Don’t write off mature dogs — their slower, thorough approach to finding retrieves can make them invaluable, says Ellena Swift
A team of dogs usually comprises varying age and ability levels. It is common to have at least one youngster that is in training and learning its trade from older members. The middle-aged gundogs are generally the main workers that are old enough to know their job and young enough to carry out most of the work. They hold the most attention and admiration, often closely followed by the exciting up-and-coming prospects.
Older, semi-retired dogs
Sometimes overlooked are the older semi-retired dogs. They tend to potter around, rather unassuming, quieter, less dramatic and perhaps not inclined to hunt as far, hard or find as many birds as their younger counterparts. These older dogs may be slower, struggle with hearing and even their sight.
However, with age, experience and less physical ability tends to come wisdom, understanding and invaluable knowledge. So perhaps these dogs, despite being old, do not need to learn any new tricks.
My brother is a gamekeeper and, like most, has at least three dogs in his kennels at any one time. When running the line he needs to be able to concentrate on his job for a great deal of it and not his dogs. This means they need to remain with him and be focused at all times.
Sadly, one of his dogs, Potta, as became a little bit of a liability for him as she got older. Her hearing deserted her, meaning that she often got lost from him. So when she was 12, despite being physically fit, he retired her. She remained at home on shoot days. But it became apparent that she was massively unhappy being left and did not want to retire. So I offered her a place in my team.
When picking-up, it was much easier for me to keep an eye on her and, if absolutely necessary, take a lead. Also, because I used my own truck to get around, I could easily leave her for one drive if she got tired. I didn’t particularly need another dog in the team, but I feel if we can offer a dog the retirement they choose, we owe them that at the very least for their years of hard work and loyalty.
The old girl was aptly named because she spent most days pottering about, picking-up the odd bird here and there. It wasn’t until we got a little further into the season I began to see this old dog’s cleverness and unbelievable talent. At the end of the drive, when the pickers-up sweeping for the final remaining birds, she would place herself so she could hunt into the wind.
Though slower, she would take in ground much more thoroughly than the others, who at times were far too eager. At one point, as I walked through some woodland with another picker-up and eight dogs between us, we stood as the dogs hunted. Potta, as ever, wasn’t far from us, hunting a small bit of cover the other dogs had all been through. In no time at all, she came out with a wounded hen bird that had been sitting very tight and the others had missed.
Both of us marvelled at her as she calmly delivered the bird to hand and ambled off to find another. This pattern continued over the next three years. On one shoot I stood at the bottom of a wood with a small brook winding past. A partridge had its wing tipped and it dropped near the middle picker-up. He immediately sent a dog and it followed the bird that was running like a Olympic sprinter. The dog worked well, but lost the bird as it dropped down a steep bank leading to the water. Despite hunting for a long time, the bird couldn’t be found.
After the drive finished, the other picker-up and I had our dogs hunting for that bird. We perused the ground thoroughly, but to no avail. As we walked away I called my dogs in to heel. Potta, as ever, calmly walked beside me.
It wasn’t until we had left the wood that I noticed Potta was carrying the wounded partridge in her mouth. She had found the bird and simply stood behind me waiting for me to notice and take it. It was an amazing find of which any dog handler would be proud.
I have also observed how special an old dog can be when it’s not my own dog. When trialling recently, I noticed on the card one dog was 10 years old. This is rare, particularly at open trialling level. According to other competitors, the dog had been brought out of retirement more times than Muhammad Ali. I soon saw why.
The dog was physically amazing for his years. He ran with more drive and gusto than most half his age. Not only this, he was unbelievably sharp on the whistle still and hunted endlessly to find his retrieves. The dog ended up in the awards and, according to his owner, would possibly run next year if he chose to do so.
This dog is not alone in demonstrating his skill in competition. You only have to look at the veteran classes in a working test. Despite being in a different section, these semi-retired dogs still show the younger ones how it’s done.
Like people, a lot of dogs simply aren’t ready to retire. As long as they are fit and able, I find no reason why they cannot continue participating in the pastime that they love. Potta continued working until she was 15 years old. Every season she did as much as she wanted and was able. I still miss her every time I’m out and often wish I had her to help when there is a lost bird.