Wildfowling, shooting and conservation

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Chapter 10

The Wildfowler's Dog

It is axiomatic to the very nature of wildfowling that many of the best opportunities for a successful shot will occur while a bird is flighting over an ebbing tide or a fast-flowing gully and the frustrations which would result from forsaking all such chances make the possession of a good retrieving dog virtually essential. Anyone who has witnessed a thigh-booted gunner chasing a wounded greylag across the saltings or a shorebound fowler impotently watching as his moribund mallard drifts out to sea will readily appreciate the invaluable service which can be rendered by a well trained labrador or spaniel.

The financial investment in a gundog is considerable when one remembers that there is not only the initial outlay on a puppy but that the dog will cost upwards of œ2000 to maintain during a normal canine lifetime. It behoves the wildfowler, therefore, to choose his dog with care and then train it to an acceptable standard for service on the marsh. A good gundog is a pleasure to work with and a positive asset when shooting duck or geese but so much depends upon the selection of a suitable puppy and careful attention to its housing, feeding and basic training.


Dogs come in all shapes and sizes and many folk are astounded to learn that all breeds of the domestic dog, from a poodle to a Great Dane, are varieties of the same species of animal. Over the centuries and in different parts of the world, many of those breeds have been used for hunting and retrieving but the choice facing the fowler is probably restricted to the labrador, flatcoated retriever, golden retriever or one of the springer spaniels. It is not unknown for wildfowlers to venture below the sea wall with a German shorthaired pointer or another of the HPR breeds but such sportsmen probably engage in other branches of shooting and chose their canine companion to suit a varied schedule of work on the moor or in the coverts.

It would be easy to sit on the fence and simply state that the estuarine gunner would be well served by any of the proven varieties of gundog but, in reality, the newcomer to the sport will probably have greatest likelihood of success if he chooses a labrador as his first dog. All other things being equal, a good labrador from sound working stock will be more easily trained by a novice than most other breeds and it will be more forgiving of the mistakes which are certain to be made by an inexperienced trainer. The labrador is an excellent water dog, is sufficiently strong to swim a long distance carrying a goose and the breed is normally endowed with a goodly degree of patience. Having cut his teeth on a labrador, the wildfowler may later wish to progress to a springer spaniel, flatcoat or even an Irish water spaniel. It is all a question of personal preference and, as many, many hours will be spent alone with the beast on the remote saltings, it is clearly essential that the longshore gunner actually likes his dog!

Purchasing a puppy can be a very chancy business and the novice should take every precaution at this stage. It cannot be stressed too emphatically that no dog should be considered which is not from established working stock. There is really no need to buy a pup from the fellow around the corner when every issue of the weekly and monthly shooting periodicals carries a lengthy list of advertisements for litters which are registered with the Kennel Club and have field trial honours recorded on both sides of the pedigree. Occasionally the sporting press is engulfed by controversy regarding the suitability of field trial dogs for general shooting but there can be no doubt whatsoever that a puppy from established trial parentage is more likely to have a genetic predisposition to successful training. It is also far less likely to suffer from inborn faults such as hard-mouth or gun-shyness.

It can be reassuring to see the mother working at the time of inspecting a litter of pups and even more encouraging if the youngsters are old enough to have begun their initial schooling. A twelve week old puppy which will sit to command and come when called is likely to respond positively to further training. It is important to obtain evidence that neither parent suffers from any hereditary ailment such as hip dysplasia or retinal problems and, if the pup is more than 12 weeks old, a vaccination certificate should be obtained from the breeder.


It is tempting to keep a gundog as a family pet and some wildfowlers have no alternative. There are, however, many advantages to be gained from housing the dog in an outside kennel if this is possible. Any retriever which will be required to swim in near-freezing water and wait patiently by the fowler's side in sub-zero conditions needs to be a very hardy animal and a dog which had been cossetted in a centrally heated flat is unlikely to take kindly to an early morning dip in icy brine. There can also be no argument that a gundog is more easily trained if it is quartered outside, well away from spouses, children and other confusing influences. It will come to regard every training and exercise period as a real pleasure and will be keen to please its handler.

A labrador or springer spaniel will exist very happily in a wooden kennel measuring 6ft wide by 4ft deep by 4ft high with a 6ft square run attached. Freedom from draughts and damp is crucial and the run should have a concrete base so that rainwater will drain away quickly and the dog cannot dig itself out. For the kennel itself, the most suitable material is overlapping weatherboard although well creosoted exterior ply on a softwood frame may be used as an alternative. One-third of the interior of the kennel should take the form of a raised shelf or box to provide a snug sleeping area. If straw or any other form of bedding is used in winter, it should be changed regularly to avoid skin vermin. In summer no such bedding is really necessary.

An adequate diet is clearly important if a gundog is to be kept in peak working condition. Cooked meat or offal mixed with biscuit meal is the traditional dinner for a dog and adopting this practice allows the protein content to be maintained while the amount of carbohydrate may be varied to meet the energy requirements of the individual dog, hence avoiding any tendency towards obesity. It is far more convenient, on the other hand, to use an all-in-one dog meal which, if purchased in 25kg sacks, is extremely economical. There are several excellent brands of meal specifically formulated for working dogs and most contain all of the necessary oils, vitamins and minerals.

Canine health is rarely a serious problem for the wildfowler. Given adequate housing and a sensible diet, his gundog's mode of life will maintain it at a level of fitness which is often denied to the average household pet. Nevertheless, it is essential that the puppy is vaccinated against distemper, hardpad, jaundice and parvo-virus and that booster injections are given as prescribed by the veterinary surgeon. The outlay on such treatment is minimal when compared to the cost of curative medicine should the dog become ill.


There are no mysteries about gundog training; neither are there any shortcuts. The path to success lies in a logical, ordered approach and in ensuring that the basic obedience and control exercises have been thoroughly mastered before progressing to more specialised work. Gundog training need not make onerous demands upon the wildfowler's time but it is absolutely essential that regular sessions are set aside for the purpose. It is far better to have short daily periods of 15 - 20 minutes than to attempt to cram the lessons into an hour or two at weekends. Once the puppy becomes bored, he will not respond well to any attempt to continue a training session.

The highly successful Gundog Training Course which was pioneered by Eric Begbie and has now been used by thousands of gundog owners across the world can be obtained by clicking on:


This file is an extract from "Fowler in the Wild" by Eric Begbie. It may be reproduced, in whole or in part, by magazines or other publications with the prior permission of the author.