When does a pet become a working gundog? Ellena Swift concludes that true working dogs are very rare

I have worked my dogs for more than 17 years, using a variety of breeds in a range of disciplines. These include the working dogs standards of beating, picking-up, dogging-in and sitting on the peg, 
but activities such as agility, Pets 
As Therapy and even performing at the theatre also feature in my dogs’ resume.

In more recent years I have started to compete in working tests and field trials. One day a couple of seasons ago, 
I was pleased to get a compliment on my dog work from one of the Guns. As we talked, a fellow dog handler joined the conversation and concluded that my dogs were only at the level they were because “they are working dogs and not pets”. He added that his own dogs could never reach that standard because they were primarily pets and not “full working dogs”.

When do pets stop being pets and become working dogs?

It did make me think: when does a pet stop being a pet and become a working dog and vice versa?

It is not uncommon to talk to someone whose dog only frequents the shooting field once or twice 
a season. They often talk about how their dog is only a pet, hence its lack 
of training. Very often the children get the blame for undoing any good work that might have been done. However, if they are working twice a year, do they become a working dog, or remain a pet because of the lack of work? How many times a year does a pet have to work before it can be labelled a working dog? If the aforementioned gentleman saw any of my dogs in their home environment, he would find them on the sofa, playing with my toddler and asleep on my bed when my husband 
is away. More pampered pooches 
I don’t think you will find; however, they work 50 or more days a season. So are they pets or working dogs?

Is a dog kept in a kennel a working dog?

I have spoken to numerous people about this. Many claim that if a dog is kept in the home it is a pet, and if it is kept outside in a kennel it is a working dog. I understand the angle, as some dogs that are kept in kennels outside only ever really come out to work. However, does this make them any less a pet if the family has children who often play with the dog? Or if 
the owner enjoys walks with the 
dog when not working?

Working dogs

Ellena Swift sends out one of her working gundogs

I had my first season trialling last year and learned a lot watching fellow handlers. One friend and competitor was thrilled to make up his Labrador to a field trial champion and qualify for the International Gundog League championships. This dog is quite clearly worth a great deal in both monetary and sentimental value and could easily be viewed as an asset rather than a pet. His potential earnings as a fully health-tested field trial champion are unlimited and I am sure he will do well as a stud dog. So it was interesting to hear how the dog spent its evenings curled up either in front of the fire or on the sofa. It was even more amusing to discover that said dog could be found sneaking into the couple’s bed when he felt like a cuddle. It was clear that this was 
a loved and valued pet as much as 
it was a competition dog.

We see many working dogs given specific jobs: in the police force, security, search and rescue, as guide dogs and even as cancer detection dogs. The list of roles our canine friends fill is vast and it is clear that no animal nor human could come close to replacing them. These dogs spend the best years of their lives in these working roles. They are true working dogs.

Assistance dogs

However, if you visit the home of 
an assistance dog, you will find that while the dog quite clearly works 
for his living, he is also a comfort, 
a companion and, more importantly, a friend to the person he is assisting.

If you suggested to the handler that the dog was a working dog and therefore only a commodity they would take justified offence. So why are the dogs working in roles in the countryside any different?

Throughout my research into this, I did come across a very small handful of dogs that rarely came out unless they were working. They had little interaction with the owners unless out doing their job and the owners seemed less connected, perhaps, than the majority I spoke to. However, these types of relationships between dog and owner were so few and far between that I could count them on one hand. If they are the true “working dog” it would appear we have a country full of working pets. I don’t mind my dogs being labelled as pet or working animals, 
as they fulfil both roles wonderfully and I am proud of them.