Handling the handlers
A dog is for life, not just for Christmas. But Howard Kirby couldn't have known the black Labrador puppy he got for Christmas in 1987 would totally change his life. By Richard Rawlingson.
That young bitch became the cornerstone of Mullenscote Gundogs, a business that has grown dramatically in recent years and totally transformed Howard from a self-confessed 'shy young ploughboy' to travelling showman.
That puppy was his first 'proper' gundog and it arrived just as he was becoming involved in setting up the well known Lains Shooting School at Quarley, on the Hampshire/Wiltshire border alongside his pig farming activities. Running the ground allowed plenty of time for training and young Margot was soon joined by litter sister Holly. Both dogs and handler were fast learners and soon friends and family asked him to help with their training and Mullenscote Gundogs evolved as a separate business running alongside the shooting ground. A top quality stud dog called Taff arrived and sired many fine working retrievers (one of which, now elderly, is snoozing happily in the corner of my office as I write).
Howard's fame was spreading fast in this strong shooting area. Guns and other pickers up would watch enviously as he handled teams of five or six dogs with apparent ease on some of Hampshire's top estates and word of mouth soon brought a steady stream of business to his door. Many clients were owners of 'problem' dogs, although it was often apparent that the problem lay more with the handler.
With demand for his time growing, and a shooting ground still to run, help was obviously needed. The ground has always been a family concern, with parents, brother and sister-in-law all helping our with the day-to-day running and the growing demands of the dog training activities saw the arrival seven years ago of Annie Buckley, an experienced handler and trainer who is now head trainer at Mullenscote. James Bawden joined four years ago and Aston Wilson was added to the team last year.
A completely new avenue opened up when Howard was asked to give gundog demonstrations at The Hawk Conservancy, a nearby visitor attraction. To the surprise of family and friends (and I suspect himself) he took to appearing in front of an audience like a Labrador to water. Invitations came in from organisers of other events and a whole new career has taken off.
Today the Mullenscote Gundog Team travels the country in a purpose-built truck, appearing at game and country fairs from March to October, taking in major events such as the Highclere Country Fair and Midland Game Fair along the way. With some 25 weekends booked this year, it is a massive commitment.
"I absolutely love it," he told me. "I really enjoy being on the road and I can do it because we have the infrastructure set up to allow us to get on and enjoy it. With two of us out virtually every weekend it's important that I know life is carrying on smoothly back home, so it's a team effort. We also have the travelling facilities set up perfectly, with living in the transporter for us and the dogs, so we just load up, turn up and have fun. We get to spend the weekend in some of the most scenic estates in the country and meet lots of lovely people and their dogs. Perhaps it's the failed pop star in me, but I get a real buzz from being in front of an audience!"
Around ten dogs will travel to each show, chosen from the pool of 15-20 in the kennels at any given time and ranging from six-month-old youngsters to old stagers of six years. "The dogs love it too" says Howard, "as soon as they hear the trailer board drop down, they are scrabbling to be chosen. They get to spend the weekend in a new environment and it is all part of their ongoing training. We often take young dogs to train on site and use those sessions as part of the clinics we run during the show."
This exposure has opened up more opportunities for the pig farmer turned showman. A series of short training videos has appeared on the Horse & Country TV website, along with a weekly blog that has been running for over 18 months now. There is interest in taking the TV/video work a stage further and he has proved a natural in front of the cameras, the same easy and relaxed style he uses in group work translating well to the small screen.
Mullenscote take their teaching very seriously, to the extent that both Howard and Annie have completed a three-year study course at Southampton University, leading to a Certificate of Education qualification to teach post-16 students. "It was a big challenge," he admits, "Neither of us are particularly academic and were a long way out of our comfort zone for the first half of the course.
"It was filled with trainers from all walks of life: people who worked in industry, social services and government or who taught pilots to fly helicopters. I'm not sure what they made of a couple of dog trainers at first! The course was all about teaching people, not dogs, finding out how people learn and how to help them through that learning process. We think we are quite good at dog psychology, but you have to understand how the handlers think and react too."
Those teaching skills are also being put to use in other ways. Mullenscote is contracted to provide students from Sparsholt College's Gamekeeping course with instruction on working dog management. " Working dogs of all types are vital tools for any keeper. They may work with a variety of breed types as they go about their daily duties; terriers, gundogs, deer and security dogs will for many be a fundamental part of the work. Our role is to ensure that they have a basic understanding of how to choose, source, accommodate, train and handle these essential members of their workforce."
The importance of developing handling skills becomes apparent when I join the Mullenscote team on one of the group interactive days they have been running this year. The structure of the courses was heavily influenced by techniques learnt as the three trainers and around 15 owners spent a day going through a series of training exercises in small groups, using all the specially constructed 'classrooms' built on the training field over the past few years. These include a rabbit pen, retrieving lanes with built-in jumps or distractions such as bolting rabbit dummies and a resident flock of geese to test the steadiness of any young dog.
The format allows not just for one-to-one instruction but also the chance to watch others in action, often the most illuminating of all. Lively discussion is encouraged to identify what went wrong - and what worked - for each handler.
Topics ranged from general principles to quite esoteric technical points. Do you want your dog to focus on your face or your hand when awaiting an instruction? If the dog is looking at you will it lose the mark?. Subtle differences in body language were highlighted - and the dogs' reaction to them. Often it is much easier to see where others are making mistakes than to identify your own, and sometimes the difference between a successful retrieve and losing control is just a split second's timing; the trainees learning that intervention with a command or the whistle just before the dog loses focus is vital and how to anticipate a problem rather than react to it.
As ever, obliging cocker spaniels were on hand prepared to take themselves on a self-guided tour of the facilities and provide ready-made demonstrations of what can go wrong! Later sessions focused on dog psychology and for the novice dogs an introduction to cold game (although cold was a relative term on the hottest afternoon of the year!)
Most of the owners that come to Mullenscote have gundog breeds of one sort or another. Many, like James Blyth, see the demonstrations and want to learn more about the training process. James had brought along Gus, an impeccably bred young lab with great potential, hoping to learn how to get the most from him. Any will go on to have individual lessons, taking their dogs through the early stages of training to their debut in the field.
However it is not just gundogs and handlers that benefit from the Mullenscote experience. Increasingly pet and companion dogs and their owners are seeking help, with perhaps some basic obedience training or to solve particular behavioural problems.
"It's an interesting and exciting challenge," says Kirby. "We are learning all the time how to motivate dogs not driven by game finding or retrieving and adapting our methods accordingly. It is a two-way process because it will sometimes throw up insights that can be fed back into our other work."
Rescue dogs are also becoming something of a speciality, with several having come to the kennels from Battersea Dogs Home. "We also see quite a lot of problem dogs," he said, "We seem to have developed our own specialities as Annie gets all the shy, sensitive sorts and all the boisterous ones end up with me!"
With so much happening and the rapid growth from shooting ground sideline to major business, it is perhaps inevitable that something had to give and that has been a reduction in Mullenscote's in-house breeding. The new litter playing in their pen on my visit is now a rare occurrence, the intensive work needed to rear new pups having proved too great a burden to handle regularly.
"With our six stud dogs, we have regular access to puppies for the three to five additions we make to the team each year, so breeding is not such a great part of our activities any more," says Kirby. "We currently have three labs, two springer spaniels and one cocker at stud, all of them also full-time members of our working team, so we are well covered when recruiting new additions."
Certainly Mullenscote is a business that never stands still. Every time I visit, there are new facilities to see, new dogs to admire, new ideas in action. If you are at a show and get a chance to see one of the demonstrations or attend a clinic, do take it - it will be worth the effort.