Picking up some tips

Preventing shot game from suffering is part of the job of a trained gundog

Preventing shot game from suffering is part of the job of a trained gundog - Credit: Nick Ridley

Will Nick Ridley succeed in teaching his old dogs new tricks…?

It took a lot of practice, but Nick can now confidently work Harry and Fuss as a team

It took a lot of practice, but Nick can now confidently work Harry and Fuss as a team - Credit: Nick Ridley

Regular readers will know that my real passions are shooting over and beating with the cockers. As such, I’ve done very little picking up over the years, but with the addition of Fuss to the Ridley cocker clan earlier this year, word soon got around that I have a team of dogs that may be useful and I was lucky enough to get a couple of invitations.

A beautiful day for shooting

A beautiful day for shooting - Credit: Nick Ridley

Now, if I may take the liberty, let’s rewind to early spring 2012, when I had just picked up a true pocket rocket from my good friends Andy and Fiona Robinson of Whaupley Gundogs. Fuss had been trialled by Andy and he had gained a couple of certificates of merits. All his training had revolved around trialling, so he had never been put in a situation where he had to sit with another dog and wait until he was sent for retrieves.

During the summer (that’s a joke!) I decided that I would try to work both Harry and Fuss as a team. Normally I send my dogs for a retrieve by using the command ‘get out’, but I soon realised that I had two dogs that reacted to the same command – so in the early days I had two black cockers chasing for the same retrieve! I knew I had to sit down and have a think about how to get around this situation.

Over the years I have been lucky enough to meet and learn from some of the best gundog trainers in the country, and I decided to take a leaf from the retriever world and try to send the dogs by name… not as easy as it sounds.

During the brief spells of dry weather, I concentrated on my training, and over the months I got to a stage where I could send both Harry and Fuss by name and, bit by bit, I realised I could work them both together and to be honest I quite liked the idea of working them as a team. I can’t deny it was hard work, and on occasions we all got into a bit of a mess, but by the beginning of the shooting season I felt confident enough that we could go out and be a useful component of a shoot day.

Back in early October I found myself standing on a grass bank some 100m back from the Guns, my heart beating 19 to the dozen. Harry and Fuss were sitting in front of me like veterans, as though it was no big deal, but I knew different; we were a brand new team on a let day and I was hoping that we could do a good job, especially as there had already been a few comments about cocker spaniels eating or burying shot game.

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This was a big bag day of over 250 birds, and while Harry was marking the birds down, Fuss was transfixed on me – no surprise as he had already showed that he wasn’t a great marker of game. I noticed that a bird had been heavily pricked and landed out in the field, and as I looked down at the dogs I could see that Harry had locked on to the bird, which was sitting on the ground with its head up.

I was in a quite a dilemma: did I send him or did I wait until the end of the drive? I am very much of the opinion that one of the main purposes of having trained gundogs is to prevent the suffering of any shot game, so I took the decision to send Harry during the drive. The pickers up were in a separate field so I was quite confident that we wouldn’t interfere with the Guns, so I lined Harry up. Just to make sure, I gave Fuss a ‘stay’ command and then simply said “Harry” – he shot out towards the bird, picked it up, came straight back up the hill, delivered it to hand and then quickly sat down and watched the rest of the drive.

To cut a long story short, the two dogs had a total of 18 retrieves from that one drive and I was able to send one dog at a time for a specific bird. I really enjoyed myself, and neither Harry nor Fuss put a foot wrong, retrieving each bird efficiently and straight to hand. What I hadn’t realised was that the other pickers up were able to see everything that happened, and a couple came up to me after the drive and said how impressed they were with the dogs. They said they worked like ‘one-armed bandits’, and although I’m not sure quite what that meant, I felt as though I had just won the jackpot.

The following week I again found myself standing behind the Guns, though this time I was in the same field as them, with a small lane behind me. My confidence in the dogs was quite high and as the drive commenced a lot of birds were being dropped and falling in front of us. Harry was again marking really well when a cock bird tumbled to the ground and started to run. He was locked on to the bird and as he quickly glanced back at me I took the decision to send him in.

He took off like a rocket but as he ran out to the bird I suddenly realised this could all go very wrong; there were a lot of dead birds on the ground, the Guns were still shooting and Harry was running towards the line.

Fortunately, due to the fact that the pheasant was running, Harry went straight out, made a really neat job of picking it up and headed back towards me. I felt a wave of relief come over me, but just as he got halfway back, there was a really big flush of birds and suddenly a lot of shooting.

Harry stopped and looked back towards the line and I suddenly had a horrible churning feeling in my stomach. I could see a number of birds falling to the ground and the dog was still nearer the Guns than he was me. As he stood there with the still-live pheasant in his mouth, my mind was playing out the scenario that I was sure was going to happen very soon: a totally out of control black cocker spaniel with a flapping bird in his mouth, running through the line of Guns. He would drop the live bird to pick up another one and then the runner would take off with the dog in hot pursuit. He would then catch up with the runner and try to get that in his mouth as well, all the while the gamekeeper would be screaming blue murder…

In truth, he marked a couple of birds down and headed straight back towards me, and the relief was immense. All the hours of throwing distraction dummies had really paid off, but I made a mental note to myself not to get too complacent, as it could so easily have gone very ‘Pete Tong’!

My highlight with the dogs came a few weeks later when I had a day out with some friends. They had bought a driven day and I went along to work the dogs and take some pictures. On one particularly busy drive, one of my friends had dropped a couple of partridge very close to each other about 50 yards from where we were standing, but as they appeared dead I kept the dogs sitting in front of me.

During a lull the friend signalled for me to send the dogs to pick them up, so I handled Fuss out for the first bird, but as he picked it up the other bird got up and started to run! I gave Fuss a quick couple of peeps on the whistle and he headed straight back towards me, and at the same time I sent Harry for the runner. Both dogs totally ignored each other as they got on with their respective retrieves and in no time I had both birds in my hands. I was really pleased; it was a neat piece of dog work and it certainly made all the hours of training during the summer worthwhile.

Despite everything going well so far, I won’t be getting complacent; we still have a few more days to go before the end of the season and I really don’t want my dreaded scenario to come true!