Sit! Stay! Swim?
Richard Donkin trains his dog to go fishing
IDO A bit of shooting now and then and always admire the skills of those who know how to bring out the best in a working dog. It’s why I prefer walked-up shoots to driven game. Dogs make the day complete. I’ve had dogs for many years but have always chosen terriers over shooting dogs such as labradors and springer spaniels. Terriers are less biddable than the shooting breeds but they come in handier sizes when most of the car boot has to make way for fishing gear. My latest terrier, Pippa, a Jack Russell bitch, is first on the list when packing for a Scottish salmon trip. She’s always there when a fish comes to the net and she’s had to become as patient as I am, enduring lean periods between one fish and the next. But she knows what’s going on, of that I’m sure. While I wouldn’t describe her as a barometer, she seems to know when there’s a good chance of a take, sitting quietly and intently during those periods of concentration when I’m expecting a fish. Just as so many animals are tuned in to the weather, I wonder if dogs can be tuned in to fish? The two may go together. My old friend, the late Bill Foggitt – we used to call him the Thirsk weather sage – said his cat would dance around in a demented state when there was a prospect of thunder. We know that salmon respond to changes in barometric pressure, so who is to say that dogs don’t recognise this, too? It took some time to train Pippa for the bankside. The first part was accustoming her to the water so that she was comfortable jumping in, swimming and getting out. It helped that many of her best friends are labradors. When she saw them entering rivers to retrieve sticks, she decided she wanted a piece of the action. After getting her into the water, the second part of the training was getting her out. In the early days she would whine if I waded far into the river. On one occasion I was a long way out on the Tweed when this little white submarine came paddling past me. I had to steer her back towards the bank with my rod tip. The other problem was getting her to stay in one place. Before she came to understand that “Stay!” meant stay, she would roam up the river, often checking on a fishing companion before Richard Donkin is a journalist and has fished in Norway and Iceland. His favourite river is the Aberdeenshire Dee heading back to find me. You don’t want your dog roaming, and neither does anyone else if there’s livestock around. These days she sits on the bank and moves downstream at my own steady pace. Another problem is keeping her safe if I’m fishing from or close to the bank. In the early days she was interested in the fly, associating its projection across the river with the action of throwing a ball or toy for her. After the odd tangle, however, she soon learned the hazards in a swishing fly-line and today she stays clear of the cast. I have one friend whose labrador was so spooked by the fly-line it refused to come down to the water, but that’s rare in a gun dog. Labs and spaniels are so confident and strong in water that they’re usually capable of dealing with robust flows, but I’m always edgy if I’m close to a river in spate when Pippa is with me. There are not many places that defeat her, but I’ve had to catch her floating past once or twice when she’s fallen in from a steep bank and been unable to get out. My previous terrier was a Westie who decided that water was for drinking and nothing else. He was good at staying where I asked him to stay but far less adventurous than my current dog. I sometimes think she would be happiest if she could watch the fishing while perched on my shoulder, such is her desire to be close to the action. I wish I could take her shooting but I think that might be an ask too far. The last thing you want on a shoot is a dog running riot. You don’t want that on the riverbank, either. Training your dog for the river should embrace three essentials – water confidence, an understanding that she must not run off or chase other animals, and the need to stay close without entering the water. Pippa reacts well to the whistle and, when she’s with me, I always carry it so that I can give commands from a distance. She seems to know now when it’s okay to swim and when it’s not, and she knows to be quiet, too. All in all she’s become the perfect river dog. I miss her on trips abroad. In fact it’s often a deal breaker if I find hotels and accommodation that won’t take dogs. Fishing is a country pursuit and dogs have always been part of the country way of life. They add so much to the river and make for a life less solitary.
“I was a long way out on the Tweed when this little white submarine came paddling past me”