The Game Keeper’s Dog – The Labrador Retriever


Written by: Sarah Burgess

Are you curious about how a gamekeeper trains a working dog, what breeds and character traits to look out for when they are young, and how to get the most from your own dog?

Author John Cowan has been a gamekeeper in Scotland for over 40 years and his wealth of knowledge and lifetime’s expertise in training working dogs resulted in this book, The Game Keepers Dog.

Born in the Scottish Borders, John spent his early years exploring the surrounding countryside and learning about its wildlife. He gleaned knowledge from the old countrymen and their working dogs.

His first job was under the watchful eye of the famous keeper, Ronnie Rose, at Eskdalemuir, where he learnt about various fieldsports: from deer stalking, to shooting grouse, blackcock, duck and pheasant. Each role required the services of a different breed of dog.

Once trained, each dog’s specific attributes bring value to working life on a sporting Estate. John discusses the strengths and weaknesses of individual breeds and how the breeding history has shaped their temperament.

The Game Keepers Dog covers key breeds: Retrievers, Terriers, Hunter Pointer Retrievers, Pointers and Setters, Guard Dogs, Spaniels, Lurchers and Cross-breeds,

The Labrador Retriever

The Labrador is the most popular dog in the British Isles. It is not difficult to see why. He is a handsome dog with a steady temperament, and he makes an ideal playmate for family members young and old. He will bark at a stranger who approaches your property but will lick him to death when he realises that you accept him as a friend. Above all he is easy to train, with a placid temperament that allows him to cope with anything the world can throw at him.

The Labrador is a relatively new breed, stemming from an amalgam of St Hubert hound mastiff and the Portuguese water dog (laborete). Any canine which was taken to the western seaboard of America in the 18th and 19th century by European merchants, trappers and fisherman needed to be very fit to survive. So when the breed came back to the British Isles, it had been formed by a very hard seed.

Wealthy men and the landed gentry had by then found a new way of shooting for leisure and one of the main requirements was a specialist retriever to collect the fallen game. Some of the largest landowners of the day, including the Duke of Buccleuch, bought the best of these dogs, and using some of the established British breeds, refined it until they created the dog we recognise today as the Labrador Retriever.

Interestingly, the colour of Labradors seems to be a pretty sure indicator of temperament in this breed, especially in the working strains. Blacks are the easiest to train and tend to have good steady temperaments. Yellows can be more highly-strung and less focused on the job in hand. Chocolates can be aggressive with other dogs, particularly males, and I believe that this has restricted their popularity in the shooting field. This is of course a generalisation as I have seen yellow Labradors that were as good as any Labrador can be, especially where water work is concerned, their coat often being thicker and more waterproof than many modern black dogs.

Keepers like hardy dogs. An animal which shivers and shudders on a cold wet day between drives will not last long in a keeper’s kennel before a pet home is found for him. The Labrador is usually a healthy breed. Most keepers use their Labradors for water work i.e. to retrieve game and wildfowl from ponds and rivers. Few breeds can stand wet and cold like a good Labrador, with the classic low-maintenance double coat. In recent years this coat has become less common, with many dogs having no waterproof undercoat. The lack of this undercoat becomes obvious when a dog is asked to do multiple water retrieves on a cold day: many baulk after the first two and stand shivering with their guts taut and back arched. The true Labrador takes all this in his stride and dives in again and again, relishing the experience.

The Labrador, especially the female, is the easiest dog to train because he is a natural retriever and is forgiving of the novice trainer who makes a mistake. He can sit at a drive with many birds being shot around him without losing his cool. He can also be trained to hunt like a Spaniel or even a Pointer, many pointing live game, especially grouse or rabbits.

A good Labrador can also be invaluable when seeking fallen game, as it will follow a scent trail and either attempt to retrieve the animals, or bark until the keeper catches up and pulls it from its final resting place.

I could go on. It is this versatility which makes the Labrador such a favourite amongst gamekeepers. Whatever the task, a good Labrador will not be found wanting.

Labrador Puppy Training

How does a gamekeeper train his Labrador? Training Your Puppy by Fiona Baird provides a basic puppy training guide, from a new puppy to a youngster, but I will outline a few pointers below.

I assume you have bought a dog with good working heritage (this makes training much simpler) whose parents and grandparents have been tested for hip dysplasia, PRA and elbow dysplasia. The young pup even at eight weeks old can be gently disciplined by being pushed to a sitting position while his food bowl is held over his head. Any movement results in the bowl being lifted higher, so the pup soon learns that he must sit until allowed to move by his master. Walks should not be too long or arduous for the young pup as his bones are still developing.

Getting him used to travelling in a vehicle from an early age is also advisable; it will save a lot of work later in life.

A keeper often takes his young dog, probably accompanied by his other more experienced dog or dogs, to shoots. This allows a youngster of just over a year old, a few retrieves if he gets the chance. It is important to put him on the lead if he may be tempted by other dogs, hares or rabbits. All he needs is experience.

There is nothing complicated about training dogs and there is no single method which will be successful. The gamekeeper or professional trainer will be more successful than the novice because they make fewer mistakes. Factors such as lineage and breed all come into play, but no dog is untrainable, and a lot of the time it is down to thorough and clear guiding principles when the dog is young. I will not say that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but a well-trained and obedient puppy will develop into a dog that is willing and happy to assist its master. It is best to start training when they are young. You can see the enjoyment a working dog takes in its training.

In my book I have tried to describe the part a dog plays in a gamekeeper’s life; all dogs have a use if you care to find it, and there is great joy and satisfaction in owning a dog that has purpose in life. As I grow older, I have spent more time reflecting and it has awoken memories of times past happily spent in the company of dogs. Any dog from a working breed is happiest and most content when pursuing the life-fulfilling function it was bred for, it’s hard work but the companionship between dog and owner is never forgotten.

By John Cowen, author and gamekeeper.

If you enjoyed this blog post The Game Keepers Dog is available online (hardback £20), published by Merlin Unwin Books.

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