Our experts offer some advice on how to choose
Q: My 16-year-old son is proving to be something of a natural trainer and has done a great job with my Labrador, which was “hot” to say the least. He wants a dog of his own but is considering retriever breeds other than a Labrador. Any suggestions? Which is the best gundog breed?
A: This is a good time to be thinking about a future puppy because if you are going to consider some of the other retrieving breeds, you will have to order a puppy well ahead of time if you want to make sure you acquire one of the right breeding.
I could get myself into hot water if I start listing the pros and cons of breeds such as flatcoated retrievers, golden retrievers, curlycoated retrievers or Chesapeake Bay retrievers. Suffice to say that, as with all breeds, some individuals from each of these breeds will be good and others more challenging in terms of training. Without treading on any toes, I think the reason that some of these breeds have fallen somewhat from favour is that they can require a more experienced approach and may not always be an ideal first-time gundog.
But over the years I have seen some great work undertaken by dogs from all the breeds mentioned above. I would advise your son to do some detailed research, talk to as many people as he can in each breed and make an effort to go and see each breed in action on a shoot day.
There are still some strong, working bloodlines in all the above retrieving breeds but, to make sure you get the correct raw material to work with, it is important to buy from proven working stock.
I wish more of the younger generation would follow suit — then we wouldn’t face the dwindling gene pool that now threatens so many of these breeds.
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Q: I have recently taken up game shooting and am a member of a small syndicate, shooting every other Saturday in November, December and January. I work hard through the week at the day job but am also keen to get a bit more involved in the keepering. I have never owned a gundog but would like to now, which would be best?
A: If, on the syndicate shoot days, you stand and shoot then your best bet would be a Labrador, the traditional ideal peg dog. If you do go for a Lab then to get the maximum enjoyment and benefit out of dog ownership you need to ensure that it is well trained. Whether this means doing the training yourself or sending the dog away is up to you and the amount of available time you have.
If you do get more involved in the keepering side of things you probably won’t need a dog to assist in that work so that shouldn’t be a factor in the decision. However if yours is a stand ‘one/walk one’ syndicate then the situation changes. On the walking drives you will be required to do some beating, so a springer or a cocker spaniel could be useful as they cover the ground so well. Although a Labrador can do this type of work and on balance I would recommend a Lab for you, but make sure the dog is well trained.
Q: I started beating last season and really enjoyed it and intend to do much more next season. I have noticed a real mixture of dogs in the beating line, from spaniels and labs to various different types of exotic HPRs and even terriers. I would like to get a dog but don’t know what to go for.
A: The beating line, as you say, does often contain a wide variety of known breeds and plenty of unknown ones too. However, you are in the fortunate position of being able to pick exactly the right dog for the job. And, really there is no doubt that a springer spaniel is that dog. They have limitless energy which, as you will know from a hard day’s beating is vital. I can hear the cocker enthusiasts shouting already and while there is no doubt that the smaller cockers are great dogs, I firmly believe the larger springer is much better equipped to deal with all the challenges the long forays into the woods present. I also hope we will continue to be able to legally dock their tails, as an undocked tail can become severely damaged while thrashing around in the undergrowth.
Labradors are capable of taking their place in the beating line and doing a great job but it isn’t what they are best at. And, as for the hunt, point and retrieve breeds – such as German short-haired pointers and Hungarian vizslas – these dogs are good all-rounders but I don’t think they would serve the purpose you want.
Would HPRs be best for me?
Q: I am a keen shooting man and do a variety of different types each year. However, what I enjoy most of all is walked-up shooting, particularly in Scotland where I am lucky enough to spend a couple of weeks each year. Would a hunt, point and retrieve dog enhance my enjoyment?
A: I think the very simple answer to this is yes. Ex Scotland and British Lion rugby player, Rob Wainwright, lives on the west coast island of Coll and springs to mind as someone who loves walked-up shooting and owns Hungarian vizslas. Clearly they work for him! I think the real joy of HPRs is not so much their ability to beat or retrieve but the moment when they actually go on point. This is very exciting shooting.
Tempted by cocker spaniels
Q: I have shot driven game all my life and have always had Labradors but have noticed the current popularity of cockers and wondered whether I should make a change?
A: This sounds a bit like someone who has always driven one particular make of car through habit but has realised that they have been missing out on a different experience. Go for it, of course you will miss that steady reliability of the Lab but this will be compensated for by the enthusiasm and sheer intelligence of a good cocker. And, of course, they don’t need anywhere near as much room. Seriously, why restrict yourself to one breed when there is so much more to offer, you only live once.
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Are spaniels the ultimate pickers-up?
Q: Over the past couple of years I have done more and more picking-up with my three cocker spaniels and in fact I enjoy it far more than standing on the peg with gun in hand. The spaniels are great for me but are they regarded as the ultimate pickers-up?
A: Good question! I think the mind immediately springs to an image of two or three black or golden Labs when using the phrase ‘the ultimate pickers-up’ but this may be more a result of years of indoctrination than sound judgement. I think if your spaniels do an excellent job (which I am sure they do) then they are the match of any team of Labs.