How many triallers really work their dogs in the shooting field? I expect most do, but there are many stories of dogs that have become field trial champions despite never taking part in a proper day?s shooting. Back in December, I went to an open HPR trial run by the Weimaraner Club of Great Britain (see HPRs
on trial
, 19 January), and watched Lucie Hustler make up her German shorthaired pointer bitch, Aytee Hot Gossip (Merlot), to field trial champion. It hadn?t been a great trial for spectators, owing to the difficult conditions, so I asked Lucie if I could join her on a shooting day with her dog.

That, I soon discovered, wasn?t a problem. Lucie picks-up with Merlot throughout the season, so she gave me a choice of dates. I opted for one in early January when Lucie had agreed to pick-up for her neighbour Robert Bothway. Robert wasn?t shooting ? he had taken a day for his friends on the local estate ? but he was happy for me to come along. So, too, was the host, Justin Grady.

Lucie?s sporting background is equestrian rather than canine, though in recent seasons working dogs have taken precedence over horses. Her husband, Johnny, doesn?t shoot, but hunts with the West Norfolk Foxhounds.

It was as we walked to our position for the first drive that Lucie told me how she became involved with German shorthaired pointers. ?My first encounter with the breed was when I was a teenager: I would see two every day, waiting outside my school gate. I eventually persuaded my parents to buy one as a pet, and found a suitable puppy. The only trouble was that it was 100 miles from home, and neither of my parents was prepared to drive me there. Undaunted, I set off on the train, changing twice and taking a taxi. I then had the challenge of persuading the breeder that I could offer the puppy a good home. I often think of this experience when I?m selling a puppy now, and try not to be too judgmental.?

A prize-winning line

The story was then interrupted as the shooting started and several pheasants fell in the rough pasture and hedgerow in front of us. Merlot was sitting bolt upright, off the lead, watching and marking, and totally oblivious to anything else. Once the drive finished she was off at a gallop, speedily collecting first a running cock, then a dead bird. She then made a thorough job of hunting a deep, water-filled ditch, but there were no more birds to find.

As we moved to the next drive, Lucie continued her story. ?That first little bitch, Gavalie Benita (Heidi), won numerous prizes in the show ring and I took her to Crufts. In 1982, my parents gave Johnny and me one of Heidi?s puppies as a wedding present. Since then, we have bred a litter every five years, each time keeping a bitch as a pet and for roughshooting. I?ve always chosen the stud dog carefully, picking only handsome show champions of proven good temperament that had also worked to the gun. Merlot is our sixth generation.

?Bringing up four children compromised any ambition I had to trial, but finally, in 2004, I decided that Merlot would be my competition dog. We joined the Norwich Dog Training Club, where she finished the course, having beaten all the border collies and won the top award. We then joined the Norfolk & Suffolk HPR Field Trial Club, and she won its open working test aged only two. The club?s advice has been invaluable.

Cry havoc!

?I approached local shoots to ask if I could work Merlot, but initially met with the usual lukewarm response when they heard that she was a German shorthaired pointer. Eventually we got our chance, and it wasn?t long before we were being welcomed at more shoots than we could cover. Merlot won the third trial she ran in, in 2007. Since then, it has been an amazing journey, with numerous trialling awards, the best of which have been four firsts in all-age stakes and two firsts in opens. Of course, I?ve made my share of mistakes. One day I was sent to pick-up behind a walking Gun who was kept busy. Merlot retrieved 15 birds and it took me several weeks before I was sure of her steadiness again.

?I?m pleased to say that the sport has been all I could have hoped for. Competitors have invariably been welcoming and good-humoured, sometimes in the face of disappointing performances. Merlot and her daughter Havoc won the Puppy and Open double at the Norwich and District Wildfowlers? Finals Day last summer and it won?t be long before I am back out trialling again with Havoc. I?m well and truly hooked, but Merlot is going to be a hard act to follow!?

Having watched Merlot work impressively all day, I can see the challenge facing Lucie with her successor. However, if Havoc has inherited even a little of her mother?s ability as a shooting dog, her future is assured.