What's the best dog for beating? David Tomlinson looks at the pros and cons of some breeds in the field, from bassets to Weimaraners
Beating dogs are the forgotten heroes of the shooting world. They far outnumber all the picking-up dogs and peg dogs put together, but they are largely ignored and seldom celebrated for the vital work they do. There are no competitions for beating dogs, so no equivalent of a field trial champion. They come in a variety of shapes, colours and sizes, but I suspect only a minority are registered with the Kennel Club.
What sort of beating dog should a friend get?
I’ve been thinking about beating dogs because a retired friend, who has recently taken up beating, asked for my advice as to what sort of dog he should get to accompany him on his twice-weekly outings. He had already consulted his fellow beaters but there had been general disagreement among them.
He and his wife have had dogs for more than 40 years, but have never owned anything more sporting than a Cavalier King Charles spaniel. Their current Charlie is 10 years old and not the sort of dog that likes walking in the rain, so it isn’t going to be recruited to the beating line.
While I have dozens of gundog books, there is no mention in any of them about the best breed of dog for beating. There is a general assumption that anyone acquiring both a gundog puppy and a book on how to train it is going to want a dog that will retrieve, but that is the last thing you should train a beating dog for. As for recommendations as to the best breed for a beating dog, there is absolutely nothing.
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A great variety of beating dogs
Over the years I’ve met a great variety of beating dogs. Most were gundogs, usually either spaniels or retrievers. However, I have also seen a number of most unlikely breeds working enthusiastically in the beating line, ranging from boxers to collies, not to mention a considerable assortment of terriers of all shapes and sizes. If the dog has a nose that works and doesn’t chase what it flushes, almost anything goes.
What to look for in a beating dog
The most important attributes of a good beating dog are steadiness, a willingness to work close to you and reliable recall. You don’t need a dog that hunts the cover with the bramble-bashing enthusiasm of a field-trialling spaniel and I’ve never yet seen a beating dog that works a windscreen-wiper pattern in front of its handler. I’m sure such paragons do exist but they are rare.
What most gamekeepers like to see in their beating line are steady, methodical dogs. What they hate are dogs that peg game, that run far ahead of the line and that give tongue. With such relatively simple requirements it is easy to see that many different breeds of dogs can become good beaters, though it is probably best not to choose a high-powered working spaniel with lots of field trial winners in its pedigree. In the hands of a skilled handler such a dog might be terrific, but working one will be hands-on with no chance to relax.
Breeds that are non-starters in the beating line
- Lurchers (as sight hounds, this is not their forte)
- Toy breeds (not tough enough
- Bull mastiff
Breeds that are good you might not have considered
- German shepherd
- Border collie
(What they lack in hunting skills they make up for in obedience.)
Some words on terriers as beating dogs
Terriers come into a class of their own. On some shoots where the cover is thick, they can be invaluable because they get to places that other dogs cannot reach. However, they can be a complete pain if they are keen on going to earth and some are serious peggers that will savage any bird they can get their teeth into. I remember once working my spaniels in a beating line when one brought me a badly mauled pheasant that had been assassinated by a Jack Russell. I buried it in a nearby rabbit hole. I didn’t want my spaniels to be accused of such thuggery.
Kept in line
Few would dispute that the best beating dogs are spaniels, as this is really what they were originally bred for. The biggest mistake you can make when training a spaniel for the beating line is teaching it to retrieve. By all means accustom it to gunfire, but as soon as it associates the sound of a shot with a retrieve it is going to be very hard to keep it in line. I’ve seen no end of beating dogs emerge from a drive looking for retrieves, often beating the peg dogs and the picking-up dogs to collect birds. This never makes them popular.
Over the years I’ve been a Gun, a picker-up and a beater on driven shoots. My experience has convinced me that the people who have the most fun are the beaters, while they are usually paid for their efforts, too.
And I’m sure that those beaters with steady and reliable dogs get the most satisfaction, not to mention an extra fiver in their pay packets.