Game for Anything!

PUBLISHED: 16:17 08 September 2011 | UPDATED: 21:37 20 February 2013

Nick with Ziggy

Nick with Ziggy

How do you turn a dog's natural enthusiasm for retrieving into a finely tuned <br/><br/>working skill? Lesley Bates meets the man who can

How do you turn a dogs natural enthusiasm for retrieving into a finely tuned working skill? Lesley Bates meets the man who can

Rowan is a dog who knows how to make a splash. On command, he launches himself into the lake on the Hamptworth estate in relentless pursuit of his quarry. No matter that it is a nondescript canvas sausage designed to float on water or lurk in undergrowth, Rowan will find it and bring it back.

The springer spaniel is training to be a gundog, and if his mistress, Jocelyn Egan, has ordered him to search and retrieve, thats what hell do, tail wagging and eager to please. From the bank, Jocelyn shouts directions, reinforced by cries of good boy! from gundog trainer Nick Gregory, who is helping Jocelyn turn Rowan into what Nick describes as a retriever-holic.

Theres no reason why the dog should fetch it everything is based on the fact that the dog loves to retrieve, Nick tells me.
Nick has been training gundogs at Hamptworth on the Wiltshire/ Hampshire border for close to five years now, either on a one-to-one basis as today with Rowan, or in group sessions of up to 20 dogs and handlers. And he knows what he is doing. He is a panel judge at gundog trials across the country, and in 2009 he won the British Cocker Spaniel Championships with a black and white-bibbed bitch by the name of Randalyn Black Jazz.

You are training the handler normally the dogs are brilliant!

Its Crufts for working dogs, he says, explaining its importance in the gundog world. Not that these canines couldnt compete at Crufts with their heads held high but the best gundogs are bred not simply for show, but to earn their keep and put food on the table.

Generally speaking, gundogs fall into four groups: hunters, pointers, retrievers, and the versatile HPRs, who can do the lot with equal flair and enthusiasm. Cocker and springer spaniels are hunters lively dogs used by beaters to flush game birds from close cover and drive them towards the guns. In the same group are the old-fashioned Clumber spaniels (named after Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire), which are beginning to regain popularity.

Nick brings his own dog, 8-month-old Ziggy, out to meet me. Heavier-set and more muscular than other spaniels, and with coats of a uniform pale gold, Clumbers feature heavily in 18th- and 19th-century oil paintings of horse and hound hunting scenes. Their gundog instincts were bred out of them in later years, but latterly the breed has enjoyed a resurgence of interest as working dogs. Princess Anne is, apparently, a huge fan, and is currently President of the Working Clumber Spaniel Society.

But its 14-month-old Rowan who has Nicks attention today. Nick throws canvas dummies to left and right while Rowan sits obediently, albeit like a coiled spring waiting to be released. Using a combination of whistles, shouted commands, hand signals and what can best be described as a human chirrup, Jocelyn and Nick send Rowan off to retrieve, selecting the direction he should go, and encouraging him to cover the ground in a searching pattern when the dummy isnt immediately obvious.

In the field, Nick explains, you want the dog to hunt 15 yards either side of you when you are beating, pushing the birds to a flushing point over the game. Well-trained dogs will drive birds forward and not flush them out in all directions, says Nick. But we also teach them to stop and not hunt anything at all.

So once they are trained you can take them on a big shoot, right?

Nick smiles. They say that the best way to spoil a good gundog is to take it shooting. You do all the training and make sure the dog sits every time, then you go out on a shoot, the excitement levels buzz up, other dogs are running around, people are telling you to put your dog into this bush and that bush to flush out the game, and it blows the dogs mind.

He says dogs need to gain maturity. Its no good training them on dummies and then going beating you want a dog that is used to game, so you need to take them to places where there are rabbits and pheasants around, or to have been on small shoots. Ease the dog in gradually and let it do more and more as the season goes on.

Training starts with puppies from ten weeks or so. There is no average training time it depends on the dog and on what level you want them to reach. One-to-one sessions cost 30 an hour, but Nick also does group training every other Sunday throughout the summer at 20 for a two-hour session. Like all things, practice makes perfect.

I show them what they are doing, wrong or right, then they go away and practise for a couple of weeks, and then we see them again, he says, then smiles as he admits: You are training the handler normally the dogs are brilliant!

Nick Gregory:"01794 390700,
mobile: 07799 316037.

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