you remember where each one fell? The answer is usually no, with many of us hoping that our dog has marked them better than us and will be able to find them with only minimal help.
The top trialling spaniels are spectacular to watch as they’re so fast and furious. They rarely run for long, yet have the ability to gallop at the same blistering pace for 15 or 20 minutes. I’ve owned and worked English springers for more than 30 years, yet my spaniels appear to be decidedly pedestrian when compared with modern trialling dogs. It’s a bit like comparing a production car with its rally-prepared competition version—the two may appear remarkably similar, but their performance can hardly be compared. It’s also true to say that the former is much easier, more forgiving and pleasant to drive.
Although my spaniels may never have been fast, they have been fit and able to hunt non-stop all day. I would argue that most shooting people want a spaniel with genuine endurance, not a short-haul sprinter. The latter is fine if you have three or four spaniels, working each one in turn, but sprinters aren’t much use to the one-dog man.
Trialling spaniels are specialist animals, as they aren’t ideally suited for picking-up, either. Here, you don’t want a dog that hunts like a demon despite the fact that there’s not a hint of scent, rather one that will use its brain to adjust its speed and use its nose to find the fallen bird. You also require a dog that will hunt with a minimum of handling. Those trialling spaniels that I’ve seen worked very successfully as picking-up dogs invariably have exceptionally talented handlers, too.
Some years ago, I spent a day picking-up on a grouse moor with a handler who was running eight golden retrievers. All the dogs were of show breeding and none would have been fast enough to impress or get into the awards at a retriever trial. Despite this lack of working blood, these retrievers performed impressively and required little handling. I doubt if they missed a bird all day. It was a reminder that, for most of us, a relatively slow and methodical dog is best.
‘ My spaniels appear to be decidedly pedestrian compared with modern dogs’