Paws for thought!
Matt Limb OBE looks at the relationship between the countryman and his dog and why we should never take each other for granted for such precious time together.
WIith the shooting season closed for another year, many of us will be looking back over the recent months; as a gun, you may remember a particularly high bird on a day out in the company of good friends and the gamekeeper shouting ‘Well done, sir’; as a picker-up it will be the way your dog worked on a retrieve which was blind and crossed the stream; and as a beater it will be the friendship and camaraderie you have enjoyed for another season.
But the term country sport, or activity, can cover a wide remit, from a driven day’s game shooting on a top-class country estate wearing your very best tweed suit, to a day’s pigeon shooting from a hide or a day’s rough shooting with local friends. Or from a pocketful of purse nets sat on a rabbit warren with a ferret, to a day’s ratting around the yard. For most of us, all will have one thing in common: our constant and loyal companion, the dog.
From the busy spaniel in the beaters’ line flushing the birds over the guns, to the pickers-up Labradors retrieving them; from a quiet Cocker sat sharing your sandwich in the pigeon hide to the lurcher off at speed to catch the fast-moving rabbit, or the terrier having the time of its life catching rats around the farmyard. For so many of us, our dogs are as much a part of the activity as participation itself, and their breed and size are equally as varied. But in common, they are lifelong companions and part of the family, for many a day out with the dog can be regarded as better than a day with the gun, and more than once I have heard people say they often prefer the company of their dogs to certain humans, which I am sure we can all echo in agreement.
But dogs can frustrate you as well as reward you, embarrass you as much as surprise you and at some time will have disappointed and let you down; but all this is forgotten when the weeks and months of training come together and they fill you with pride. They bring enjoyment and pleasure as they are always there ready to go, but this love affair with our dogs is at times as testing as it is infuriating. From the young but busy little puppy that arrives in the home at just a few weeks old, to the ageing old fellow who, after dedicating his life to you, now struggles to follow you onto the garden on an evening – he is still willing and loyal and you will not stop him, but now sadly at his own pace and in his own time.
Despite this, all dogs have one fault: they never live as long as you think they will, or more importantly as long as you hope and wish for. It is generally accepted that the smaller the breed the longer they live. Witness to this was a Lakeland Border terrier cross we had at home that lived into her eighteenth year; yes, she was old and slow in her later years and you needed some patience with her, but she still enjoyed a good life and good health until her final days. This contrasts with the larger breeds, some rarely living into double figures; large breeds like the Great Dane, which despite its massive size is known as a friendly natured dog, but has a life expectancy of just seven years. For my dogs, the English Springer Spaniel, they have a life expectancy of typically ten to twelve years, but let’s look at such figures more closely.
That young, excited puppy that arrives in your home, jumping up for your attention and time, could be some weeks, maybe months off starting any serious training. For many, they will have reached their second birthday before they are truly ready for a full day’s beating, picking-up or steady enough to stand with you on a peg. Then by the time they reach nine, the effects of old age will have slowed them down. Yes, they are still more than willing, and most will always be so, but for their own good, a full day’s hard work picking-up or beating may be out of the question. This will leave a typical seven, maybe eight, working seasons for my Springers. I am sure you can do the maths for your own breed of dog and your own activities. But the results will be the same, they are never around and out with you for as long as you think, especially if you then work out how many days you are actually out shooting, beating or picking-up in a typical season.
All too soon that painful day will come when you have to part company forever and say goodbye. It is the most heart-wrenching feeling I have ever known, I have seen it bring big strong men to their knees as the reality comes home to them. But the decision must be for the wellbeing and welfare of the dog, not your selfish greed to have more time together. Whilst I am not a qualified veterinary surgeon I have always been told, if you know your dog well and fully understand its demeanour, you will know when it is that time, and it is always better to be a day too early than a day too late when you say goodbye.
But the moral of the story is simple: enjoy whichever country sport, or activity, you participate in but always have time for your dog – and whenever possible combine the two. It is far too easy, as I have done, to say ‘No you stay at home’ to your ever faithful companion sitting at the door waiting to go with you as you stand with the gun under your arm or a gamebag in your hand. You must make time for your dog and enjoy the precious time you have together. He will, after all, be the best friend and companion you will ever have on a day out in the countryside, but sadly will not be there for as long as you think.