Kate Fenton

 

Books
The Colours of Snow
Dancing to the Pipers
Lions & Liquorice/
(US) Vanity and Vexation

Balancing on Air
Too Many Godmothers
Picking Up

 

 

JOURNALISM

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 of inspiration.

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 shoots.

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 book.

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 mat.

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 times.

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 but firm.

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.’

Bertie sat.

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 jump.

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’ means ‘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