Gundogs are able to work well at field trials when they have experience of the real thing. By Amy Bates.

Whilst writing about British gundogs, an American gundog trainer was extolling the virtues of how “these extraordinary gundogs perform with such style and drive yet remain absolutely calm and under control on extremely long shoots” – meaning some drives involving 200 to 500 birds. It’s interesting how ‘English Labs’ (sorry Scotland and Wales but the Yanks think we’re all the same when it comes to gundogs) are perceived across the pond.

It is extraordinary and we should applaud not only trainers’ gundogs that can sit through big drives but the hundreds of picking-up gundogs that do the same week in, week out. Last season I was at a shoot where one picker-up was using six gundogs: a mixture of spaniels and labs. All behaved perfectly and did some great work.  Sometimes I forget just how special it is to see gundogs sitting quietly.  It may not be as exciting as the 200-yard retrieve across a river and over a wall, but unless you can get through a drive quietly and without running in you won’t even get the chance of the retrieve in a trial.

Of course, we are lucky in this country that we get the opportunity to work our gundogs on shoots through picking-up and that our trials are modelled on an ordinary shoot day, whereas the American trials are totally manufactured.

I was picking-up last season at a small shoot and was told by the keeper to “pick throughout the drive in the parsnips”.  Parsnips, like cabbages and other highly scented crops can pose problems for gundogs, and even the largest cock pheasant can be hard to find, so understandably the keeper wanted the birds gathered quickly.  Being totally selfish, I thought it was perfect training for one of my young gundogs. I used a few birds as marked retrieves and a few as memory marks. Having a team of older retired trialling gundogs is great as they can do the donkey work and I can pick my retrieves for my youngsters. After the drive, one gun came over and congratulated me on my gundog’s work. He happened to be American. Of course I was flattered but in all honesty I didn’t expect anything less of my gundogs or those of the other pickers-up.  It wasn’t until I read the article that I understood just how rare it must be for our colonial cousins to see good gundog work.