Even those of us who view our gundogs with respect and objectivity are occasionally caught out as a character slips through the net, and before you know it you are addressing the animal not only as an equal, but even as a relative.
I didn’t think I would ever go that far. However, there has come into my life an eight-year old cocker dog, nearing the end of his hard-working professional life. I thought he would be a characterless addition to the established gang who had been with me from puppyhood, and his unimaginative name, Smudge, did little to dispel that thought.
Smudge had come from the equivalent of a canine monastery. Celibacy, a strict routine and an adherence to a Victorian work ethic had initially made him a rather humourless animal. He took a polite interest in bitches, but never pushed his luck, continuing about his business with a single-minded dour purpose.
I gather that in his younger days he was quite a goer, a bit of a yob in fact. And had he not had a sensible person to train him he might have turned out to be unmanageable.
Despite his sound basic training things began to change as he realised he was in a much easier- going set up and, although he was never disobedient, he began to push the boundaries.
The innate comedian in him emerged and at the same time the dull uncompromising name disappeared and Captain Slow emerged. His physique is strong and square and his action most extraordinary, a sort of potter in bottom gear and trundle when in top gear. The front half appears to work independently of the back, giving the impression of a rocking horse’s motion. But viewed from behind he swings his backside with the best of the boys from Strictly Come Dancing.
At first sight it would seem that he is slow. Top gear, however, despite it being unconventional, is surprisingly fast and carries him a distance away in a terrifyingly short time. The first time he disappeared I, alarmed, blew the recall whistle fairly stridently. He responded immediately and was back at my side in a flash, returning with tail wagging, tongue hanging out, huge ears flapping, and his head bedecked with a bridal veil of goose grass.
With his eyes fixed on me, I swear there was a happy smile on his face. He so obviously wanted to please, while every bit of his canine body language expressed guilt. Of course such a willing good-humoured admission of overstepping the boundaries warmed me to him, and that was the first time I went into anthropomorphic mode.
“You naughty boy,” I said. “You just did that to frighten mother didn’t you?”
Worse was to follow. I started to ask his opinion on matters.
“How long shall we give that puppy on that retrieve?”
“Not much longer, you know how much I enjoy looking for those tennis balls,” he replied.
Of course he didn’t – don’t worry I haven’t lost it completely – but this is where he is at his best…clearing up at the end of the day. He swiftly moved on to the position of under trainer, although I am pretty sure he knows more about the business than I do.
Leaning with his side against my leg he throws his head back and looks long and deep into my eyes with none of the shifty glances of lesser canines. We are partners.
He works ground with a steady purpose, leaving nothing untried. Should he be entered in a field trial he would probably be awarded the wooden spoon, but I am sure he would be the guns’ choice. Such is his calm laid-back manner his owner is able to concentrate solely on shooting rather than worrying about his dog.
Some dogs’ body language gives away their frustration with their gun’s ineptitude, not Captain Slow. He will mark everything he has to and then ask politely whether he might gather the odd runner. There is never any presumption.
However silly I sound, I am happy to communicate with him on level terms. He is a truly delightful old man, but hopefully I will know when to stop short of wheeling him down the village street in a pram.