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

Country Life Every Week - - BOLIVAR - Pho­to­graph by Sarah Farnsworth

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’

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