Mark and Jamie Bettinson are the Welsh father and son who have established a serious reputation in the world of labrador training over the past 20 years.

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A glance at the diary entries on the desk at Bridgecroft Kennels in Hengoed, south Wales, reads like a who’s who of field trialling. Bridgecroft is one of the nerve centres of the UK trialling scene. Mark Bettinson was born three miles from the kennels and Jamie, his son, just down the valley. But the real star of this story is Dawn Bettinson. Never was the saying “behind every successful man…” more apt. When Mark was made redundant from the National Coal Board he and Dawn bought Bridgecroft Boarding Kennels and their success in the gundog world escalated from then on. But in Mark’s own words: “Dawn’s the boss!”

A glance at the diary entries on the desk at Bridgecroft Kennels in Hengoed, south Wales, reads like a who’s who of field trialling. Bridgecroft is one of the nerve centres of the UK trialling scene. Mark Bettinson was born three miles from the kennels and Jamie, his son, just down the valley. But the real star of this story is Dawn Bettinson. Never was the saying “behind every successful man…” more apt. When Mark was made redundant from the National Coal Board he and Dawn bought Bridgecroft Boarding Kennels and their success in the gundog world escalated from then on. But in Mark’s own words: “Dawn’s the boss!”

And to reiterate this point, I ask Dawn: “I let Mark wear the trousers but I tell him which ones to wear,” she says with a sparkle in her eye that’s lasted over 40 years of marriage.

A good eye for a dog

Mark spent his childhood in the Welsh valleys training spaniels with his father.  When he met and married Dawn he was still trialling spaniels, winning a few novice trials. But the move into labradors was a complete accident. Dawn wanted a labrador for her own and one day a spaniel training friend dropped by and said he didn’t want the little eight-week-old black puppy in his van. Dawn had a look at it and offered him the contents of her purse. She did the deal and bought the pup and that little unwanted labrador grew up to be Mark’s first field trial champion, Strad Benis.

When Mark first saw the potential in this labrador pup he decided to “have a go” at bringing on a different breed from his beloved spaniels. The lack of game to train spaniels was becoming a problem and ‘Kip’ was showing a lot of potential, partly as a result of Dawn’s rigorous puppy training. So Mark took on the mantle and sought expert advice: “I went up to Billy Steele [senior] in Scotland to do some training and Billy told me I would ‘make that dog up in no time’,” says Mark. And he did. FTCh Strad Benis became the foundation of their line and was the sire of son Jamie’s FTCh Levenghyl Peacock. “Mum’s always had a good eye for a dog,” says Jamie. And Mark has fond memories of that first dog which put the Bettinsons on the path of labrador success.

Puppy training

I had been told that young Jamie had been exposed to gundog training from the youngest of ages and it turns out that it’s all true. Jamie really was in a pram under the sodium lights while Dawn threw dummies for Mark as he trained his dogs.

Then when he was a young teenager Jamie trialled spaniels too but rugby was also a big part of his life, and he played at a high level until an injury put an end to his career. And once he had left his teenage years behind, he also steered away from spaniels to focus on labradors.

A family affair

What originally started as “getting a line together to train with friends”, soon became something more as the reputation of these two hard working gundog men grew. Clubs started contacting them to help train their members and before long the “Welsh Titans of the Moors” soon had a loyal following. Mark and Jamie consider it a “feather in their cap” and are thrilled when people they have taught win a trial. And they have been invited all over the world to run gundog training seminars and get a huge amount of job satisfaction from seeing all the hard work paying off for their clients. “Time is the greatest trainer,” says Jamie.

They are a marvellous double act, each knowing what the other is thinking at any one time, which can be something of a double-edged sword, as anyone who has worked in a family business will know. But it is a pleasure to pick their brains for a few minutes. After all there’s nothing like learning from the best.

Mark and Jamie finish each other’s sentences and are clearly not just father and son, but best friends too. The dogs take all their focus and time so there isn’t much room for anything else. They admit they don’t do everything the same when it comes to training, but of course there are similarities and they support each other tremendously. Mark “would love to see Jamie win the IGL Retriever Championship” one day and vice versa.

Dawn is the backbone of the business and runs the diary, booking judging appointments and completing entry forms, as well as catering for hungry clients. The Bettinsons can be proud of the many winning dogs and handlers that have benefitted from their instruction. “Keep sharp” and “get the distance” are just two of Mark’s mantras that ring through my mind when I’m out training.

A Bettinson Q&A

What do you look for in a dog?

Mark: “I like a big engine and natural ability. There is no such thing as the perfect dog, but I like a good nose and plenty of style.”

Jamie: “Style, natural ability and a brain. My first lab was Brave Noble. I won a novice with him but had two small children at home so I handed him to Dad and he made him up.”

Do you prefer trialling or judging?

Mark: “Both, I’ve judged the IGL Retriever Championship twice and this year I am looking forward to judging the Irish Championships at the end of December.”

Jamie: “Both. Last year judging the championships at Windsor and being in line with The Queen I really had to behave! It was a great honour.”

How have dogs changed?

Mark: “We get to see a lot of dogs on the moor, especially young dogs.  The dogs are softer today. A lot are pushed on too early and people aren’t letting the dogs mature.”

Jamie: “They are also more robotic these days.”

How has trialling changed?

Mark: “Trialling now is quite different compared to when I started. Tests and trials are really different – people are so afraid of using their whistle because of being penalised – this comes from the test side. But a good handler knows when to use their whistle.”

Jamie: “The standard is definitely higher; there are so many more facilities than there used to be. With the training days and gundog holidays people go on, it’s incredible. Ten years ago only a few people could go on partridge training days or rabbits; now it is open to everyone. Again, 10 years ago in a 12-dog stake half would run in and half would make a noise; now in a 14-dog stake, 12 will be good dogs and any could win.”

What’s your favourite ground?

Mark: “Blankney in Lincolnshire.”

Jamie: “Yes it’s Blankney for me too, after all I was third in the championships there.”

How would you sum up trialling scene at the moment?

Mark: “It has improved but still has a long way to go. Too many people bring out their dogs too early to trial. That can ruin a dog. I would urge all owners and trainers to get your basics right, because you cannot turn the clock back once the damage is done.”

Jamie: “There’s definitely room for improvement. It is a sport that is open to the poorest or the richest, youngest or oldest, and because the training facilities are so good everyone has the same opportunities. I was lucky, because of my father and his friends I learned to judge with the best: George Ridley, Peter Bates, Richard Webb, Rupert Hill and Roger Tozer. They are all good, fair judges who know what good dog work is and are all on the same side as the dogs.”

What is the best advice you have been given and by whom?

Mark: “The best advice I have been given is to let the dog work naturally as much as possible. And my mentor was Dave Garbutt.”

Jamie: “I learned early that you can’t win all the time and you can’t get bitter about it. You’ve got to take the good with the bad. Not surprisingly my mentor is my Dad.”

Fact file on Mark Bettinson

A-panel retriever judge
Welsh team member for 10 years
Won Skinner’s World Cup three times
Made up four field trial champions: Strad Benis, Brave Noble, Jagdens Jude and Cynhinfa Laban
Joint Gundog Trainer of the Year 2014

Factfile on Jamie Bettinson

A-panel retriever judge
Welsh team member for seven years
Made up two field trial champions: Levenghyl Peacock and Whitesmiths Widgeon
Joint Gundog Trainer of the Year 2014