Paul Rawlings shows you how to ensure you have the best gundogs on the beating line

Many of us began our time in the beating line to earn a bit of pocket money while still in full-time education or to supplement our first wages. On some shoots you got extra money if you took a dog, and this resulted in a wide variety of canines taking to the field. Besides the usual spaniels and retrievers there would be terriers, collies and mongrels of various types. Some of these were great at flushing birds, and because many lacked retrieving skills, they would be quite steady as well. For those of us with an experienced roughshooting gundog, however, the urge to retrieve was great. My first dog, a show-bred yellow Labrador bitch, did not wait till the end of a drive to run out through the line of Guns to pick-up game dropping behind them, much to the consternation of the syndicate members. I soon learned that taking her beating would make me unpopular so this part of her gundog career was cut short.

I decided that having watched the headkeeper’s dog, a small liver-and-white spaniel, behaving impeccably, a new puppy was what I required. A working cocker from an excellent strain was obtained and weeks and months of hard work turned her into a useful hunting machine. When we were out training, she was obedient. However, I had the urge to take her beating with me when the season began, and in her first winter she was out with me on every occasion. All went well at first, but by the end of January her obedience to commands was being stretched, and my control was diminishing. That was dog number two ruined, and it was a poor introduction to the field by me that was to blame. Since then, with more knowledge of what is required of my dogs in the beating line, I have been able to avoid ruining any more and hopefully I can pass on some information to those of you who are taking the plunge.

First, when you are asked to go beating and the keeper says, “bring your dog if you like,” make sure you find out what type of shoot it is and what your dog will be expected to do. Then decide if your dog is suitable and if you have the necessary control over it that is essential for an enjoyable day in the field.

The first shoot I took my Labrador on had a mixture of arable land with huge fields of sugar beet, and the Guns would be positioned at one end with perhaps walking Guns on each flank. It was usual for all game to be retrieved as it was shot so my dog had lots of chances, but it could become a free-for-all, and the winning dog was often the fastest one to get to the fall. I should not have allowed her to retrieve at all and then her steadiness would have been maintained, so bear that in mind when you take your dog into a beating line with walking Guns, or where game is being shot in full view.

Dogs to heel, please
As the season drew on, we then began pushing the game from the open ground into the woodland coverts where all the reared birds had been released. The density of game was high as we approached the flushing points with hundreds of birds packed together at the end of the main coverts. The keeper would tell us to get our dogs to heel once we neared the end, but often that was too late and some of the older dogs would pull forward and a multi-flush of birds would result. The shoot owner would not be best pleased and woe betide the owners of the canine culprits.

I soon learned to slip a lead over my dog’s head well before the order from the keeper came. If your dog is under control then it cannot get into trouble and a lead is the safest option in the densest cover. With more knowledge of the drives I was able to make sure that I had my dog back at heel well before we reached the danger points. When you are out on a shoot for the first time, err on the cautious side until you have gained that local knowledge about the terrain.

Out of sight, out of mind
My spaniel, which was so obedient during training, soon learned that when she was out of sight, hunting in front of the beating line, she could get away with murder. She used to turn on two pips of the whistle, but with everyone blowing a whistle trying to control their own dogs, and with the shouting, tapping and waving, she soon switched off her ears and her prey drive took over.

She was a great hunting machine but I had never trained her in company, she had never been accustomed to a flag being cracked like a whip, and had never been in such a density of game. An introduction to this in training is essential long before you take any dog out beating. Motivated hunting dogs, when they encounter a high density of game, will be difficult to keep under control. The preparation before the day must be thorough.

If the opportunity arises then take it, but make sure you do not ruin your dog by putting it into situations which are impossible to control. Take water and a lunchtime snack for the dog, a spare lead, a spare whistle and a first-aid kit just in case. With correct training, preparation and introduction, taking your dog beating will be an enjoyable pastime and a real help to the shoot.

Working with the wind
Wind direction plays an important part when driving birds towards the waiting Guns. The keeper will be aware of this and the Guns’ pegs will be located to the best advantage, so that shooting is enjoyed by all of them. This often means that dogs will be working downwind for much of the time and many beating lines will move at such a pace that it will be impossible for your dog to work the wind properly.

On a downwind beat the dog should pull out and then quarter back towards you, and only once that ground has been covered should you move forward to a fresh piece. Of course, in the beating line it is not possible for you to pause while your dog works the wind and therefore the dog is encouraged to keep pulling forward, tracking game.

This will quickly ruin a dog’s pattern, and instead it will be taught inadvertently to “pull” with the result that ground will not be covered properly and game will be passed. Don’t allow your dog to pull downwind — bring it back to heel and only let it hunt when you can keep control.

When introducing a new dog to the shoot I used to volunteer to blank-in any ditches or rough cover into the main beat. This reduced pent-up energy spoiling previous good behaviour and gave me a chance to make sure they were under full control before the main beating line pushed forward in earnest.

Paul’s top tips for gundogs on the beating line

  1. Check what type of shoot it is and what the keeper is expecting before you decide to take your dog
  2. Don’t allow your dog to pick-up until it is completely steady in the beating line
  3. Keep your dog on a lead if it is excited or isn’t completely under control
  4. Slip a lead on towards the end of the drive or when there are “danger points” such as thick cover and too much game
  5. Get to know the shoot and the drivers before you allow your dog to work freely
  6. Train your dog in company, using distractions that are encountered in a shooting day, such as waving flags, shouting, other dogs hunting etc.