What is the future for Peg Dogs in fieldsports

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The Field wrote an article recently stating that Peg dogs are in decline and now tolerated at best. The argument is that shoots have decided to stop guns bringing their own dogs, ideally leaving the picking up duties to the Beating team exclusively. While it’s absolutely fair to assess that there are fewer Peg dogs than there were 10 years ago, I don’t think this is because of shoots dissuading the guns. You have to factor in people’s confidence in handling dogs and whether the average Gun has a working dog anymore. As shooting opens itself up to an increasingly diverse audience, not everyone will want to take on a dog as well.

Peg dogs marking birds
Photo from John Alexander Photography

History

The Peg dog has been a mainstay of fieldsports for a very long time. The image of one man on his dog encompasses this as they head into nature to bring food back for the table. The bond between humans and dogs is thousands of years old, from protecting livestock to a natural security alarm. It then offers little surprise that formal Hunting and Shooting adapted the purpose of a dog. The Setter has been used as a bird dog in the UK since the 1500‘s, used to cover thick undergrowth and flush out birds. In the time since we have seen breeds like the Labrador and the Spaniel come to the fore as driven shooting became more prevalent. The Labrador for its ability in the water and its size and the spaniel for its drive to squirrel through thick hedges and undergrowth.

As we moved towards the modern idea of Driven shooting, we see this image of a Peg dog. Never used to beat or walk up birds, its role is to wait on peg to retrieve shot birds. However, when this began a shot might attend well over 40 shoots a season and the dogs often purchased pre trained. This meant the dog understood its role from day one and practiced this for a large portion of the winter months. Now in the 21st century, we have a diverse range of shots, and its the handful of days a year dogs that potentially cause the issues.

Walked up days

The walked up day was the bread and butter of the working dog. Out all day flushing out game and then retrieving the bird to their handler. These dogs had to be hardy and versatile and ready for everything. To go walked up shooting without a dog would be like clay shooting blindfolded. A good gundog on a walked up day can create the perfect experience, watching a setter nose down and stop on point create an unmatched sense of occasion. As we moved into the era of driven days, the role of a dog became increasingly specialist. It’s at this point we see Urban shots joining the shooting line and the thought of rambling over fells to take a handful of birds didn’t appeal quite like driven days. As shooting became increasingly formal the expectations of the dogs did too.

Edward Dashwood with his spaniel peg dogs

Driven Days have changed the perspective of the peg dog

As Driven shooting became the more popular shooting format the dog’s role adapted. Rather than walking alongside their owner, they’d sit and mark the shot birds and wait till the end of the drive. The job of flushing the birds reverted to the job of the Beaters and this is where we see the division for the first time. As driven days became increasingly popular the Beaters became increasingly professional and their dogs would work up to 80 days a season. In contrast, the average shot would shoot fewer days than their predecessors. The contrast between the two parties has become greater as time went on. As beaters took on as many as 10 dogs and focused on getting the most out of them, the modern peg dog is trained to pick up while being easy to live with. Beaters would look at a 10 day a season dog as somewhat amateur in comparison. Much like comparing an 80 day a year and 10 day a year shot, the composure and skills are different.

Disparity in training

This is where I think the crux of the argument lies. A poorly trained dog has the ability to ruin a drive incredibly quickly. For the veteran beaters and their dogs, there is little chance that their dogs will cause this issue. On the other side, a poorly trained peg dog posses a bigger risk. I’m sure a few of us have seen a peg dog whingeing while tethered to a ground screw desperate to pick up a bird. This is a matter of experience of which is difficult to replicate outside of a shooting environment. There’s no doubt that if the dog got off the lead at this point that it wouldn’t come back. This is ultimately what shoot captains are trying to avoid and the easiest way to do so is to limit peg dog attendance entirely.

Peg dogs with its owner

The Beaters teams of dogs are brought up around shooting and with that purpose in mind. For someone looking purely to have a peg dog its highly unlikely that they’ll do 80 days training with the dog. Thats not saying they’re untrained, there are plenty of seasonal gundogs that are very well trained. However, allowing dogs to work is the only way they will get truly better.

Conclusion

Banning peg dogs as a way of policing the problem won’t solve much. So much of the reason for getting a dog in the first place is to take it shooting. Personally, to be faced with the option of a shoot that allows dogs and one that doesn’t makes the decision quite simple. I’m yet to experience a shoot where I’m not allowed to take my dog but wouldn’t be inclined to return if that was the case. I’d like to think I’ve put enough time into training my dog to know he won’t ruin a drive. However, id be quite frustrated for that judgement to be made for me because he doesn’t beat throughout the season.

Much of the enjoyment of a days shooting is seeing the work you put into a dog paying off with a good retrieve. Id rather see a day where my dog pulled of a remarkable retrieve than take a screamer. As with so much of shooting the enjoyment comes from everything other than just shooting birds. The people you’re with, the location all make up more of the enjoyment than the final bag count. In essence, I don’t believe Peg dogs are going anywhere. I think there may be an impetus on improving the standard of dog. How that looks in practice is another question but I cant imagine you’d have an issue selling a simulated day paired with cold game retrieve practice.

Labrador retrieving a Grouse

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