Nick Ridley discusses whether or not a working gundog can also be a pet.
Believe it or not, a question I often get asked is: “Can a gundog still be a pet?” The simple answer is: of course it can be, but if you are serious about getting your gundog to a good standard and you want it to live as a member of your family, then you may well have to put some house rules in place.
Now, let’s just take a moment to clear up another point. To train your gundog to a good level, you do not have to house it in a kennel – it can live indoors. In fact, all of my gundogs have always lived indoors. I will leave it to others to assess the standard of their training, but I would hazard that the majority of working gundogs in the UK do live alongside their owners. I once read that you could never have a proper working relationship with your gundog if it lived indoors. That, I’m afraid, is poppycock.
I know of plenty of field trial champions that spend their evenings curled up on the sofa in front of the telly. There is no right or wrong, it is just what suits the individual.
Another point I often highlight is that the shooting season, for most of us, is only four months long; five months if you are lucky enough to have some partridge shooting in your locality. Many people will only be able to work their dogs on Saturdays so, in truth, your dog will only be in the field for a small portion of the year. Sure, there are lucky people like me who can indulge in working their dogs a lot more during the shooting season, but nevertheless it is a fact that they spend more time not working than working.
Without doubt, the one aspect of a gundog’s training that can be challenging when the dog is also incorporated into a family environment is retrieving. Trainers up and down the country will be seeing clients whose dogs have retrieving issues, and most problems can be put down to the way the dog is managed at home, especially when the dog is being exercised. I have read a few articles recently about the injuries that dogs are receiving from ‘ball chuckers’ – the twisting, turning, and jumping that the dog performs as it chases after the ball can cause ligament and tendon injuries, and can even dislocate knees and elbows.
From a gundog perspective, it is not the possibility of injury that is the problem, it is what happens when the dog returns with the ball; the dog quickly gets into the habit of dropping the ball at the owner’s feet and, in turn, the owner picks it up with the chucker and throws it again. The telltale sign that this has become an ingrained habit is the distance the dog drops the ball; at a rough guess, it will be about two metres – the combined distance of an arm and the length of the plastic chucker – and, believe me, it is a really challenging habit to overcome.
Dog walkers can also cause issues, especially where spaniels are concerned. I appreciate that not everyone has the opportunity to work from home and some families need to employ a professional dog walker. Where you live and how understanding your walker is will be material to which issues may come to the fore. Most walkers will walk more than one dog at a time and it is nigh on impossible to get a handful of dogs to walk nicely on the lead at heel; there is inevitably competition to be in front or next to the walker, so all your heel-work exercises fly out of the window.
I have also encountered plenty of dogs that have quickly learned that when they are let off the lead it is game on, and any distant hedge pulls them like a magnet. Once again, all your hard work (and hard-earned cash if you are seeing a gundog trainer) will be wasted and once a spaniel has enjoyed the fun of flushing a blackbird from a hedge and has had a quick chase, it can be the devil’s own job to rectify the problem.
There are plenty of other pitfalls that can occur when a working gundog lives as part of the family, but there are also huge benefits, and in my experience the dogs soon learn the difference between home time and work time. Personally, I like nothing better than to sit by the fire after a hard day’s beating or shooting, with my dogs at my feet.