WHO SAYS A WOMAN CAN'T TRAIN A DOG?
When Kate Fenton became a gundog owner, a battle
of wills began in which there could be only one winner
Soon after dawn on Friday, wearing stout
boots, flat cap and with the bright-eyed fervour of a convert, I
will be driving down the A1 to the CLA Game Fair at Harewood House.
Never mind the falcons, ferrets and fancy pullovers: I’ll
be heading straight for the gundog area, a humble pilgrim in search
It’s two years now since I leant over a squirming basket
of pot-bellied springer spaniel pups and chose the perky chap who
bounced up and bit me on the nose. The grand plan was that I would
train little Bertie to come beating and picking up with me at local
His qualifications for this enterprise were more impressive than
mine. He had a sporting pedigree as long as a horn-head stick. I’m
a reformed townie who only recently stumbled into these muddy pursuits
by way of exercising a neighbour’s dog. To the bemusement
of my friends, however, I took to the field with born-again zeal.
I’d never trained a dog before – never even owned one
– but so what? My generation believes an intelligent woman
can do anything, given time, determination and the right instruction
I would gaze down at this silky-eared bundle of bliss, coiled tight
as a walnut on my lap, and imagine him leaping a dry-stone wall
with a pheasant in his mouth, just like the pictures on a dinner
If tweedy shooting types are spluttering at this supposed gundog
snoozing on a lap, too bad. A heart of tungsten couldn’t have
resisted Bertie at this age. Do not suppose, however, that I approached
his education in a frivolous spirit. An astronaut in training for
his first Moon landing could not have prepared more rigorously.
Even as we cuddled together, Bertie and I would be watching Gundogs
for Beginners on video, and the house was stacked with every kind
of dog book: pet-care guides and studies of wolf-pack psychology,
as well as the hard-core shooters’ manuals.
I was gratified but unsurprised to find that house-training proved
a breeze. As per chapter one, I wheeled Bertie outdoors after meals,
praised the ensuing performance and watched like a mother hawk between
We progressed to outdoor exercises. No fancy field manoeuvres yet,
just the stop-go obedience expected of any park-trotting pooch.
But although my clever lad grasped the commands fast enough, he
was reluctant to heed them if engaged on more pressing business.
Still, a flick through the wolf psychology books identified the
problem: Bertie had not recognised me as leader of the pack. Dogs
are hierarchical pack animals who don’t see us as the master
race, just as peculiar two-legged versions of themselves. Thus the
keystone of training is establishing your status as top dog. Actually,
all my manuals agreed that you must show the pooch who’s boss.
Where they differed was in method. Pet psychologists come from Venus,
the double-barrelled brigade from Mars. Unfortunately, even as I
pondered a putative Third Way, Bertie was conducting his own researches
into the bounds of the property.
Occasional, illicit dodges through the hedge led inevitably to
the day he found himself – oh bliss – in the pheasant
wood. Thereafter, a gate left ajar or a mouse-sized hole in the
defences of my hastily chicken-wired garden meant the lad was away.
His concept of field sport seemed to be having his owner chase him
across as many as possible.
The neighbours were richly entertained to see me stagger back from
another two-hour chase, muddied, bloodied – and dogless. They
knew where I was going wrong, of course, and, being Yorkshiremen,
didn’t hesitate to tell me.
Women are too soft of gaffer a dog – fact. And I was barmy,
picking a lad, because any fool knows bitches are more biddable.
Actually, I’d have done better with a Labrador – another
apparently well-known fact being that spaniels are a pheasant short
of a brace in the brain department.
And, oh, how they laughed when, resorting to a lead, I was catapulted
past their gates behind my turbo-charged dog. ‘Don’t
let him pull,’ cried my mentors. ‘Give him a tug.’
I did. My fingers sprouted blisters, then calluses. Finally, I put
my back out.
I think it was then that some sage suggested I spend £20
on castrating him. Outraged as a Mafia mama, I pointed out that
this hoodlum in the field remained the most loving little poppet
in the lap.
If this suggests that the locals had a point about female soft-heartedness,
let me tell you that even the crustiest old gundog manual concedes
that brutality is not the answer. The enlightened trainer is kind
However, while all my textbooks, with rare unanimity, insisted
that retribution must instantly follow the crime, they didn’t
suggest how I was supposed to communicate my kind but firm views
to Bertie when he was a dot in the blue yonder. I’m a pinko-liberal
child of the Sixties, and find the prospect of inflicting pain unspeakable,
but I steeled myself to punish him when he returned – to no
effect whatever. Bertie would eye me in surprise, palpably unable
to account for my tantrum, but big-hearted enough to overlook it.
Anyway, once you’ve whacked your pet on the nose with a rolled-up
newspaper and he promptly repeats the offence, do you go on and
on? I settled for eating cream crackers in front of Bertie’s
twitching nose, each night for two weeks, before dishing up his
dinner. The leader eats ahead of the pack, remember. By now, I was
so obsessed I’d have eaten ground glass – and we hadn’t
even mastered Step One in the most basic pet manual: calling puppy
back to you.
The cracker-munching, though, did seem to inspire a certain respect.
So I took him into the field, slipped off his lead, and –
wham! – he was over the horizon.
Now, if you’re accustomed to succeeding, and haven’t
flunked a challenge in your life, defeat by a small dog comes as
something of a humiliation. Needing help, I found a gundog training
class, 40 miles away, on a grim Sunday morning. My hopes, never
high, plummeted as my hell-hound plunged barking and slavering into
that sober circle of Labradors, like Sid Vicious at choral evensong.
‘May I?’ inquired the genial cove ringmastering the
event. Relieving me of Bertie’s twanging lead, he gave it
a gentle flick. ‘Sit.’
Dave, the genial genius running the gundog class, had my monster
trotting in circles without even asking his name. One glance was
enough for Bertie to recognize a true-born leader of the pack.
Having equally unerringly identified me as one of nature’s
lackeys, he reverted to hooliganism the moment we got home. But
Bertie’s roving days were now numbered, because I had booked
myself in for tuition with Dave.
A year on, I’m a changed woman. Dave put me in touch with
my inner despot. If I truly believed Bertie was going to obey me
– not difficult, with Dave looming behind me – he did.
Those soupy brown eyes would fix on mind; I would nod; he would
It’s true that, in the absence of the maestro, rather more
faith was needed, bolstered by some sneaky props – such as
a water pistol, a painless deterrent for bad behaviour – but
that was the turning point. Nowadays, phrases such as ‘back
to basics’ and ‘zero tolerance’ trip from my once-liberal
lips. As Dave says, there are no compromises in this business: ‘sit’
I no longer read books, I read my dog. I recognize the frantic
tail-flapping provoked by a hot scent, the wandering eye of boredom,
the lip-licking of submission.
Even though I sometimes wonder how the new me will go down at the
dinner tables of Islington, I expect to feel quite at home at the
game fair. After all, today Bertie leapt a dry-stone wall with a
dummy pheasant in his mouth and delivered it straight to me.
©Kate Fenton 2002