Report by Alli Kay


My young Spinone, Toby, and I had a long weekend on the grouse moor, firstly joining a small team of dogs and handlers counting the grouse, followed by two days of training. 

 The ISCGB Spring Pointing Test was held on the grouse moor at Wemmergill and I was invited to come along the day before with Toby to help count the grouse in preparation for the Test. The dogs had to hunt, point and flush the grouse, which were then counted and the numbers logged. 

Over the winter Toby had spent a lot of time working on pheasant shoots and learnt many skills expected of a picking up dog, as well as developing his hunting skills. Grouse, however, provided a new experience for both of us as it behaves very differently to pheasant. One example being that when Toby points pheasant, I know the bird will be right beneath or just in front of Toby, tucked tight down in the cover; this means I can confidently instruct him to flush it out, knowing it will lift in front of him. Grouse, however, is not so easy. In many cases, as I went on to discover, the point indicates that he has scented the bird, which rather than being tucked tight in the heather, has probably (but not definitely) run away and hidden further along in the heather, some distance from the initial point/indication, so sending Toby in for the bird requires a different approach. This I found challenging. 

The moor was covered by the four handlers and their dogs working as two pairs, taking turns to walk up the moor, their dogs working the wind, a section at a time. On our first turn Toby, who was the only inexperienced dog in the group, was so excited by the scents and sounds he seemed to forget that he was working for me and headed up the moor, working the wind at his leisure. Whilst he didn’t run off, the two of us did end up way ahead of the rest of the group, and for a few moments we seemed to be lost as the fog had descended and I couldn’t see anyone else. Fortunately we soon heard the others calling us and found our way back. Due to this Toby had missed an area altogether, which another dog then had to work. 

We were lucky to be in very good hands though, and were given some helpful guidance from the experienced members, which got us on track. As the day progressed Toby settled down and understood what he was supposed to be doing, having started to recognise the scent and sound of the grouse. He understands the wind far better than I do and worked it well. I was very relieved that he once again started to watch me and follow my movements! Being so new to this, however, rather than finding and pointing the birds, Toby tended to bump, or run into them sending them up, but this was acceptable as we were still able to count the birds he put up. I came away grateful that the next two days would be training on the moor as there was clearly a lot to learn. 

An early start the next morning for Toby and me as we set off to Grinton, a tiny village at the foot of one of the best Grouse moors in the country, to join the Kennel Club’s “Training for Pointing Breeds” weekend. I felt extremely nervous, not knowing what to expect, but on arrival I very quickly began chatting to lots of people and realised that there was a huge mix of abilities, both in dogs and handlers, and although everyone looked very professional and experienced in their outdoor “working” clothes....actually, so did I! We were all in it together, there to improve, learn and have fun. Toby was the only Spinone.

We were placed into small groups with a trainer, an “A panel” field trial judge. Having discussed our needs, problems etc over coffee we headed out on to the moor and began our two days of hunting. Instruction was given before each dog was sent for its run and each handler’s turn was adapted for their own ability. 

I was quietly dreading my first turn. Recently I have been struggling with my hunting and control, partly because Toby has spent a season picking up on shoots and, I suspect, enjoying himself too much with too little training between shoots, but also due to him having taken some time out to recover from surgery. Our trainer listened to my concerns and told me clearly how to keep him where I wanted him. I am training Toby to follow my body movement when hunting; to keep looking for me to see which way I am pointing. If he sees my back as he is hunting away from me, he turns to hunt towards me until he has passed me. When he has gone as far away as I want him to, I turn away again, showing him my back. When he looks and sees it he will turn towards me again. This is how I have taught him to work at 90 degrees to the wind, this is quartering. Recently though, he had stopped looking for me and instead began hunting for himself, which meant he would just keep going and going, getting too far away from me. My instructions were to allow him to go out away from me for as far as I felt comfortable, then to give him his “turn” whistle, which he obeyed. He quickly got back into his old pattern of looking and listening for me. I kept his hunt short in terms of time, in order to prevent an opportunity for him to become too excited, ignore me and fail, and worked him close enough to maintain control, whilst still letting him get out away from me. Our trainer referred to this as the “ring of confidence”!

As the day progressed, each dog’s performance improved dramatically and each handler’s confidence and understanding seemed to grow. The conditions were difficult for the dogs as the grouse were sparse and the weather very cold, I felt proud when our trainer admitted that “you need a Spinone in these conditions” as Toby had in fact pointed and flushed some grouse. The wind changed direction constantly on the moor, giving us the opportunity to hunt not just a head wind, but back winds and cheek winds; the latter two having always caused me confusion, but with the great tuition I received I found myself confidently and successfully hunting Toby on both of these. I came home exhausted but very happy, I was starting to feel as though I had made real progress in areas where previously I had struggled. 

Day two began with a quick explanation that we would now focus on helping our dogs progress from indicating game to locating, pointing and flushing it. This all sounds very simple, but as I discovered with Toby, it takes understanding of the wind as well as good control of the dog. Toby, on his first hunt, indicated scent so I went in to help him, but I was too eager and sent him in for the grouse as though it was a pheasant, but this time the grouse had moved away and he missed the location, he moved on incorrectly due to my error and ended up bumping the birds a few yards further on. This mistake helped me to understand what I needed to do and when we were lucky enough to be in the same position on our next hunt, I was able to slowly guide Toby from where he had located the foot scent, back into wind to enable him to pick up the actual bird’s scent whereupon he crept forward and put up a pair of grouse. 

Of course, a training day with Toby would not be complete without his clown making an appearance and everyone had a good laugh when on our next hunt he headed to my right on a head wind, about 100 yds out and suddenly disappeared with a huge splash, a few moments later he re-emerged, shook himself off and carried on as though nothing had happened. (Yeah well, I meant to do that!!). 




March 2016