I've got numerous books on training gundogs, yet hardly one of them makes a mention of teaching your dog how to work in the beating line.
There’s a general assumption that a beating dog doesn’t really need much training, and that dogs that work in the beating line are somewhat inferior to the high-powered picking-up dogs, or even the animals that sit at their masters or mistress’s shooting peg. Theres no competition or championship for the top beating dogs.
Last season I spent more time beating (or, in my part of Suffolk, brushing) than I did either picking-up or shooting, and enjoyed myself enormously. I’ve long suspected that the beaters and their dogs have more fun on a shooting day than anyone, and my recent experiences have confirmed this. There’s a camaraderie among the beaters that you rarely find among the picking-up team or the Guns themselves. My experiences also sharpened my appreciation of what a good beating dog can and should do.
My spaniel Rowan invariably accompanied me, though I usually worked her on a long lead (two slip leads joined up). There was a good reason for this. I don’t trust her to be 100 per cent steady, and on a shoot where the Guns may be paying £500 each for their days sport I’m not prepared to take the risk of her ruining a drive. For a start we would never be asked again, and everyone would have a fantastic time pulling my leg. It’s hard to keep quiet the fact that I write about gundogs for Shooting Times, so there’s a general assumption that my dogs should be good. Everyone enjoys it when they’re not.
Working in the beating line with your dog attached to you isn’t good practice as it’s impossible not to get snared up when going through heavy cover or struggling through a tall stand of maize. Next season, I’m hoping that Rowan will be trustworthy enough to work off the lead, and have every confidence that she will be, especially as I have studied in detail the talents a top beating dog requires.
Traits of a good beating dog
It goes without saying that a good beating dog should always hunt close to his or her master, be responsive to the whistle and never be tempted to chase anything, however irresistible it may be. Both hares and deer, muntjac, roe and red are all plentiful on the shoots I work on, and you can expect to encounter at least one or two on almost every drive. The trouble is that a drive is an intensively exciting experience for a dog, with birds flushing in all directions, lots of shouting and flag waving and numerous bangs. Its almost impossible to replicate such situations when training, which explains why sometimes even the best-behaved dogs go AWOL.
Unless your dog is trained to a very high standard, its difficult to take it beating one week and picking-up the next. Ive seen top-class picking-up dogs do brilliantly in the beating line, but Ive also watched them run-in at the end of a drive and start collecting fallen birds, despite the furious blasts on their handler’s stop whistle. I’ve no doubt that the best beating dogs have no interest in retrieving.
A perennial problem is stopping your beating dog from pegging unshot game. Again, this is more of a challenge if you are working a dog that likes picking-up. I’ve seen dogs that could be called professional peggers nailing a bird or two in every drive. I’m convinced that such dogs should only work if muzzled, and it’s unfair for the Guns to have to pay for birds that invariably end up on the gamecart, but which haven’t been shot at. Almost all gundog breeds are prone to peg, with hard-hunting spaniels and HPRs perhaps the worst. I’ve recounted in these pages before how one of my spaniels once retrieved a pheasant that had been pegged and savaged by a terrier belonging to a friend of the shoots owner. I buried the unfortunate bird in a convenient rabbit hole. It was a shoot where I hadn’t worked before, and the obvious implication would have been that my spaniel did the damage.
Unusual beating breeds
One of the attractions of beating is that canine participants needn’t be proper gundogs, and I’ve seen many unlikely characters working in the line. Border collies seem to have a particular talent and enthusiasm. I always feel sorry for HPRs that beat, as on a typical 200-bird day they have little opportunity to point. I’ve no doubt, though, that they come into their own on small shoots where birds are sparse.