Fieldsports Guide to Gundogs

Gundog Gurus – part 1

gundoggurus_1_mainWith centuries of experience and literally dozens of Field Trial Champions between them, these are undoubtedly six of the best gundog trainers of our era. Will Pocklington spoke to them about their glittering careers so far.

John Halstead Snr

gundoggurus_1_johnhalsteadsnrArguably the most celebrated and highly regarded gundog trainer of his generation, John's achievements are varied and many. Together with his wife Sandra, he runs the famous Drakeshead Kennels which has made up over 30 Field Trial Champions. He has won the British Retriever Championship four times, and captained the England gundog team for 15 years before his retirement.

Why labradors?

After spending most of my youth with lurchers, trapping rabbits and hare coursing, I developed an interest in duck shooting. 

I did some research and bought a black labrador puppy called Ribblesdale Randy from a keen wildfowler. Randy was a great success and a good bag filler, but I must admit by today's standards of training she was pretty wild. I haven't looked back since.

Your most memorable moment in the field?

My dog FTCh Breeze was competing in his fourth consecutive Retriever Championship, which was being held at Sandringham in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen. As a very young dog, Breeze was awarded a Diploma of Merit in 1984. In 1985 he went on to win it at Welbeck Abbey, and then again in 1986 at Arniston in Scotland. Could he win again at Sandringham and become the only dog ever to have won three Championships, and consecutively, too? 

Right at the very end of the Championship I knew we were in the frame to win. Just as the judges were getting together to compare notes, they were told that Her Majesty would like to have a word with them. She had apparently seen a shot partridge fly on and out of our sight. She gave the judges the direction of the wounded bird, and Breeze was sent. It was a very long retrieve, but Her Majesty's directions were spot-on. That retrieve clinched Breeze's third consecutive win of the Retriever Championship. I retired him shortly after, undefeated and before his sixth birthday.

What is the most common training mistake you see being made?

People pushing their dogs on too quickly and taking them into the shooting field before they have a comprehensive grasp of basic training.

If you could offer one piece of advice to somebody training a retriever, what would it be?

You would not take your car onto the highway unless it could perform the three S's: start, stop, and steer. The same criteria should apply to your dog.   

Always try to establish one lesson at a time, working within the dog's capabilities and being sensitive to its enthusiasm. You should always stop a training exercise before the dog loses interest in it.

Away from gundogs, what else do you keep busy with?

Keeping busy is never a problem; I have about 30 acres of ground with woods and ponds which I have to maintain. When I get a spare moment, I tend the garden or try to get in a little pigeon shooting, which I love to do.

Billy Steel Jnr

gundoggurus_1_billysteeljnrWinning his first trophy in a field trial at just 14 years of age, Billy has since gone on to make up nine Field Trial Champions and now runs Broadlaw Gundogs in South Lanarkshire. He has qualified for the British Retriever Championship 20 times, winning it twice and being placed second and fourth, and winning two Diplomas Of Merit. He has also represented the Scottish gundog team on numerous occasions.

Why labradors?

My father always trained labradors and used them when he was a gamekeeper, so I grew up with them. As an all-round gundog they are one of the most versatile breeds, lending themselves to all types of shooting due to their eagerness to please, ability to be trained and excellent temperament. I enjoy the challenge of breeding and then training a labrador to a standard capable of becoming a Field Trial Champion and excelling in the shooting field.

Your most memorable moment in the field?

My most memorable moment in the field is undoubtedly from the 1996 Retriever Championship at Holkham Hall, with FTCh Linksview Jet. We were asked to pick a runner that had made it to over 200 yards away. Without hesitation, she marked it, followed the line and then picked it. This was the retrieve that helped us to go on and win the Championship that year. It was very special.

What is the most common training mistake you see being made?

gundoggurus_1_labradorSkipping through the basics in training is a common mistake. People are often keen to move forward too quickly with their dog before the foundations are properly established. Being overly eager to increase distances, introduce game and over-complicate things before the dog is ready to cope can result in the training going backwards rather than forwards.

If you could offer one piece of advice to somebody training a retriever, what would it be?

Keep things simple to start with and only move on when the dog has fully grasped each stage. This way you have a greater chance of your dog learning what is required, and avoiding confusion on his behalf and frustration on yours. Only train for a duration in which the dog can stay keen and focussed, otherwise he will become bored and disinterested.

Away from gundogs, what else do you keep busy with?

When I'm not training dogs I enjoy clay pigeon shooting, which is something I have done since my early teens (Billy represented Scotland in the past). I also enjoy my game shooting and following hunts in my local area. Recently, I have taken up snowboarding at the newly established and nearby Lowther Hills Ski Club, as we get more than our fair share of snow up here.

Your first gundog?

My first gundog was a black labrador bitch called Bell. I got her when I was 12 years old. I had trained her under my dad's guidance for three or four months, but she tragically died of peritonitis having swallowed a splinter of wood when she was only 13 months old. My father quickly replaced my loss with another black bitch of the same age, which enabled me to continue training. Her name was Kirsty; she was my first working dog which I used for everything, and it was with her that I won my first trophy.

Ben Randall

gundoggurus_1_benrandallBen runs Beggarbush Gundogs in Herefordshire, where he breeds and trains dogs for the shooting field. He is a two-time winner of the Cocker Championship, an A Panel spaniel judge, and was voted Gundog Trainer of the Year in 2013.

Why cockers?

I'd actually struggle to choose between springers and cockers. Spaniels can do everything – they are the Jack of all trades. Whether you are stood on a peg, sat in a pigeon hide or in the beating line, they are just so versatile.

Your most memorable moment in the field?

gundoggurus_1_fattyIt has to be my second run in the 2012 Cocker Championships at Conholt Park. I was the last competitor on our side of the line to run, it was freezing cold and there must have been over 200 people watching – they sounded like wildebeest on the frozen ground behind us. A hen bird was flushed, clipped and started running like a stag as soon as it hit the ground. I sent Fatty (my bitch and winner of the Championship the previous year) and she made the perfect retrieve, like a bullet through the brambles. Just watching how much she enjoyed the whole process – flushing, sitting, marking and retrieving – was very special. When she returned with that bird, I knew we were in the running for the trophy again.

What is the most common training mistake you see being made?

People wanting to do the ‘fun things' with their dogs before the foundations are in place. Generally speaking, it takes three years to train a gundog to a very high standard, but just a couple of weeks of doing the wrong things to ruin it.

If you could offer one piece of advice to somebody training a spaniel, what would it be?

Good luck! In all seriousness, though, my advice would be not to shut yourself away when you're training a dog. Seek as much help from experienced trainers as possible, and join clubs and classes where you can watch other dogs and train alongside other handlers. If your dog becomes accustomed to lots of other dogs and gets used to training and doing what is asked of him/her in an exciting environment, this will serve you well in the long run, particularly in the shooting field. 

Away from gundogs, what else do you keep busy with?

Rugby is a big passion of mine. I'm a qualified RFU coach and take great pleasure from teaching younger players at the local prep school (my two sons included), and watching them develop and improve.

Your first gundog?

My uncle was a professional gundog trainer, specialising in labradors, and I helped him out as a dummy thrower for years. I got my first dog when I was 14 years old, a three-quarter trained black and white spaniel called Grouse. He was a cracking dog and we won a number of open novice tests together.

Simon Tyers

gundoggurus_1_simon_tyers.jpgWith over 30 years of experience with a variety of breeds, Simon runs Hawcroft Gundogs in Staffordshire. He is an A Panel Kennel Club judge for spaniels, has made up 13 Field Trial Champions as well as many novice and open stake winners, has represented England on seven occasions and won back-to-back Cocker Championships in 2007 and 2008.

Why cockers?

I have a passion for all gundogs, but cockers caught my interest in the early 1990s. Through careful and selective breeding they have become one of the top breeds in the field. I love their character and style, but above all their intelligence. Our line of Timsgarry cockers have proved to be very trainable and loyal, and are widely used in both field trials and the shooting field.

Your most memorable moment in the field?

I have so many, from making up my Field Trial Champion, Sandford Black Mamba, through to winning the Championship. If I had to pick one, it would be my second consecutive Championship win, again with one of our own bred Timsgarry cockers. It was at Sandringham and the Queen was presenting the awards, which made it extra special.

What is the most common training mistake you see being made?

There are many mistakes made by both novices and more experienced trainers. One which I see very often is handlers not making a steady transition from training to the shooting field and rushing to get their dog out too early.

If you could offer one piece of advice to somebody training a spaniel, what would it be?

Start as you mean to go on and be clinical in what you expect. Above all, don't let a young spaniel run free for too long for exercise before you have established control.

Away from gundogs, what else do you keep busy with?

My other great passion is falconry, and from September onwards – right through the season – I fly two falcons at game as often as is possible with my other favourite breed, a pointer bitch.

Your first gundog?

My very first gundogs were German shorthaired pointers. Back then I was into hunting with goshawks and shooting, and GSPs were the best for both at the time. I soon moved on to spaniels through the job I had as a gamekeeper, and have since run and trained most working breeds of gundog.

Richard MacNicol

gundoggurus_1_richardThe man behind the renowned Gerensary pointers, Richard has made up 13 Field Trial Champions, two of which are International Champions, including 11 pointers, one English setter and one Irish setter, and has won the British Champion Stake five times and the Irish Champion Stake twice. He has been an A Panel judge for 25 years. 

Why pointers?

They kennel well together, are quiet, and are probably the easier to train of the bird dog breeds. They are very loyal and a wonderful sight to behold when they are working.

Your most memorable moment in the field?

After a lifetime of trialling and shooting over pointers, there have been several memorable moments. Winning the British Champion Stake and the Irish Champion Stake in 1997 with Sutherland Sadie has to be right up there, though. She was an outstanding pointer.

What is the most common training mistake you see being made?

Quite simply rushing the training, not instilling the basics and moving on to advanced training too quickly.

If you could offer one piece of advice to somebody training a pointer, what would it be?

Select your pup carefully before you start. Do your homework and evaluate the pedigree – make sure you invest in the pup that is right for you.

Away from gundogs, what else do you keep busy with?

Away from my dogs, I enjoy rugby union (only watching now!) and cooking with a wee glass of Sauvignon!

Your first gundog?

Although I had been brought up around gundogs, I never owned one of my own until I was given an English pointer by my father when I was 19. This pointer was partly show-bred and kick-started my love affair with the breed.

Dom Goutorbe

A_dom_gourtorbeDom Goutorbe runs Upperwood Kennels – world renowned for both their show and working strain English setters. Dom is the only person within English setter circles who is approved by the Kennel Club to judge at senior level at both setter and pointer field trials and championship shows. He is also the president of the English Setter Club. 

Why setters? 

English setters have been a part of my whole life and have been a part of my family's life for several generations on my father's side. I love the breed. They are fun dogs but have a very serious side. Their keenness to find game is second to none. They also have an amazing ability to adapt to different terrains, conditions and people. 

Your most memorable moment in the field?

It would be impossible for me to pick out a single memory as there have been so many. I take a huge amount of pride in the number of people that have shot their first grouse over my dogs. They will be memories that those guests will keep forever.

What is the most common training mistake you see being made?

Starting them too early and not letting them have a puppyhood. Another mistake that is often made is only ever following the dog straight into the wind. The dog must be able to handle all wind directions if it is to succeed in the long term.

If you could offer one piece of advice to somebody training a setter, what would it be?

For training an English setter, I always find myself giving the same advice – keep a sense of humour. You have to remember that you are training a dog and not programming a robot. And a close bond with your dog is essential. Having a wide-ranging dog that isn't biddable is a nightmare. 

Away from gundogs, what else do you keep busy with?

My life pretty much revolves around English setters and the grouse moors. When I'm not doing that, my boarding kennels and a three-year-old son keep me out of mischief.

Your first gundog?

I acquired the first dog I could call my own at the age of 13. She was actually a springer spaniel from a family friend in Arbroath. I named her Tweed and she was an outstanding dog. I won many junior scrambles and scurries with her. 

At the age of 16, I left school to help my mother out due to my sister passing away, and I kept an English setter pup from a litter that had just been born. He was a runty dog pup that no one wanted and I named him Banjo. If I had that dog again now, I'm sure he'd be winning trials left, right and centre. I never instilled in him the discipline needed for trialling, but he still won a lot of awards purely because of his natural ability.

Every English setter pup I breed will go back to him, and some of my shooting guests still speak about him to this day – albeit not always in a positive way as some of the walks we had to points were good, long ones!

Click HERE to view Gundog Gurus – Part 2.

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