Where have all the peg dogs gone?

Words by:
Matt Limb OBE
Featured in:
February 2022

Matt Limb OBE reflects on the ever-diminishing number of gundogs to be found standing on a peg – and knowing when it is time for our beloved companions to retire from the shoot.

Like most countrymen, there is one thing I prefer to have by my side – not my favourite gun, but my dog, or more likely dogs. Our lifestyle and pastimes can cover a wide remit, from a day’s beating or picking up to pigeon shooting from a hide. But for most of us, all these activities will have one thing in common: our constant and loyal companion.

It’s that time of year – Christmas and New Year are behind us, and the game shooting season is as good as over. In the last few days, there have been the Beaters’ Days, sometimes known as Keepers’ Days, when the hard-working teams on a shoot, the beaters and pickers-up, are rewarded. Traditionally the guns would act as beaters for the day but sadly that tradition disappeared some time ago on many shoots.

It is also the time of year when the gamekeeper and the shoot captain will sit and reflect on the season and go over a list of lessons learnt. Did some of the new ideas work? Could we have done some things better or different? For in just a few weeks, once the tidying up has finished, the whole cycle will start again, preparing for next season.

It is also a time when I have sat and reflected. It has been a very different season, sat on the edge of the pandemic, but there is another change I have witnessed and one, in my mind, that is not a change for the good. It became a topic of conversation with fellow pickers-up, then more recently with a close friend who is a gamekeeper, and I have no doubt it is on the increase. The ever-growing number of guns stood on a peg without a dog on a day’s shoot.

I may be missing something here, but for me, to be on a peg with your dog, then allow the dog to pick up, is about as good as any day you can have. Yet I see an ever-increasing number of guns without a dog, who simply walk away at the end of a drive.

As a picker-up, I would normally look where the guns with dogs are standing, then depending on the drive and the day’s weather conditions, position myself accordingly. I firmly believe that if a gun has brought along his dog and it stands on the peg, it is only fitting that it should pick up around him.

Or maybe the modern-day picker-up is the problem? I have the good fortune to shoot several times in a typical season, standing on a peg with one of the spaniels. But a few seasons ago I was very mindful of a picker-up standing very close behind my peg. As I walked past him with my spaniel, I beckoned him a good morning. During the drive, I shot a few pheasants, but as they hit the ground the picker-up sent his dog out and picked up all the birds. Then as the whistle blew he walked away. In all my years of shooting it was one of the worst drives I have had whilst standing on a peg. Here I can’t help but feel the picker-up did not know, or understand, his role in a day’s driven shooting.

So, is it the uneducated picker-up that puts a gun off having a dog with him? Or is it deeper than that?

With dog training becoming ever more popular, are today’s guns worried that their beloved companions are simply not good enough to stand with them, so are left at home? Or does today’s shoot even discourage guns from bringing a dog along, irrespective of its ability, level of training and obedience?

I must confess I do not know, but as someone who enjoys working a dog picking up or beating, I would always prefer to stand on a peg with a dog. I cannot help but feel that something is missing. Especially as

I have watched several guns, without a dog between them, walking uncomfortably back and forth across a ploughed and well-rutted field looking for a pheasant or partridge. Somehow for me, it just does not look like a vision of game shooting I recognise.

But what is the reason? It is certainly nothing to do with dog ownership, we are still a dog-loving nation and ownership appears to be at an all-time high. Could it be that today’s guns have somehow separated the action of shooting from having a dog by their side? If they have then I fear they have misunderstood the shooting experience and in doing so are missing a big part of the day.

Whatever the reason, and some may say it is simply a sign of the times, I do hope that in the future I again see more dogs sitting with guns, adding to their day, because shooting is so much more than simply pointing a barrel in the air and pulling a trigger.

There is yet another reason to keep our dogs by our side on shoot days. Sadly, and often all too soon, the day will come when you and your dog will have to part company forever. It is the most heart-wrenching feeling I have ever known because the biggest failing with dogs is they never live as long as you would wish.

But back in the early days of this season, I was faced with a different heart-breaking decision. The one you make when you know that your old dog needs to retire for the good of his health. Our Springer Spaniel, Haig, had his twelfth birthday last summer. I still remember well when he arrived with us on a bright autumn evening; he was typical of a young spaniel, full of mischief, busy and ever inquisitive.

Today his general health is still very good, the vet gave him a thumbs-up earlier in the summer when he went for his annual vaccination boosters. And it may not be recognised in veterinarian science, but he still passes with flying colours the ‘Five W Tests’: he still wolfs down his food, there is still a wag in his tail, he is always ready for a walk, has a wet nose and there is always a welcome from him.

Haig is now sharing the house with a couple more Springers, both younger and more active than him, who now do most of the work. But sadly, he is no longer that young and busy puppy that arrived over a decade ago; he is now the grand old gentleman of the pack. You do not always notice dogs getting older and almost suddenly they appear to struggle to follow you onto the garden of an evening. Despite this he still has great spirit, is still willing and loyal, but now sadly at his own pace.

Haig came with me on the opening day of this season back in September – as I remember, not an easy day, it was very hot and dry. Haig had a cracking day, fully enjoyed himself. He did not do all the drives, as I was selective, so he did not have to walk too far. But with the heat he at times struggled, then in the late afternoon the realisation came that it was time for him to retire from a full day’s picking up.

As a picker-up you have a duty to the shoot and gamekeeper to be active and mobile; you need to quickly react as needed and sadly it became clear that Haig was no longer fully up to it.

Dogs can frustrate you and reward you, embarrass you or surprise you and at times will have both disappointed and let you down. But all this is forgotten when you look at their wider life and times you have together. Over the years Haig has brought me great enjoyment, always there ready to go, and for over a decade has been a constant companion, including sitting with me in the office this morning.

But it’s a fact I must face and accept, it’s time to allow the younger dogs to grow in their experience, it is their time. For Haig, his full days behind guns waiting to pick up are over. Yes, he will have the occasional day out when we have a pottering day, most certainly have a day on the beach, but a full day’s work is now behind him for the good of his health. Haig can now claim to be an OAP – Old Age Puppy.

For humans it is never easy to hand over the baton when you know something you organise or manage needs some fresh blood, some new thinking, along with youthfulness. It is a situation I have faced at times with work, and I have often felt disappointed with myself. But Haig has served me well for over ten years, swum across lakes to find a duck, rooted under woodpiles to find a cock pheasant, as well as pushing through countless hedges in his never-ending quest. I will certainly miss his character next season, especially when you watch him after a drive and he can’t find a pheasant to bring you, so will steal one from a gun who has collected his birds in a neat pile by his peg.

The moral of the story is simple: whatever country sport or activity you participate in, you must always have time for your dog – it is far too easy to leave him at home. Equally we must accept they get older and with time may struggle. But in their dedication and loyalty, plus their desire to please you, they will never stop. It is a decision you need to make for them and the goodness of their ageing health.

Words & photographs: Matt Limb OBE

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