Three key members of a gundog society have resigned in protest at harsh handling but the societies do nothing, says David Tomlinson
Earlier this year, the resignation of the honorary secretary of the Utility Gundog Society (UGS) Kent and East Sussex, Bernadette Restorick, not only caused ructions in the society, but also generated headline stories in The Times, the Daily Telegraph and Our Dogs. What Mrs Restorick had done was raise the subject of harsh dog handling by field trial competitors, a taboo subject.
Harsh dog handling
“We all know it happens,”
a successful amateur handler told me, “but it’s swept under the carpet. The Kennel Club demands a criminal level of evidence which witnesses are afraid to give for fear of reprisals.
“On the rare occasions when someone does get caught, the repercussions are invariably minor. There are many people who think that anyone found guilty of cruelty should receive a lifetime ban from competing, but the Kennel Club seems extraordinarily reluctant to do this.”
Mrs Restorick wanted to raise the subject of cruelty at a UGS committee meeting but says the then chairman, Roger Wade, refused to let her do so, claiming that it wasn’t relevant. She alleges she was threatened with “humiliation and dismissal”, which in turn meant that, because she was not prepared to support a chairman who refused to act against cruelty, she resigned through her solicitor. Former treasurer Sarah Baldock and working test secretary Linda Perfect resigned in support.
Mrs Restorick alleges that Mr Wade convened a special general meeting to achieve his goals but instead spent around £8,000 of members’ funds on solicitors’ fees in an unsuccessful bid to silence Mrs Restorick.
Mrs Restorick wrote to the Kennel Club’s then chairman, Simon Luxmoore, for support. The Club replied, saying that it was “unable to take action at what was a private meeting and without a clear breach of Kennel Club regulations there are no grounds to intervene”. Frustrated, she next wrote to HM the Queen, patron of the Kennel Club, highlighting the cruel handling witnessed on training days. She received a carefully worded response from the Palace, saying that the letter wouldn’t be forwarded to the Kennel Club unless she wanted it to be. At her request it was sent on 3 September.
Last month I travelled to a quiet corner of east Kent to meet Bernadette, who shares her 15th-century farmhouse with husband Paul and six rehomed working Labradors.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I soon discovered that Bernadette isn’t an anti who had surreptitiously inveigled her way into the UGS, but a warm and friendly person who shares a passion for working her dogs with Paul, picking-up on around 30 days a season.
She has hunted all her life, only giving up when her last horse had to be put to sleep. She taught Riding for the Disabled for two decades, was the Ashford Valley Hunt Pony Club District Commissioner for several years and has trained and competed with her dogs for the past 10 years.
A radiographer by profession, she has a strong interest in animal welfare.
Being a whistleblower isn’t easy and since Bernadette originally raised the subject of cruelty she has been vilified and verbally abused. Sadly, such a reaction to her allegations virtually acknowledges the fact that harsh handling and training methods do take place, or why else would there be so much concern about the subject being raised? She was warned that she would receive hate mail: she hasn’t, only letters of support from all over the country, including from several eminent triallers.
Paul outlined the root of the problem: “A culture of cronyism and bullying stops triallers speaking out. The worry for many is that if they do raise the subject, they will be marked down in competitions. As a result it’s rare for anyone to put their name to a complaint, while the Kennel Club won’t react to anything that is anonymous.”
I know this from my own experience. In 2010, three Kennel Club panel judges asked me to meet them to discuss corruption in trialling, but they insisted on remaining anonymous. The then chairman of the Club’s field trial sub-committee, the late Alan Rountree, dismissed my resulting article.
He wrote: “The nature of the scurrilous and unsubstantiated material which you have published in Shooting Times of recent time leads me to the view that such journalistic credentials as you may have had, if any, have been compromised to such an extent that I do not wish to correspond with you.”
He remained true to his word and I never heard from him again.
There is little doubt that there is a minority of unscrupulous handlers who believe that harsh handling is acceptable if it produces the right results. Even if found out, there is little or no risk of them being prevented from competing in the future. The Kennel Club’s consistent refusal to recognise that there is a problem means that until there is a radical change of attitude at the top of the sport, cruelty will continue.
However, the Kennel Club is itself in crisis, with the recent resignation of chairman Simon Luxmoore. Perhaps when the Club sorts itself out it will be brave enough to address the issue.
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The Kennel Club’s response
In view of the allegations above, I asked the Kennel Club and Roger Wade for comment. Caroline Kisko, Kennel Club Secretary, replied: “We take any accusations of animal cruelty extremely seriously and have thoroughly reviewed the information submitted to us. To date, despite requesting this, we have not been presented with any evidence – which might include supporting eye-witness statements, photographic evidence or other tangible evidence of wrongdoing – that would enable us to take action. Neither has any conviction or prosecution been made by the RSPCA, nor as far as we are aware has any case been presented to them, which would enable us to follow up with the appropriate penalties.
“We are absolutely clear that we would act against those found to be harsh handling or compromising a dog’s welfare, when we have the evidence to do so and when it falls within our area of jurisdiction, such as at a licensed Kennel Club event.”
Roger Wade declined to comment.
My investigations suggest that that there is plenty of evidence available, but for whatever reason those who have witnessed harsh or even cruel handling appear reluctant to provide it. Paul Restorick’s words – “A culture of cronyism and bullying stops triallers speaking out” – seems to be only too true.
A century ago there was no such thing as a dog trainer, as the professionals who worked with dogs were generally known as dog breakers. The name says it all, for they achieved their results by a combination of methods, few of which we would think appropriate by today’s standards. Dogs are amazingly resilient animals, and there’s no doubt that those that were tough enough to withstand the dog breaker’s methods became excellent biddable gundogs.
In the more enlightened atmosphere of the 21st century there are many outstanding handlers who achieve remarkable results with their dogs through kind, patient and sympathetic handling, but there still seems to be a minority whose methods would be familiar to the old dog breakers. Beating dogs with plastic water pipes, tying a thin line around their stomach to stop them running in, inappropriate use of electric collars, pulling ears, punching and even kicking dogs are all crimes that are committed, though your chances of witnessing them are remote. The sad truth is that harsh handling can produce quick, consistent results, but it’s simply not acceptable today.