There is still working potential in show-bred lines, argues David Tomlinson in Shooting Times
There’s one piece of advice for the would-be gundog owner in every book I have: if you want a puppy to bring on as a gundog, make sure you buy one from working stock.
Show dogs to workers?
It’s really such an obvious piece of advice that it hardly bears repeating, while I have never met anyone who has deliberately bought a show-bred dog with the aim of making it into a worker. I have, however, met many people with show dogs, bought initially as pets, who have attempted to turn them into workers.
As a teenager, I had a show-bred cocker that I tried, unsuccessfully, to make a shooting dog. Looking back, I believe that I might have succeeded if I’d tried training him as a puppy, as he certainly had some basic hunting instinct. However, I didn’t get my first shotgun until I was 16, by which time Kim the cocker was three, so it was really too late to start.
You can teach an old dog new tricks, but it helps if they have had some basic training in the first place. Kim had been to dog training classes, but he wasn’t anywhere near top of his class, so there wasn’t a good foundation to build on. I did take him rough shooting and he wasn’t gun-shy and nor did he give tongue, but there wasn’t much else to commend him.
Some show-bred gundogs show a lot more natural or instinctive ability than others as shooting dogs. Some years ago, I rather rudely dismissed white, show-bred golden retrievers as something of an abomination and certainly not animals to be taken into the shooting field. I received a number of indignant emails from owners of such show dogs, enthusing about their dogs’ ability as workers, with photographs of them in action. I was even prompted to join an owner of show-bred goldens on a shooting day.
It was a humbling experience, as those goldens (there weren’t any white ones) worked impressively all day, retrieving with style and displaying great biddability. It was obvious that their owner was a talented handler, but it proved to me that anything is possible. I’ve since seen a number of show-bred golden retrievers working satisfactorily on shoots, suggesting that if you want to turn a show dog into a gundog, then a golden retriever is a good base. I’ve seen excellent work by show-bred English springers, too, though admittedly from a kennel that made a point of working their dogs, so you could say that the working instinct was bred into them.
I used a stud dog from this kennel on my unregistered working springer bitch and she produced a fine litter of 10 puppies. Such outbreeding — there could have been no common ancestors in many generations — produced an interesting litter, with dogs that were taller and heavier than the breed standard. Several of the litter went on to become sound workers. They weren’t going to win the spaniel championship, but my aim was good-looking, healthy dogs.
I’m sure that there must be lots of show-bred Labradors around that are sound workers, but I’ve rarely come across one. Peter Moxon, in his classic Gundogs: Training and Field Trials, notes that Labradors stand out as a breed that has achieved dual-purpose status, adding that it is possible to obtain a Labrador capable of winning on the bench and at field trials. Those words were written nearly 70 years ago, for he also wrote that “there exist at the moment several dual champions”.
I don’t think that there have been any dual champion labs made up in the past six decades and the chances of any modern Labrador becoming both a show and a field trial champion are nil. The trouble is that a trialling dog needs to be fast and athletic, while show judges prefer big-headed, deep-chested dogs that are incapable of performing in such a way as to be placed in, let alone win, a trial. The demands of the two disciplines are so far apart that there is little common ground except the name. Perhaps show dogs should be called Labradors and the workers Labrador retrievers.
I suspect that a fair percentage of show-bred Labradors retain sufficient hunting instinct to be able to work as peg dogs, though I recall once picking-up behind one on a driven day. The dog was impressively rock steady, but declined to retrieve any of the birds my spaniel and I had left for him. The owner confirmed that the dog liked coming out shooting, but was quite happy to sit at the peg and do nothing.
Flatcoats are remarkably popular show dogs, with Crufts usually hosting around 400 entries. In contrast, they are quite rare in the shooting field, with the result that there’s not as marked a division between show and working strains. The same is true with Welsh springer spaniels, though, sadly, the number of Welsh springers that work is few. Show dogs might not make the grade as trialling dogs, but many will work if given the chance.