David Tomlinson recounts fond memories of a Clumber spaniel called Dan, an extradinary gundog who had a mind of his own
Losing a dog always hurts. When I wrote about the death of my springer, Fleur, last year at the age of 15, it clearly struck a chord with readers, as several wrote to me. One of them was Alan Taylor, whom I’d met 10 years ago. Alan is one of those rarities, the owner of a grouse moor who is happy to share his good fortune with others. The day I met him he had generously welcomed members of the Working Clumber Spaniel Society for a day’s shooting on his moor.
There were 11 Clumbers out that day and among them was Alan’s spaniel, Dan. You will note from the photograph that while all the other spaniels look reasonably alert, Dan (top left) is looking into the far distance. According to Alan, this was typical Dan. “The only way you would have got his attention would have been with food or by producing another bird,” he said. Dan was, I gathered, quite a character.
I enjoyed Alan’s account of a few of the highlights of his spaniel’s life and I suspect that you will, too.
Despite being three-quarters working Clumber and only a quarter show, Dan was a big chap, weighing between 26kg and 28kg. Though Alan undertook his basic training, he turned to Colin Myers for his gundog instruction. “Colin is a large ex-policeman with an unusual technique for disciplining a naughty dog. He would pick Dan up with one hand (at that time he weighed about 20kg) and hold him a few inches from his face, growling so loudly it would have scared a lion. Dan was impressed.”
Colin clearly did a pretty good job of training Dan. For though he matured into a formidable spaniel with a mind of his own, he had a number of fine attributes: he never barked or whined at peg; he never ran-in; he always sat and watched everything and marked all birds down; and he never failed to sniff out lost game and wouldn’t give up until he had found it.
He also had his faults, they were minor ones. He always did his own thing (but was usually right); he went brain dead when his nose was full of scent (he had a very large nose); and he always pulled the lead. However, Alan turned this to his advantage by letting Dan tow him up steep hills.
Ignoring all commands
Dan set the pattern for his later life when he was still a puppy. Alan recalls coming home from work and taking his gun and dog for a potter around his house (two flightponds, a prolific snipe bog, two woods and a lot of hedges). “I had a shot at a teal which I missed, then a cock pheasant that I downed and Dan retrieved. I set off back to the house but Dan ran in the opposite direction, ignoring all commands. Two minutes later he reappeared with the teal — he’d seen it come down but I hadn’t.”
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Incidents like this happened throughout Dan’s life. “I couldn’t shoot and work him, so my wife Jan would pick-up behind me. I’ve never seen another dog like him. He’d sit to attention, head high, and watch all the birds down and remember them. At the end of the drive he would ignore all the birds that had fallen in the open and hunt the thick cover where he had seen birds fall. Many times he retrieved birds that no one had seen drop. His attitude was ‘if you can see them you can pick them up yourself; I’m busy with the difficult ones’.
“Once, shooting in Somerset, I dropped a pheasant into an incredible tangle of thorns and brambles Dan put his head down and powered his way through to get to it. When he came out the bird looked as if it had been through a mincer. The keeper thought he’d chewed it, he hadn’t.”
One of the Clumber’s strengths was that he would never give up. “It was the end of the day and Dan was delaying everybody by refusing to stop hunting for a lost bird,” recalled Alan. “Eventually one of the Guns took a pheasant out of his gamebag, stuffed it in Dan’s mouth and yelled ‘Dan’s got it!’ Dan was so confused he gave up looking.”
Clumbers can be a bit slobbery, and Dan was no exception. “At Lord Biddulph’s shoot one of the Guns was a very dour Scotsman. One morning we were enjoying pork pies and hot soup and Dan was drooling at the smell. After a while he shook his head and sprayed a substantial amount of slobber down the back of His Lordship’s Barbour. It was the only time I saw the Scot laugh.”
Dogs are great levellers. “On one shoot a pheasant was dropped on the far side of a wide and fast-flowing river. None of the other dogs would cross it, but Dan didn’t hesitate. He swam across, picked up the bird, then proceeded to eat it in front of the eight Guns, before swimming back.”
It’s more than a year since Dan died, aged 13. Alan reports that he still hasn’t got over his death, despite having two other Clumbers for company. We all know the feeling.