From 8 weeks to 14 years, The Life of An Orvis-Endorsed Guide’s Labrador


Written by: Isobella Ash

The best dog for fishing is one that’s been well trained. Alba Game Fishing‘s Stewart Collingswood has been fishing alongside labrador Keely for 14 years. Read more about their adventures together in the blog below written by Stewart himself.

First of all, I didn’t want to get a Labrador, it’s true, a Border terrier had always been my first choice. However, after a phone call with a prominent Border Terrier breeder to discuss suitability with my daily routine as a fishing guide, she told me that a Border, whilst being a lovely dog would be a bit of a nightmare for my lifestyle and where I lived (at the time in a cottage with an open garden and no fences). 

“Let me tell you how your daily routine would go she explained” 

She went on to explain several scenarios about chasing a terrier through the woods, it digging holes in the mud, and struggling to keep the dog close to me whilst I was river wading with guests and so on. I asked her what her advice would be given what I do. “A Labrador”, she said, “a dog that always wants to be with you, and I know of a litter that has a bitch available.” I agreed that training my lab sounded like it would lead to behaviors that were more suited to me.

She put me in touch with Brian Dickson, a dog breeder of field trial champion labradors and keeper at the Glenalmond Estate. The dog in question’s father was the gun dog used by the King of Norway when he shoots there. 

I called Brian up and after hearing I was an Orvis-Endorsed fishing guide and ran a sporting company, he asked me to come up and take a look, there were only three pups. 

The moment our friendship began, the keeper Brian hands her to me, the beginning of our journey

Choosing A Pup: Some Advice

Before arriving at the beautiful Glenalmond estate, I’d spoken with my (late) father and asked his sage-like advice about choosing a pup that was right for me. My dad has had several dogs throughout his life and they have always been well trained. He had a fantastic nature and great pets. I learned this wasn’t good luck, it was down to picking the right dog in the first place and then training with absolute diligence in the first six months. He used to say, “The first six months is when you shape the bow that dictates how did the tree grows.” And when I went for advice he told me, “Get these six months right, work hard you’ll have 11 to 15 years of an enjoyable and well-behaved dog. However, get this bit wrong and you’re entering a world of pain” 

For me, this was vitally important because my dog had to be good with clients, steady, low maintenance, and well trained. You could imagine driving to a salmon fishing day on the Spey with clients in the Land Rover and the dog in the back barking and jumping around, then when you arrive at the river the dog jumps up on the guest with muddy paws et cetera, these are all things that I was keen to avoid. 

With this in mind, I met Brian and he introduced me to the dogs. My dad also said not to spend too much time looking at the pup but to ask to see the mother. If she is steady and intelligent and looks you in the eye, these are all great qualities. Furthermore, if you pick up a pup when she is present and she’s pretty calm and relaxed this shows a steady dog as well. If the mother is steady, then the pups will be too. 

There were three pups and I knew I wanted a bitch to the rules of choice of two, “Which one would you pick Brian?” I asked him. He pointed one out and said, “She has a wee tear in her ear which I think came from when they were play fighting as pups, but providing you’re not going to show her then this is the best one.” At that point, she was nothing but a handful and three weeks old.  

Six weeks later I was driving north again to pick her up. I was filled with excitement and also trepidation and when I arrived at the kennels I was so excited. After a day of gathering papers and records of her breeding line and notifications of field trial champions through her lineage, signing off the paperwork and drinking Tea with Brian, I was on my way home, a box on the front seat of my car with a soft blanket and a wee pup looking up at me.  At the time in 2007, I was listening at 12-acre loch near Gleneagles which was Private and had three boats and the cabin for entertaining.

Her first day home and getting used the crate

It was such a good day I decided to take her for a gentle roam in the boat to get her acclimated. She was a little bit agitated being in the boat but settled down pretty quickly and any time she whined I completely ignored her and when she got back onto dry land she got a wee treat before we headed home. 

A few months on, and settling nicely

Training My Lab

This was November and as it was the close season I was lucky to have almost 6 months to dedicate training my lab. At that time I lived in a cottage on the shores of the river Forth looking onto the Forth real bridge. This beautiful spot had a private beach and plenty of ground, so it was ideal for training. I had read a book called “The Dog Whisperer” which was a fantastic simple guide to how to train a dog. 

If you were to compress all the learning in that book into a short theory, it would be simply that you need to be very careful about how to divide exercise discipline, training, and affection. Some of my female friends would come round to visit, and to see the pup. Before entering the house I always gave a 10-minute lecture about walking into the room and completely ignoring while she bounced around inside the crate with no feedback whatsoever until she settled. Then once she settled in the crate and went a bit quiet, I would let her out and give some gentle affection. 

The perfect crate size, not too big, so there’s nowhere to pee

A couple of simple crate rules: 

  • When she barks and gets excited when you walked in the room, ignore, and stay calm. Once she calms down, bring her out for some love. 
  • When toilet training, go straight from the crate to the garden, when she does her business, give her lots of praise. Simple as that! 
Keely through the years Dec 2007 to April 2020

On the subjects of crates, they can be a great tool in training a dog as they teach them boundaries, and make toilet training easy. The trick is not to make the crate too big, so they have no area to pee in. The crate was also her sanctuary, she was never sent in there as punishment. After a few months, once toilet trained, the crate was sold on eBay, never to be seen again. Friends used to laugh at me and tell me I was cruel, but actually, everything I was doing I had to think was for the benefit of the dog. 

On the shores of the Forth, between there and all the rivers and lochs of Scotland, she’s had a good life

Why A Labrador Is The Best For A Fishing Guide

By May 2008 whilst she was still only seven months old she was good enough to take out on trips. My fishing business was only three years old then and therefore not that busy, so once or twice a week she would be coming out with me with guests. Generally, she was as good as gold. She had her moments though! One of the worst and also one of the funniest was the time she decided that waiting for the Trout to come to the net wasn’t good enough so she swam out while an American lady was playing a big fish and grabbed the trout and swam back to the shore proudly with it in her mouth. Remarkably, the fish was completely undamaged as she had such a soft mouth, and the fish was released safely. The lady thought this was hilarious, I however was not amused. 

In her prime on a salmon day on the Tay in 2009

The photo above you can just see the tear in her left ear, and the scar on her nose, when she burnt her nose trying to pilfer a sausage from a hot BBQ. And the Orvis dog collar with the shotgun shell

Doing what she does best, posing on the River Spey

Another time along the river Tweed with an American group of VIPs she decided to take off to the adjacent field to chase sheep. This filled me with such fear as often dogs can be shot by a farmer. I ran after her in a pair of chest waders and heavy boots, my fear propelled me to run as fast as Linford Christie. When I finally caught up with her she got such a verbal rollicking that she pretty much got the message and it never happened again.  

It’s hard to remember as it was so long ago, but I think she was about one or 1 1/2 years old when all of this nonsense, infrequent as it was, had left her. She really has been a magnificent dog. Fantastic with guests, friendly, calm, never barks,  and more importantly any time I am in the water in my waders she’s sure to be lying on the bank or padding about nearby, never out of eyeshot. That’s what you get with choosing a pup that fits you and training them well, great with people, loyal, and doesn’t stray far. Their temperament is to be close to you. Vital when you have fishing guests, as that alone is all-consuming. 

She was such a good retriever and so good with people and children that once a Russian guest (who owns one of the world’s most prominent brands of vodka) offered to buy her from me on a fishing day. She played all day with his children and he decided that whatever the cost he was going to try and buy her. He astounded me when he offered more than £7000 for her, but naturally, I turned it down. I did offer to get him another Brian Dickson pup and train it the same way, and personally deliver the dog to London for him, but his reply was “I want this dog!”

Keely at 14 years old, the Orvis dog collar has lasted 12 years

Over the 14 years, she has been a permanent fixture in all the fishing gigs and tours that we do. She has met and been in the company of thousands of guests from all over the world. I cannot imagine a fishing trip without her. There’s no show without punch. She has always been a great ice breaker, and her array of tricks always please, especially the balancing of a treat on her nose, and then with a click of my fingers it’s tossed into the air and gobbled up like a true pro. 

On quite a few occasions guests have insisted that she lies on the back seat cuddled up next to the rear passenger, and whilst this is not something I would advocate or think it’s safe, if we are driving slowly at 50 miles an hour around the ankle then it’s absolutely fine if it makes a guest happy. It always makes me laugh the slightly guilty look she has with her face when she’s doing it, she can’t help but enjoy it, but at the same time she looks to me with a slightly worried/ guilty look in her eye as if to say “Is this okay dad?”

Favourite Snoozing position on the wading boots, I don’t know why it’s a Keely thing!

As My Lab Gets Older

When my son was born, there was, without doubt, an absolute trust in her and despite the sometimes unwanted attention of a baby/ toddler/ wee boy crawling all over her, she was nothing but calm and loving towards him. I understood that her nose was out of joint, after all, she was the centre of attention, and then this wee guy comes along, but she took it well. Her time was when she was out on the river with Dad. That was her domain and still is, for a few years yet hopefully. 

Now she’s older and approaching her 15th year she is arthritic, hobbles a little when its cold, has sore elbow joints and has lumps and bumps all over her, which our vet thinks or simply just fatty deposits. She is loved and pampered more than ever now. She has been my loyal friend for so long now it’s hard to imagine life without her. But this is a reality I have to come to terms with and I know that soon the inevitable decision which will be utterly heartbreaking will come to bear. 

My advice to anybody considering this wonderful journey is to put aside your emotions in the first six months and resist the urge to pamper and cuddle your dog too much. Make sure you get the blend just right and leave all the pampering for the later stages in life. I think that putting aside my reasons for doing this, she has actually been a happier dog, utterly devoted and completely tuned into me at all times because of it. Oh, and if your buying a dog collar, get one like hers, it will last you a lifetime!

Stewart Collingswood, Orvis Endorsed Fishing Guide, Scotland

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