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Crufts 2023: how to win with a working gundog

Crufts represents the pinnacle of canine achievement but if you own a good working gundog you could clean up, says David Tomlinson

BASC classes at the Birmingham NEC

The BASC classes at the Birmingham NEC offer the chance of glory for gundog owners

Want to be in with a good chance of winning a trophy with your spaniel at Crufts 2023? Simple, just enter the gamekeepers’ classes. Organised by BASC, these classes are open to any Kennel Club-registered gundog that actually works. There are more than 30 trophies on offer and, as many of the classes have few entries, your chances of winning are remarkably high.

For example, there are rarely more than two or three spaniels competing for the Shooting Times Trophy for the best working English springer dog, so as long as you own a good-looking, undocked dog that conforms (more or less) to the breed standard, you are in with a real chance of coming home with some silverware.

The law requires all dogs that are shown at Crufts 2023 to be undocked, which explains why so few working springers enter the gamekeepers’ classes. In contrast, the retriever sections are much better supported; you can expect at least 30 in the ring for the best working labrador dog and the same number for the any-other-variety retriever class. This includes all the retriever breeds, ranging from goldens to Chesapeakes. However, even then the chances of your dog being placed are still high compared with the regular breed benches, which attract at least 500 labradors.

Though serious competition does take place, the Gamekeepers’ Rings are invariably an oasis of peace and calm at Crufts on gundog day, while few of the handlers take the classes quite as seriously as the dedicated show competitors. You are sure to see more smiles here than anywhere else at Birmingham’s NEC, for most of the handlers come along to have an enjoyable day out, win or lose. It’s no accident that the same handlers come back with their dogs to the keepers’ classes year after year.

Few working spaniels or retrievers conform to the breed standard so, according to BASC, the judges give major consideration to each dog’s “appearance, looks and conformation as a working gundog”. There’s no doubt that fit, good-looking dogs stand the best chance of success, while BASC always invites judges to officiate who have real knowledge of our working gundog breeds.

For 2023 they are Laura Hill, a well-known trialler with her Stauntonvale labradors; Brian Twigger, retired keeper and long-term gamekeepers’ classes stalwart, and HPR A-panel judge and munsterlander enthusiast Annie Jones.

Flat-coated retriever Ruger at Crufts

Flat-coated retriever Ruger was crowned overall winner of the BASC Gamekeepers classes at Crufts 2022

Qualifying for Crufts 2023

There’s no qualification needed to enter these classes other than a declaration, signed by a keeper or shoot organiser, that the dog has been a regular member of a picking-up or beating team on a shoot during the preceding season. This is not carefully policed and BASC has to depend on the honesty of those entering.

I remember one year seeing an overweight yellow labrador that looked as if it had never done a day’s work in its life falling fast asleep in the ring while waiting to be judged. You won’t be surprised to learn that it didn’t win.

At £35 per entry, competing in these classes isn’t cheap, but the fee includes two exhibitors’ passes for entry to the show — extra adult entrance passes can be bought at reduced price of £16, or £12 for children aged nine to 15. One entry fee also allows a dog to enter more than one class if the timings allow. In a bid to encourage more to take part, entries to young handlers’ classes 666 and 667 are free.

There are two young handlers classes, one for those under-14, and another for those aged 14 to 18. They aren’t a test of handling skills — all that is needed is the ability to lead a dog around the ring as competently and confidently as possible — but it all adds to the fun of the day. However, I’m always left wondering why the young handlers aren’t at school.

Arguably the most entertaining class is the BASC regional working gundog team competition. Each team is made up of three handlers and three dogs (plus one reserve), “not necessarily owned by, but qualified by the keeper/shoot organiser as dogs which serve his or her shoot regularly during the shooting season”. I’ve never been quite sure what attributes the judges look for in the winning team, but it’s standard practice for each team to be smartly dressed as if for a shoot day, so it’s important for the handlers to look as well groomed as their dogs if they want to be in with a chance of success.

Somewhat confusingly, the gamekeepers’ classes are divided into two: those strictly for gamekeepers, and those for working gundogs. The top individual dogs owned by gamekeepers go on to compete in the main arena for the best in show — gamekeeping class title, with the overall winner being presented with the Northesk Memorial Trophy. This is a trophy that can’t be taken home, but the winner does receive a framed photograph of themselves with it.

Crufts 2023 will be held at the NEC, Birmingham, from 9 to 12 March; gundog day is on the 9th. For further details of entries, go to the BASC website, where you can also download an entry form. Postal entries close on 9 January, but you can enter online until midnight on 23 January.