cross, does he have any Retriever in him at all?’ - typical morning reaction when I used to turn up for a picking up day on a shoot with my first Toller Dingo. Now I have two Tollers working on
various shoots in Hertfordshire and Kent people figured out its a breed and are very curious to hear more about them, the history, the purpose and, obviously, to see them work. And, boy, they can
Being a compact and very agile Retriever with waterproof double coat makes them very versatile in the filed, they love working on different terrain, don’t mind weather conditions and happily pick up various types of birds. Unfortunately Tollers are not used to lure ducks on the shoots in the UK, but they do make a perfect picking up dog. Basic requirements of a good picking up dog are: steadiness, soft mouth retrieves, hunt for dead birds, courage to go after and retrieve a runner and ability to do all that under different circumstances.
Steadiness, as in being quiet and calm and attentive during the drive, when guns are shooting. Yes, I know I did say the word ‘quiet’ in relation to a Toller, and it wasn’t a mistake. Tollers are generally very excitable dogs and the owners do encourage it even when they don’t intend to, nevertheless there are ways of training a Toller to be calm and collected, it does take time and a lot of patience, but it is doable. Usually when they concentrate on a task in hand they do sit quietly and patiently, just make sure that you praise them in the right time and don’t ask too much too soon. There is usually a lot of waiting around at the shoots, so the dog needs to learn to settle. If possible, I do some tricks or some bits of heelwork in between the drives when nothing happens, or just put the dog back in the car for some down time. The high level will be when you can have your Toller off lead during the whole drive with birds dropping dead here and there. But if you are not aiming for high level field trials, don’t push the dog too much, all true working dogs do run in and go and fetch that one bird that they cannot resist. The funny thing is that it happens both in very inexperienced dogs, when they just want to go and get every single bird, but also in very experienced dogs when they think they know better than you do when they need to go and get that bird, and sometimes they are absolutely right, you haven’t seen that runner drop, but the dog did, and he just went and did his job. For me personally its all in the balance, all depends on the drive, on the shoot, on the people who organise it and people who are standing next to you in the line. There are drives when my experienced dog will be off lead all the time, but there are other drives when there is no way I will let him off lead until the drive is finished.
Birds are expected to be retrieved tenderly to hand, being a soft mouthed gundog breed there shouldn’t be a problem with that. I personally never had an issue with my Tollers shaking, plucking, or eating birds they suppose to retrieve, but I have seen it done by other dogs, again there are means of training to teach dogs to retrieve tenderly. On the shoot dogs need to hunt, face different types of cover or even retrieve from the water, find game and bring it back basically. Some directions from the handler are a must, but generally dog should be able to work independently on a certain area you are given. Mine two work very differently, Dingo will cover bit by bit very methodically, while Tring will run around million miles an hour in and out of sight (giving me a few heart attacks every shoot!) but still come back with the same result - bird in a mouth, delivered to hand. But the most exciting thing for dogs is to go after a runner (wounded game), both if it dropped in the middle of the field durng the drive or if they found it later on while sweeping after the drive is over. The adrenalin rushes through their body while they pursue the bird and the satisfaction on their faces when they get it and retrieve it back to you (still alive!) is unmistakable.
Dogs have to be able to retrieve any birds, most common are pheasant, partridge and duck, sometimes there are pigeons and very rarely you come across woodcock or may be a goose if you are very lucky. While picking up dogs are expected to go through various type of cover - corn, rape, work in thick bushes, brambles, forests or fields, go in streams or ponds, and all this in all kinds of weather.
Obviously it is ideal to start to teach the retrieves as early as possible, but… there is always a ‘but’ isn’t it? Dingo is not only my first Toller, he is my first dog who I had and trained from 8 weeks old, so it was a massive learning curve for both of us. One of the things he taught me is that all things come in the right time and if your dog refuses to retrieve point blanc then just leave it and come to it later. It is also never too late to start doing gundog work. To begin with I haven’t planned to do any gundog work at all, so Dingo saw a cold bird for the first time when he already was 3 years old and retrieved it to hand absolutely happily despite the fact that he was not keen on dummies at all, still isn’t. 3 months after he saw a bird for the first time he passed a working test on cold game in Russia (I’ve just happened to be in Russia at that point). I must say though that Dingo competes in obedience and is very steady around pretty much anything, so all I needed to prepare him for the test was to teach him to retrieve cold game. It is important to find an article your dog loves to retrieve to teach them confident retrieves and then they will hopefully generalise. Though this ‘not-picking-up-other-peoples-dummies’ thing is very common among gundogs, true story! Tring had very different start in life, due to a recent loss of my Collie, I had no motivation to do any formal training with him, so for most of Tring’s first year with us he was learning things through play, watching his father Dingo and doing just basic stuff around the house and on the walks, but I did do some things strategically different with him, I tried taking all sorts of different toys to walks not only tennis balls like I did when Dingo was a pup, and also the fact that Tring hang around with us on the shoots from 5 months old age helped a lot. He was introduced to birds at his breeder’s home and was always very keen on the picking up and retrieving bit of gundog work. Steadiness and control would have to be trained properly, one day. And then I was brave (or stupid) enough to enter him in Show Gundog Working Certificate test in January 2018, so I had a couple of months to nail the steadiness, control and formal retrieve training. He has abundance of drive and eagerness to work that just needed to be harnessed. So we started with baby steps, learning to hold different object in his mouth and deliver them to hand, to pick stuff from the floor and exchange it to food. I knew I had to be patient and not skip any steps, but I was pleasantly surprised how quickly he figured out what I wanted and in no time at all he started retrieving dummies on the walks beautifully. The next stop was to undo some mistakes he picked up on the shoots and teach him some steadiness. With food and calm exercises we are getting there but he will still whine from time to time and be a bit too eager to after the bird. I know this will come with experience, but I needed a quick solution for the test there and then.
The Show Gundog Working Certificate (SGWC) test itself was held near Bury St Edmunds by the Eastern Counties Golden Retriever Club, who arrange it every year. This test was primarily developed for the Show Champion dogs to prove that they can do the job they were originally bred for, the dogs who pass SGWC test loose the word ‘show’ and become the Champion. To be eligible to do the test a dog has to be qualified for Crufts at a champ show, or have a CC or be a show champion, obviously. The atmosphere during the test was reasonably relaxed and the honourable judges made us feel as comfortable as possible and helped and explained as much as they could during the exercises. Requirements to pass the test are: for a dog to sit in the line during the drive and gunshots, both on and off lead to evaluate their steadiness and make sure that they are not gun-shy, the dog should not whine or bark while the drive is going, you can talk to your dog and touch them to reassure and calm them down; to hunt for a bird and retrieve tenderly to hand, dog should look for a bird in the area shown to you by a judge, go through some sort of cover, pick up and retrieve bird to hand, the judge will check the bird for damages, if the dog plucked it or handled it roughly, some hesitation and a lot of encouragement is permitted; and do a water retrieve where the dog entered the water and swam freely, the dummies can be used in this part if the birds did not fall in the water. All 16 dogs have passed their test on that occasion, it was a pleasure to see happy show dogs to be fit for function. As a result two dogs became full Champions and Tring passed his test making breed history to be the first Toller ever to get the SGWC. I do very much hope that there will be more Tollers doing this test next year! Sometimes it is also possible to do the SGWC test in conjunction with a Field Trial but it proves to be more complicated and time consuming as judges focus on FT participants first and then do the test with you, this can end up being a very long day for both you and your dog and you may run out of time and not finish your test at all. So I would suggest doing the SGWC test on a separate event like the one Eastern Counties Golden Retriever Club organise every January, schedules are usually available from their website from early September and places are limited to 16 dogs.
Disclaimer: I am in no way pretending to be an expert in Gundog work or training, I have never ever done any formal Gundog training apart from the fabulous Gundog training days that Nick and Yvonne Burchell provide every month or so, and even those I’ve done less then a dozen, and the prep work I did with a Russian trainer to get me ready for the test. I am very thankful to my dogs being fabulous natural retrievers and implement their instincts while they are working. In the article above I am just sharing my personal experience of working with dogs on the shoots and passing the SGWC test. I do train my dogs to a various degree in obedience, agility and rally, they both have rally titles, passed their Gold Good Citizen Tests and are shown successfully in the UK and in Europe. The dogs I refer to in my article are Multi Ch Delongstar Diamond Dream RL6-Ex (aka Dingo) and his son At/Slo JCh Macdreams Trent from Cashel Vale JW RL3 (Imp NLD) (aka Tring).