1976 - Training The Kennel Boy et al.
Isn’t it strange how, if you stand on a high plateau and look upwards, only to see that there is something above you, your inclination is to want to get there.
Brena was a Champion – except that she wasn’t. Someone or other explained to us that once a gundog had gained the necessary three tickets under different judges, it qualified for the title “Show Champion” but not “Champion”. You may be excused for thinking that the longer the title the better, but not so in this case. Immediately, of course, we explored the meaning of this better, and shorter, title.
It seemed that in order to be a Champion, commonly referred to as a “Full Champion”, Brena needed to gain some sort of award or certificate on the retrieving side of things, of which our knowledge was utterly nil. We were told that the lowest possible standard of achievement would be the award of a qualifying certificate. As we didn’t know anything about gundog training and had no idea as to how we might go about finding out, we let it lapse and turned our attention to other things.
As time passed and we got to know more doggy people in the Midlands, we found that the newly formed Midland Golden Retriever Club intended to begin training classes for the various competitions which exist for the working golden. Viv, whose expertise and interest at that time focussed solely on showing, decided that Brena and I should go to these classes. Each Wednesday evening Brena and I would pack our bags and go over to Solihull where Pete, the trainer, made it quickly clear that the training classes would be directed towards training me rather than Brena.
Yet again, I found myself meeting a lot of interesting and enthusiastic people and I came to look forward to Wednesday evenings. Brena enjoyed herself and became a bit of a favourite amongst some of the people there. She was particularly well known for her preference for field mice, the scent of which distracted her all too often from the real business of the evening.
Normally the training of a golden will start when it is very young – certainly by the time it is a year. Brena was already six by this time and had I known that it was a little unusual to start training at this age, I don’t know that I would have had the courage to go to the classes in the first place. Once I got there, I found that whilst training an older dog was unusual, it was not unheard of by any means. As these were newly formed classes most of the trainees were in the same boat as me. That is, the things being thrown were not the only dummies present.
For the purpose of qualification, it seemed that the dog had to ideally learn a little about direction control. This meant that the handler had to be able to stop the dog at a distance and cause it to look at the handler, who would then give a hand signal as to the direction in which the dog should next travel. Whilst sounding difficult and complicated, such manoeuvres turned out to be relatively simple given a trainer who knew what he was talking about, and a handler who was prepared to spend a small amount of time each day between classes practising with their dog. It was largely a matter of trying to think in the way a dog would think – something Pete drummed into us at every opportunity.
The dog also had to develop its’ instincts to hunt, normally such things as pheasant, hare, pigeon and rabbit. The basic idea, I came to realise, was that through a combination of training and instinct, the dog would seek these prey, whether they be killed outright by a shooter or only injured. Once found, the prey had to be picked up and delivered to the handler without the dog causing it any injury.
For the purpose of those parts of the training which involved the development of the dog’s instincts, canvas dummies were used, sometimes covered with a rabbit skin. Now and then, if we were lucky, someone would bring along a dead pheasant or pigeon.
A number of trainees had aims to train their dogs to compete in much more difficult tests than the qualifier to which we aspired, and the class, therefore, sought to achieve a much higher standard than was required for my purposes. They needed better direction control, their dogs needed to jump fences, work under control in water, work at considerable distance from the handler, deal competently with “runners” (injured prey trying to escape) and generally be much more polished performers. This was the time that I first had an inkling that there could be quite a lot of fun to be had in the training side of the game, although it was some three years later that I was so thrilled at something one of our dogs did as to get some idea of the satisfaction which must be gained by those who handle a top class working gundog.
The training sessions finished in late summer as the evenings drew in, and I carried on alone keeping Brena up to scratch in preparation for the qualifier which was to take place in Suffolk, in November.
In order to obtain a qualifying certificate, a golden has to perform satisfactorily under the conditions of a real shoot. When the day of the qualifier arrived, I had to leave early in the morning to arrive at the shoot by nine thirty. I suppose that a hardened country person would describe the day as crisp and clear with a bright sun and light wind. So far as I was concerned, there was a freezing gale through which the warmth of the sun appeared incapable of penetrating and I felt like a block of ice five minutes after getting out of the car.
I discovered why shooting people invariably look like tubby brown tramps. I should think that everyone there except me had about twenty layers of clothes. From start to finish, I was so cold that it got to the stage of being actually painful. No-one had prepared me for this.
Brena had to do a number of things to get through the qualifier. First we had to stand in line, four of us at a time, with our dogs sitting calmly at our sides whilst a shoot took place. The judges arranged things so that we were close to some of the guns. The dogs had to be off the lead for some of the time and needed to sit quietly without showing any sign of distress at the loud gunfire or falling pheasants. This was a new experience for Brena but, in the event, she just pricked up her ears, looked around and showed all the signs of thoroughly approving of this new game.
Next, she was sent out after a pheasant. She had to hunt for it, find it, and retrieve it back to me without damaging it in any way. I sent her out, carefully making sure that I pointed her in the right direction, but she got distracted and described a gentle curve, ending up some ten yards from the bird. I stopped her, directed her towards the bird and she happily trotted off that way, found the bird, picked it up and brought it back to me.
Next, I thought, they’ll think of something which is totally beyond us. They didn’t. That was the end of the qualifier. She had demonstrated her competence to the standard required and her certificate was duly awarded later that day.
Perhaps I should insert a brief word of warning at this stage. Qualifiers (or Show Gundog Working Certificates as they are now called) are now of a much higher standard. However, Brena had displayed all the basic retrieving instincts required at that time and was now a Champion.
I toddled off home with the statutory bottle of celebratory happy juice. Just before I left, someone said to me that they thought Brena had performed very prettily. Of course, when you are a hardened, tough gundog working person as I now was, you are offended by any suggestion that your animal is “pretty”. It can be fast, free running, full of initiative or full of character by all means, but pretty – really.
Now, had they known what you know, they might have reminded me that we got into the doggy game in the first place because we thought Brena so pretty.