Gundog training with Howard Kirby: beating
Howard’s guide to being the beater that gets asked to come back, not told to beat it!
For many people, going beating will be their first introduction to the game shooting scene – and what a wonderful way to experience and learn about just what exactly goes on! A day’s beating has got to be the ultimate day out for country men, women and children.
If you intend to take your dog then you are going to need some serious balls – initially the type that you use to train the dog, but then the sort that give you the courage to handle said dog in a very testing environment! But don’t let that put you off; it’s a fantastic thing to be able to do.
The golden rule
There is one essential rule you must learn from the outset: always be in the right place at exactly the right time – stay in line or risk incurring the wrath of the keeper. Ensuring you stay in line is easier said than done, and for many people it’s a concept that’s difficult to understand (I blame their parents!). Working in a beating line means you need to be aware of your movement at all times and be constantly aware of where the rest of the team are. Add a superbly bred, high protein-fuelled Formula 1 gundog to your list of responsibilities and it becomes very easy to get yourself into a whole lot of trouble. In my opinion, any man or woman who runs a well-trained dog in the line is the most skilled and undervalued member of the team in any day’s shooting.
A dog that can be used in the beating line, a ‘line dog’, needs the drive and fitness of a marathon runner, the courage of a lion to face brambles, bracken and stingers and, if he’s not going to peg birds, the obedience and self control of an 18-year-old celibate monk on a daytrip to Amsterdam. And what’s the best dog in the world for this job? A spaniel every time! That last sentence should spark a debate!
Let’s take a look at some of the things we can do to make our day out beating a success.
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Do your homework
Just the same as every other aspect of working a dog, it’s all about the skill, experience and knowledge of the handler. If you have a really powerful but well trained dog, ensure that you are up to speed. Knowledge of how the shoot day – and in this case the beating line – runs is essential. If you don’t know or are a first-timer, don’t just rock up and see how it goes as this will end in tears.
There are loads of opportunities to gain experience and you should seriously consider going beating a few times without your dog. There are many gundog training days held by clubs and private trainers that can give you some real experience, and if you really want to get it right, how about employing your trainer to come along on your first day out with the dog? Believe me, their experience and advice could well turn out to be priceless.
It probably goes without saying that your dog needs to be really well trained, obedient and attentive if he’s going to be useful in the beating line. Do your training thoroughly: remember, an out of control dog in the beating line is not only embarrassing for you but could ruin other people’s enjoyment and, in the worst case scenario, spoil the day’s shooting and even get the keeper into a load of trouble with their boss.
Fit for purpose?
A day in the line is really hard work, so make sure your dogs are fit – this is the perfect opportunity for you to get on your bike.
Keep him close
Unless you’re lucky enough to have a really experienced and seasoned dog, ensure you keep him close. Try to make sure you can see what the dog is doing as much as possible; he might be well trained but flush after flush may just take him over the edge and he could start to chase or peg. If you are in contact with him you can make sure things don’t get out of hand. A timely whistle-blow or a curt growl of disapproval can keep your canine teammate in order.
There is a very fine balance between over-handling your dog and doing just enough to keep him in touch with you. If you don’t do enough the dog will very quickly go ‘self-employed’ and start to do his own thing, and before you know it you will have lost control of him. It is much better if you start the season with a ‘Velcro’ dog that’s a bit sticky, as it will only take a few outings for him to get the idea of what’s going on, and soon you’ll be hanging on to his shirt tails!
Beware hot spots
‘Hot spots’, like flushing points, release pens and numerous other areas that hold lots of birds, can cause you real problems. Try to always be mindful of your dog’s level of experience; too many birds under a young and inexperienced dog’s nose will send him into orbit. Consider where you are about to send him and if in doubt, pull him out. There is no shame in having your dog under control at heel.
Beaters’ cart behaviour
The beaters’ cart is the chosen form of travel on most shoots and is usually a very cramped place, with people, sticks, flags and dogs. This is most certainly not the place for a dog-on-dog aggressive gundog. If your dog is aggressive towards others you will have to think about alternative forms of transport, and the blunt truth is that if he is really aggressive then he shouldn’t be in company at all. The confinements of the beaters’ cart can be like a pressure cooker, so keep an aggressive dog out and avoid the serious mental and physical canine damage that he might cause.
So there you have it: a few tips to help. There’s a lot more to learn if you want to become that highly respected dogman that every keeper wants in their beating line. Just like every job on a shoot day, working a dog in the line is a skill – an art – and something that you need to put some thought into if you’re going to be any good. But if you find it’s all a bit much and a bit confusing, just remember the golden rule: stay in line!