Gundog breeds and types are firm favourites as companion dogs, who often never actually work as gundogs. Jacqueline Boyd explains how you can make the most of their inbuilt abilities.
Typically biddable, friendly, and outgoing, many gundogs make perfect active family members, although often with an inherent desire to carry items around.
Gundogs might also have a little more interest in the local wildlife (especially the feathered variety) than many other dogs have. If, like me, you live with spaniels, you might rarely have a matching pair of shoes given their propensity to carry them around and deposit them in less-than-ideal places! Gundogs have an inherent skill set, the result of years of careful selective breeding. You can work with their skills and attributes in a constructive, active, and fun way, even away from the shooting field. So, what should you expect from your gundogs, and do you need a gundog breed or type to take part in gundog activities? Let’s find out!
Gundogs are any breed or type of dog that originally worked ‘to the gun’. These dogs were essential for finding ‘game’ (which could be ‘fur’ or ‘feather’ — small mammals such as rabbits, and birds such as partridge or pheasant), flushing the game, and then retrieving the shot game. Gundogs were working companions and supported humans hunting for food — in many cases, they are still essential in these roles.
While gundog work can now attract debate, it is critical to acknowledge the inherent skills and abilities that gundogs have. Gundogs have been selectively bred over many generations to hone these abilities. It might be the case that your gundog companion will never hear, see, or smell a gun, but his genetics hold the blueprint of his working ancestors. Indeed, acknowledging and working with, rather than against, gundogs’ inbuilt abilities is a good way to harness their natural instincts in a positive way, to benefit both you and them. So, which gundog activities might be worth exploring?
The working gundog
In many parts of the world, the working gundog remains an integral part of country life. They are essential for finding and retrieving shot game. A range of different breeds have been developed, each with specific skills and physical characteristics that make them ideally suited to particular roles and environments.
Retrievers tend to be large and athletic; good swimmers who love to carry things. Spaniels were originally developed to hunt through cover, scenting for game, and typically retain a busy, optimistic attitude, while pointers and setters are often viewed as the all-rounders, capable of doing all the required tasks of a working gundog.
Other minority breeds such as the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever were developed for particular tasks in specific locations. However, all gundog breeds and types tend to be able to undertake a range of tasks well, turning their paws to a number of different canine activities, even outside of gundog work.
Do I need a gundog breed to take part in gundog training?
It is quite possible to find a range of non-traditional breeds and types working in gundog roles. I have seen many terriers, poodles, mixed breeds, collies and even a toy spaniel working well in the shooting field. As long as they are steady (meaning they don’t chase game), not gun-shy (where gunshot can cause fear and anxiety), responsive to whistle/voice cues, can find game and perhaps even retrieve it, then any dog can fulfil a working gundog role. An important characteristic of working gundogs is that they are highly adaptable and comfortable in a range of situations — it is not uncommon for a number of unfamiliar working gundogs to travel around close together on working days and only very rarely will you hear a grumble from any of them!
If the working gundog world isn’t for you or your dog, then you can still take part in gundog training and competitive activities. Much gundog training is actually done using canvas dummies for gundog retrieving, so if you would rather not have contact with other birds or animals, then gundog dummy work is an option and you can reach a high level of competence on dummies alone.
Indeed, gundog working tests will use dummies but will otherwise mimic all the other expectations of a working gundog. You can even undertake The Kennel Club’s Working Gundog Certificate on game or dummies, making it an accessible goal; your dog doesn’t need to be pedigree either.
Scurries are fast and furious, often seen at country fairs, and sometimes with exciting prizes! Scurries are where retrieves are undertaken against the clock, using dummies or tennis balls. While you will typically see gundog breeds taking part, any dog capable of retrieving can be involved.
Field trials are the pinnacle of the competitive gundog world and only take place during the shooting season. Field trials are run in the same way as a typical shoot day and therefore include game and live gunshot. For competitive gundog tests and trials run under the regulations of The Kennel Club, dogs need to be registered pedigrees, but many other events and training are open to all.
How to get involved in gundog activities
Many people start on their gundog journey training with an experienced instructor to make sure all the basic skills are there for dog and handler. Find a trainer who knows your breed, as many people specialise in spaniels, retrievers, or hunt, point, retrieve (HPR) breeds, and someone who supports your aims and ambitions. The gundog world can be rather traditional and there is some etiquette that is worth knowing.
For example, what you wear can be important. It is generally recommended to avoid bright colours, meaning muted country tones are more appropriate, so browns, greens, and tweeds might start to make up your dog training wardrobe if gundog activities are your thing! Even the terms used in gundog training need to be learned, but very quickly you will be discussing ‘marks’, ‘blinds’ and ‘blinking’ when working on retrieving skills with your dog.
The gundog in your living room
Gundogs have working blood running through their veins. Even those who spend their days in centrally heated homes rather than traditional kennels can benefit from gundog training and awareness of their inbuilt abilities. Whether you simply explore training and learn about challenging your dog’s nose through harnessing their hunting ability or rehearsing their retrieving, your gundog will thank you for it. If you have an ‘aspirational’ gundog of a non-typical breed or type, you can easily incorporate the skills into his training too. While some competitive opportunities might be limited for non-traditional breeds, you can still have lots of fun keeping gundog active with your pet.