GUNDOG FOCUS: Ryan provides an insight into our most misunderstood gundog subgroup
Ryan reflects on training his old Weimaraner, and highlights the ups and downs of an often misjudged gundog subgroup
It seems that this year we had a proper summer for a change – hot days and warm nights… even in Yorkshire! Here in York, it was generally dry and warm, and the harvesting time was pretty straightforward for the local farmers – wheat and spring barley gathered in on any day you like, as the warm late August and September weather remained. This also meant that there was plenty of stubble available for training, from early on.
My old Weimaraner, Tash, now well into her 14th year, is always happy to see the stubble. To her, it must signify the start of the shooting season. She has the chance to stretch her legs across the fields, where she gets her nose down on the scent of hares, and on the stubble, where the young poults now wander in search of loose seed. The old girl has taught me a lot, not only about the breed and how to train them, but also about how Weimaraners and other HPRs are often perceived by those owners who favour the more popular breeds, such as Labs and spaniels. The truth is, I trained her all wrong – I exposed her to the wrong shoots and I had unrealistic expectations of her. Like my Hungarian vizsla, she is a rescue dog, picked up from Dogs Trust at exactly one year old. Her history was unknown and so we took a chance. Her tail had been docked, which suggested she was from the right stock. She was, indeed, and her working instinct was extremely strong. Readily ‘pointing’, she worked for me primarily as a rough shooting dog. As for steadiness, well, the less said about that the better, but she always found what was hiding on our beat, presenting me with a chance to get a shot off. Rough shooting is where a well-trained HPR can prove its worth. They are especially good at finding those elusive oddments of game, and the sheer population of game on many of our lowland shoots simply does not suit many of them at all. And so, quite often when it comes to utilising them on a shoot, the right HPR breed can be better suited to picking-up.
Tash will still come beating this year on a small shoot, though, where all the game needs finding. Now quite deaf, we’ll let her off the lead at the start of a drive and collect her at the end, without so much as a whistle or a word being spoken to her throughout the drive as she trots about.
During that time, she won’t have drifted far at all and may have even pointed a couple of birds, while waiting for my wife, Alison, to come and flush them for her with a stick. Having worked on this particular shoot every season since we got her, it is fair to say that Tash knows the ropes.
Some time back, a trainer friend of mine rang me for some advice on how to go about training a particular HPR breed he’d been asked to train for a customer of his. Normally a spaniel-only man, my friend agreed to have a go at training the exuberant dog, and was indeed looking forward to it. He mentioned that he’d also rung another very well-known trainer and asked him for his advice, to which the reply was: “Get rid of it.” Hmm, well… I tried to point him in the right direction and mentioned the key word of ‘patience’ many times over.
In actual fact, I can see why that particular trainer told him to get rid of it, and for several reasons – the main one being the perception that ‘there’s no money in them’. You see, unfortunately for HPRs, they’re generally not seen as being lucrative enough for the majority of ‘professional’ trainers. Here is a sizeable gundog group that’s made up of sizeable dogs, which require a large amount of food and often a considerably lengthy amount of time and patience to get up to a decent standard. In fact, for some of the slower-maturing breeds it can take many years to accomplish all the elements required from a good HPR; during the same amount of time it may be possible to train, say, three spaniels.
My thoughts are that many simply can’t train them, due to the fact that all HPRs are often lumped together under one training ethos umbrella. I’ve heard it myself, when chatting to a professional trainer of nearly 30 years, who said: “I’ve given up on HPRs – I’ve tried, but I can’t get on with them!”
I can understand how a traditional trainer, who is used to bringing a biddable Labrador or springer up to speed, can become a little disillusioned when faced with a vizsla that still behaves like a puppy at two or even three years old. But this also comes from a misunderstanding of what they’re actually designed to do. I know of an excellent trainer who takes in all breeds for residential training, and purposely starts on the Labs first
‘The biggest problem is that our largest gundog subgroup is often lumped together and spoken about in generalised terms’
thing in the morning before moving onto the HPRs later, as this helps to, in his own words, ‘sort his head out’!
The biggest problem is that our largest gundog subgroup is often lumped together and spoken about in generalised terms. The 14 or so different breeds recognised by the Kennel Club cannot be standardised when it comes to thinking about breed characteristics, and therefore the training methods which will produce the best outcomes also need to be individually tailored. Different approaches need to be applied from breed to breed, as some of the HPR breeds just couldn’t be more different when it comes to training.
Of course, another problem for general gundog trainers is actually gaining enough experience on all of these breeds to be able to train them properly. This isn’t helped by the sheer lack of popularity (see boxout for 2015 litter registration statistics) and willing owners wanting to take on the task of training one for the shooting field. A few years back, at a game fair, I actually overheard a professional trainer asking a lady what breed of dog she had on the end of her lead. He could not identify a Large Munsterlander! Of course, many folk can’t, but the fact that he was an established trainer confirms my belief. He’s still a good trainer, but had not been exposed to Large Munsterlanders at any point in his career.
I enjoy training HPRs and there are many others that do too. I was very impressed at an HPR retrieving day during the summer to witness a chap and his two German shorthaired pointers perform as perfectly as two top Labs during a particular retrieving element. They sat patiently, were sent by name, marked perfectly and returned swiftly.
When looking for an HPR puppy, I would strongly advise you to, firstly, research the breed, and secondly, to buy from proven working lines. If I want a spaniel, I could practically pick out a puppy from any litter advertised and the chances are the dog will work. It may not be a potential Field Trial Champion but it will still work, given the right guidance. On the other hand, if I wanted a Hungarian vizsla, although they display duality, the chances of this working out based on the same selection process are far too hit and miss! So, proven working parentage is a must. And lastly, as I’ve said before, HPRs are not a gundog group that a novice handler should take on lightly, as the biggest thing that goes against many HPRs is their good looks. Please don’t purchase based on how lovely they look – get help from someone who understands the idiosyncrasies of that particular breed, and research how to go about training them with realistic expectations and time frames.
Tash the Weimaraner with Ryan’s wife, Alison Trained properly, German shorthaired pointers are just as capable of performing well in retrieving exercises as Labradors are
Alison works Tash in the beating line on a local shoot
Due to their lack of popularity, many ‘professional’ trainers wouldn’t be able to identify a Large Munsterlander
HPRs can take three times as long to train than gundogs in other subgroups
Weimaraners often look a bit lumpy and bumpy in their old age