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There’s more to picking-up than meets the eye

Graham Watkins writes: Many new gundog owners that come to us for training at Gamegoer aspire to be part of a picking-up team. However, very few are fully aware of the responsibility that comes with working with your dog as a picker-up in, what is, a vital part of a game shoot.

working spaniel

Make sure your dog is in a position to get a good mark

The aim of a good picker-up is not just to come back to the gamecart laden with dead birds, but also to find those illusive runners and pricked birds. A good picker-up and their team of dogs will make every effort to sweep an area, not leaving any injured or dead birds behind. It takes dedication and determination, as well as a well-trained dog to achieve that aim.

How do you get to be a picker-up?

I often get asked how to get “picking-up” on a shoot and that depends on what contacts you may have within the shooting world and the standard of your dogs. Some people progress “through the ranks” and start off in the beating line. Quite often it can be a case of “word of mouth”, but rest assured that once you have managed to secure a place on the team you will then have certain responsibilities to the shoot. Most shoots, especially the bigger ones, will want you to have more than one dog as the main function will be to sweep up behind the Gun line after a drive – a job that needs to be done as quickly and as efficiently as possible. I also get asked what breed of gundog is best for picking-up. The obvious answer would be one of the retriever breeds, with spaniels certainly right up there. In an ideal world your team would be a mixture, but there are more important things than the breed of dog you have.

Working with gundog

You will need to know how to work with more than one dog

Earlier in this training series, we looked at how to work more than one dog at a time and you really will need to perfect this before attempting to go picking-up with your dogs, believe me in the heat of the moment things can go very wrong very quickly, so do not take any chances. Many shoots have public footpaths crossing the land and therefore you should be very aware of who may be watching. Reprimanding a dog during a shoot day is not the thing to do and I have known more than one handler that has been asked to leave a shoot due to being heavy handed with his dog.

Picking-up rules and regulations

If you are new to picking-up or an old hand but starting on a new shoot, it is always a good idea to find out what the rules and regulations are. It seems that every shoot varies in what you should and shouldn’t do, especially regarding picking-up during a drive and this can even change from drive to drive. When arriving at the shoot introduce yourself to the head picker-up and if you need to toilet your dogs, do it one at a time and preferably with the dogs on a lead. Remember not only are you new to the shoot but so are your dogs and you really do not want them to get into any territory battles. The chances are you will be shown where to stand during the drives, but if you are not sure don’t be afraid to ask again.

spaniel with running bird

A good picker-up will not only bring back dead birds, but also find illusive runners

Now there are a couple of points to bear in mind with regards to keeping your dog on or off a lead during a drive. However well-trained you may consider your dogs to be, there will be occasions when they go wrong, especially towards the end of the shooting season when they start to think they know it all and handlers start to relax and lose some concentration. One thing I learned a long time ago was never to “big up” my dogs,

I tend to just let them do what they do and it is always better to avoid getting into a bad situation rather than trying to get out of it. Therefore I like to keep my dogs on a lead when I am walking to a drive. When a dog is on the lead it should be in “neutral” gear, it doesn’t have to think about anything else other than walking by your side.

Positioning dogs during a drive

Positioning your dogs during a drive is actually quite a logical exercise, you and the dogs need to be able to see the birds coming over the Guns and you also need to be able to keep an eye on your dogs. I prefer to sit my dogs slightly in front of me or just to one side. If you are not totally sure your dogs will sit perfectly still during the excitement of a drive then do not take any chances and pop them on a lead, it will mean that you can then watch for any dead or pricked birds without worrying about the dog. At the beginning of the day you should have been told (if not, always ask) what the situation is regarding picking runners during a drive, it can vary from shoot to shoot and even from drive to drive. Sending a dog for a pricked bird when Guns are still shooting and dead birds are falling can really send the blood pressure sky high. Be honest with yourself, if you are not sure of your dog’s ability to cope with a situation like that then it may be better just to watch where the bird tucks up and pick it after the drive. A shoot day is not the time nor place to train a dog.

Black Labrador running after duck

At some point you will have to make the difficult decision whether to send your dog after a runner

If you have young and inexperienced dogs there will be certain circumstances that you should leave to the older, better trained members of the team. Then again there will be times when you have to bite the bullet and take a calculated chance – just pick your moment carefully.

On most shoots each picker-up will be given an area to cover and after the drive everyone should thoroughly work out their patch so no birds are left behind – this is sweeping up.

Train your picking-up dogs to be rock steady

A really annoying habit that can occur when picking up is the cardinal sin of allowing your dog to “swap” game. Imagine the scenario, you send your dog out for a pricked bird, he picks it nicely and then runs over to a dead one, drops the runner and picks up the dead bird, the injured bird runs off and the dog gives chase, it is like something from your worst nightmare, but it happens. You can and should train your picking-up dogs to be rock steady to falling game when coming back on a retrieve, it is something that is well worth practising. If you do have to send a dog during a drive, try and do it when there is a lull at the flushing point. At least that way the dog may not be distracted by falling birds.

If you are lucky enough to get on a good shoot, over time you will get to know their routines and with the right amount of dedication and determination you will become a valuable member of the picking-up team.