Making, Not Finding
My golden FT Ch Littlemarston Comma of Wydcombe was whelped on August 26 1984, gained her title on January 9 1990 and died on June 3 1997. Active and thrilled to be included in any training activities right to the end she did not long the survive deep surgery which failed to get to the root of the problem which first been similarly operated on in January. Though she must have been in massive discomfort she, not for the first time, had given no hint of a problem, the seriousness of which shocked the vet when he investigated. Always readily cooperative, the practice considered her its easiest patient. We simply had forever to guard against supposing her sound when she was in fact carrying some ailment or injury. We did not always succeed.
Making, not finding is my title for this piece because her career exemplifies a point whose importance can't be over-emphasised. When it comes to strategy with dogs there are those who seem to think they will be able to find what they are looking for. They seem to achieve a remarkable turnover of dogs and, since sentiment often decrees that some are kept, quickly become over dogged. The alternative approach concentrates on doing whatever is necessary to make something of what you have, recognising that all dogs are individuals and that each will need some training particular to it. Of course in practice it's not quite such an either or matter: but the point is worth making that way because the difference in underlying philosophy is fundamental.
Patience matters and, as the late Eric Baldwin used to remark, "there's many a dog ruined before it's four". Similarly Bob Baldwin, three times a winner of the Retriever Championship, used to counsel against running dogs in trials in their season and was wary about giving them experience on runners until they were really mature. Making haste slowly was a precept I had in mind when I acquired Comma and it was underlined by her breeder Michael Dare's comment to me when she was still quite young that it hadn't really come together with her dam' FTCh Holway Calla, until she was three.
Calla was the main reason I had been so keen on the puppy. She had been regularly shot over and, though never extensively trailed, had won three open stakes in successive seasons, suggesting a sound temperament to go with her uncanny sense of where the game might be. At the conclusion of one of those wins I saw her twice immediately pick a bird from a copse after the other final round dogs had worked long and hard for their finds. A seemingly innate ability to put herself right in relation to the work she had to do never deserted her. Game finding is what really matters and on that score she had real quality.
She had been put to FTCh Holway Trumpet and since I had his little sister Holway Cymbal of Wydcombe I felt I had a good sense of what to expect from the mating. As well as three seconds in open stakes she was an incredibly reliable test performer with a good few prestigious wins to her credit. Imagine, then, how disconcerting it was to find myself, in Comma, with a young dog who quite simply seemed to lack the fire that, more than anything, I associate with the Holway goldens.
The training diary speaks plainly of my impressions. Time and time again I am writing that 'she never looks at all exciting' though I concede that Comma - named after the butterfly rather than the punctuation mark - does do things very efficiently. She marks well, mostly puts herself right for the wind and invariably stays in the area of the fall. Reading through those pages and pages of entries the word I keep finding myself using to characterise her work is 'sensible', a quality which- though admirable - would, I felt, be unlikely to catch the eye of a judge.
What Comma seem to lack was drive. She was a charming and undemanding dog about the house. There was none of that pushy nosing of one's arm when seeking attention: instead she would sit politely alongside and offer a paw. Endearing as such self-effacing mannerliness undoubtedly was, the diary brutally records my doubts about the quality as applied to work. With Comma twenty-six months old the carefully considered phrase 'hopeless prospect' appears after one particularly uninspiring session.
But drive alone is no virtue. Indeed, Vincent Routledge, in my favourite gundog book, The Ideal Retriever and How to Handle Him, is careful to distinguish drive and determination when setting out the primary qualities required in a retriever. Dogs with determination will 'go on hunting until call up' and will 'nearly always face punishing cover when required', he writes, whereas drive is 'all to often applied to a dog which hunts wildly and wide, never marking good the ground as he goes.' Before determination, though, Routledge put nose and brains. And on those criteria Comma was as impressive as she was disappointing on the speed stakes.
I had determined early on that there was little point in running her in working tests which would surely highlighted her shortcomings without providing an opportunity to display her better qualities. And though I, perhaps, under-valued them at the outset they were very real. They were what I had to work on. For she would always show a more than usual readiness to adjust her pace to suit scenting conditions and an ability to hold the merest touch of scent. She came into her own on game and became reliable on runners. With some relief I came to see that a dog which I had almost discounted and whose career was, in some respects, unconventional nonetheless had prospects. In the event she put together a creditable trial record which, amongst other awards, included three any variety open stake wins: the first of them a 24 dog stake, which she won with impeccable marking and eyewipes, made possible by acute nosework. In the trial which made her up she did her best work third dog down on birds that were never found, owning lines that others had been unable to acknowledge and trying desperately to make something of them. Her performance in an invitation test at Sandringham some months later prompted one of the judges, the late Cicely McMullen, to sympathise with Comma who seemed to her to be working under sufferance.
She was. There never was any point involving her with working tests. Gamefinding was a different story though. And together with her unfailing equanimity it made her a marvellous dog to shoot over. Most shooting dogs become sweet old things in time. Comma always was. She may not have been a dog to make the hairs on your neck stand on end, but she was utterly well mannered and totally sound. She never anything nor made a sound whilst working. A thoroughly good sort in fact.
Marilyn, my wife, who had championed Comma's qualities whilst I was still dwelling on her shortcomings, tearfully eulogised her as someone 'who spoke to everyone and made no demands: a very important person'. I could only agree. You really miss a dog like that.