All-round gundogs – do they exist?
Many people have more than one dog for different activities, but does a dog breed exist that can be used for all your fieldsports requirements? Nick Ridley thinks there is one in particular that fits the bill.
Most of my friends have more than one dog, they may have a spaniel or two for beating, a retriever for shooting at a peg or picking-up and a few of them even have a “terrorist” (terrier) to keep the rodent population in check. But, just imagine that you could only have one dog and that canine companion would have to accompany you on all your countryside activities. The question is, does such a dog exist and, if so, what breed would it be? Could you even train a dog to undertake the various tasks required?
Versatile working dogs
Way back in history dogs had to be versatile, take the lurcher for example. There are numerous points of view as to how the lurcher came to be, but the consensus is that during the 17th and 18th century the drovers that travelled with various species of livestock between Norfolk and Smoothfield (now known as Smithfield) market would have needed dogs that could not only herd sheep and cattle, but also feathered livestock such as geese and turkeys. They would also be expected to guard not only the livestock from predators, but also protect their human masters. A prequisite would be that these dogs would also need to be fleet of foot to catch fresh meat for the pot on the long journey south. This kind of dog was not really a breed, but more of a “type” and they tended to be big rangy dogs able to cope with what was a tough way of living.
Selective breeding for specific functions
In more recent times we have selectively bred dogs to be more specific in their functions. So now we have gundogs, earth dogs, guard dogs, running dogs, companion dogs and so on. So, therefore, is there any breed of dog that can function as a truly versatile, all-round, ready-for-anything canine companion? While pondering this question I concluded that the first thing to do was to exclude certain breed types to try and narrow down the options, and I started with the aforementioned lurcher. There are a couple of traits found in many lurchers that has led me to discount them as the perfect dog for the countryman. The first is that due to the breed’s make-up, a true lurcher will have a proportion of running dog in their blood, this could be greyhound, saluki or whippet, and these particular breeds can be quite sensitive and this can come out in the lurcher. I’ve owned several collie-cross greyhound lurchers and not one of them was happy with loud bangs such as a shotgun. Coupled with the fact that it’s difficult to train a lurcher to be steady to anything it sees running and you quickly realise that they have their faults as an all-round dog.
I then took a long look at the gundog breeds; the spaniels, retrievers and HPRs. To be quite honest I quickly came to the conclusion that none of them really cut the mustard when it came to be being able to undertake all the tasks required to earn the “perfect countryside companion” title. One issue I had was that while gundogs can make great all-round dogs, they fall short in the task of vermin control. You really wouldn’t want to use a spaniel or Labrador to deal with a nuisance rat population because this could compromise their ability to retrieve game. That said, I have no doubt that it could be done – it is just that it’s very unlikely that anyone would want to try it.
Finally, I gave due consideration to the smallest of sporting dogs – the terrier. I have to admit I have never owned a terrier, but I have had the opportunity to observe plenty of them working. I have come to the conclusion that if I could only have one dog that would fulfil all of my fieldsports requirements, it would have to be one of these brave-hearted little dogs. I am convinced that if the right strain of terrier was selected, and given suitable training, it should be able to undertake vermin control, work as a rough shooting dog, work in the beating line, retrieve to hand, sit at a peg, mark rabbit warrens when ferreting, and track an injured deer.
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Most people would question the ability of a terrier to retrieve feathered game tenderly to hand. I have in fact witnessed more than one terrier achieve this task – and one particular dog is also a first-class ratter. Winnie, a working Sealyham bitch, is owned by a chap called Dave Simms, who also happens to be quite a good trainer. He has really showcased what can be achieved with the little dog by giving it the training, opportunity and experience. A friend who is a professional deer stalker has used a variety of terrier breeds for deer tracking and hunting rabbits in thick cover to the gun.
I am not for one minute suggesting that all terriers can be trained to be “multi-tasking” and that they would be able to undertake all of the jobs perfectly, but if you pick your breed and do your research – and train it properly – I do think the smallest of our working dog breeds does have the capability of earning the title.