In this series of three articles, Lez Graham, author of the bestselling Pet Gundog series of books and DVDs, introduces you to the psyche of the gundog and what it means to live with one. This first article is all about understanding the breed and what makes a gun dog a Gundog…
So what was it about the gun dog breed that did it for you?
The cuteness of the spaniel with their big fluffy ears? Or what about the adorable Andrex puppy gazing up at you? Maybe you’d been to a game fair, seen them in action and thought that’s the kind of dog I want not (realising they’d been trained day in day out for the last 3 or 4 years)?
For me, I quite simply, fell in love with my friends black Labrador puppy. We used to go to horse shows together, my friend would drive the horsebox and Barney would snooze on my lap or gaze up at me with his irresistible brown eyes. When he was six months old I managed to talk my husband into getting a puppy from his line which took me into the world of the working gundog and formal shoots and I’ve never looked back.
Whatever it was that drew you into the world of the gundog, you are now sharing your home with a high energy working dog; don’t kid yourself if you haven’t got the working ‘type’, the mere fact that it’s one of the gundog breeds means somewhere down the line it was bred to help you feed your family.
The gundog has been bred to be biddable, to want to work alongside their owner or handler and bring back the spoils from the hunt; however, don’t confuse the term ‘biddable’ with being a push over… as well as breeding them to want to be with and work for people, they’ve also been bred to be intelligent and independent and unless you’re strong enough mentally to harness that intelligence and independent working ability then you’ll probably only ever see the biddable side of the gundog at home at feeding time.
What makes a gundog a gundog?
A gundog is quite simply a dog that was originally used, to either find and ‘put up’ live game (flush), to retrieve game that was shot, or both and over generations we’ve bred them to do specific jobs in the shooting field; it’s now in their blood, they’ll either want to hunt, flush, retrieve or point and in some breeds they’ll want to do a combination.
Regardless of whether you want to take your dog shooting or not, there’s no getting away from the fact that you have a gundog; born and bred.
The modern gundog breeds are split into the sub groups of Retrievers, Spaniels, Pointers and Setters and Hunt Point Retrievers (HPRs).
The names of the breeds, with the exception of the HPRs tend to tell you which group the dog belongs in and in turn that will give you an idea of the job your dog has been bred to do. For example Labrador retrievers, Golden retrievers, Chesapeake Bay retrievers and so on all belong the retriever sub-group and as the names imply, these guys want to bring back the spoils although they can and are used for flushing game, retrieving is in their blood and tends to come naturally to them.
Then we have the Springer spaniels, the Cocker spaniels, the Clumber spaniels; yup you guessed in the spaniel group; these tend to be the breed used for flushing game – they’re smaller and can get in places where the larger retrievers can’t. Hunting is very natural to them and you’ll see them running back and forwards their noses on the ground; quartering away quite naturally, whether that’s on a shooting field or at the local park.
The English pointer, the Irish Setter, Gordon setter… the pointers and setters group; their job is to find game and freeze or point at it until their owner tells them whether to flush or wait for the shot. Unlike the HPR group the pointers and setters group have their origins in England, Scotland and Ireland…
How we doing? Easy peasy so far? Yeah, that’s what I thought, now to the HPR group.
Hunt Point Retrievers (HPRs) are generally European dogs that became more popular after the Second World War and include German Short-haired Pointers, Italian Spinones, Large Munsterlanders, Vizlas, Weimaraners and so on.
Although the HPRs have similar roles on the shooting field to the Pointers and Setters, the European breeds generally (and I am generalising here) aren’t as biddable as the British breeds as the shooting culture is very different there; the Brits have very definite shooting etiquette and expect dogs to be reasonably close, under control, quiet and with very soft mouths – we want restaurant quality birds delivered to hand “thank you very much”. European shooting tends to be rougher, with the dogs working further out and away from the handler; the soft mouth tends not to be high on the list of qualities to be bred in.
So that’s the types of gundogs and each group has their own peculiarities and foibles, however, as a group they are biddable and have been bred to want to work alongside us; they’re energetic, full of fun, companionable and have savvy…
The majority of gundogs, especially those with working dogs in their lines, are so on the ball that they’re an absolute pleasure and a joy to train, share your home with and to be around…
Your dog has been bred to be with you and be with you he will; he’ll be climbing into the washing machine… “This is exciting, do you want me in here? No? What about here? Ah you want me to collect clothes? Ok boss you’re on” then he’ll be off collecting anything he can get his mouth on… out of the wash basket, off the radiator or from the ironing pile.
Next time you bring down the washing he’ll be there looking for something to carry for you; teach him a good recall and to give things up on command and there’s no reason why he can’t help you with things around the house… I taught my first Labrador to collect the toys in at bedtime and put them in the toy box; he did the same with his bone if I was putting it away, he’d carry it over and drop it into the carrier bag for me.
When you have a gundog sharing your home, the only thing that will hold you back is your imagination. If you keep interacting with him and give him something to do that will tax his brain then owning a gundog really is just the best thing, however, forget that he’s a working breed and don’t stimulate him mentally and physically and you may find you have a Marley on your hands.
Never forget though, that your dog is a predator and has all of the instincts of a predator. Moreover he’s not just a predator; he’s a social hunter and as such has been programmed to hunt co-operatively. There is an etiquette to be followed for social hunters – watch a dog pack or a wolf pack hunt or even just a bunch of lads playing football and you’ll see there’s always one to whom the pack, or the team, turn to for guidance.
With a gundog we’ve bred them to hunt, alongside us yes, but to hunt nonetheless. This is why when you take on a puppy, or a dog, from the modern gundog breeds we must give them a job to do and a place in the pack.
When training a gundog you must make sure you’re the one that calls the shots, the leader or the team captain in charge of all the game play.
I hate to say it but the number one thing that goes wrong with a pet gundog is normally the fact that it’s a gundog. Next time we’ll be exploring where and why it goes wrong with our pet gundogs and what we can do to start putting it right.
Lez Graham MA, FCFBA, MGoDT (MT), KCAI (WGA)
Trained for Life