Let me just start by saying this isn’t the glorified ‘play with dogs all day’ image that it may portray! Sorry to disappoint! 

I started off as a 19-year-old ‘poo picker’ working in a boarding kennels full time while studying a law degree. The man that owned the kennels was a very passionate shooting man, old fashioned and mad about his Gundogs, running a picking up team of his own in the Angus glens in Scotland. He soon asked me to take part in training and breeding his line of Gundogs. Oh, how lucky I was! I didn’t know it then but this was the start of my everything! The first dog he gave me was a beautiful fox red Labrador – May! (Some of you will know that this girl is of course now mine, and my dog of a lifetime) During my five years here I trained dogs through their foundations and worked them for their first season in the field. We then decided which dogs were kept to breed with, to put on his picking up team, or to sell to fellow shooting men and women/gamekeepers and the like as their forever field companion. I loved this job, thoroughly. And I loved the world that I was so unexpectedly introduced to. 

I met my partner and moved to England, putting a hold on my studies – as you all may know the legal and educational systems differ from Scotland and England. This ‘break’ became a lot longer than expected, turning into wonderful Wildnook Gundogs that I am so very proud to own today.

So getting down to business, what do we do? Well, we work 6 months of the year picking up on grouse estates and pheasant estates 4-6 days a week and the rest of the year we train hard and also produce what we deem to be fantastic examples of Gundog breeds that we all treasure and love. 

So 12th August hits, those tweeds go on and the dogs, especially May, start doing their excitable wiggles and dances as I let them out of their kennels for their morning walk before heading off! We of course, start with the grouse season. In my opinion, no other game bird compares to them! They come so fast and thick that sitting at the back of those butts on a shoot day is such an incredible thing to watch. The dogs mainly sit and observe here. As you gain experience in this craft you start to learn what to look out for; that bird flying past with a leg down, a towering bird in the distance that’s coming down hard. Each picker up marks these and as your dogs evolve in the sport, they start to pick out the injured ones to go back for also (this is one of my favourite things to see click in a dog’s head). You work in a team of usually about five pickers-up with 5 + dogs each. This year I was given the opportunity to run one of the picking-up teams I’m on, being the ‘head picker up’ for the first time ever. This was an unbelievable privilege for me. As with other careers, the milestones aren’t as clear in mine, but this was certainly one to feel proud of. I work with some incredible people in this industry and some fabulous handlers with unreal packs of dogs and it’s always a huge compliment to me to gain their respect. 

Moving onto pheasants. This is the tricky part after approximately 3 months of covering huge amounts of ground, constant cover and the dogs hunting rapidly, gaining the fitness and mentality even top athletes would dream of! We now ask them to steady up and watch as birds fall closer and more frequently around them. I love the change of scenery here; it allows for different challenges for the dogs hunting skills. Instead of scenting rapidly and constantly, covering every inch of thick heather on what are mostly blind retrieves, we now ask them to hunt the woodlands, the game crop, over rivers and up steep banks. I could go on and on about every inch of a picking up day, and how much I adore it, but before we know it, the season closes and it’s back to the training board. 

A lot of my dogs are older and experienced, however, there’s always something to tidy up, something to correct, or a young one to bring on in this game. We also pride ourselves on producing some fabulous stamps of gundogs. I am fairly new to doing this under my own name, as breeding is not something to be rushed! Each litter is well thought out and planned, and done so only when each dog has reached both mental and physical ability and also thoroughly proven themselves in the field. Selective breeding is something I’m so very passionate about, as breeding to improve on each dog and the future of each breed is something I strive towards. Our past sportsmen worked thoroughly to create these types of dogs who do their jobs so beautifully; they have soft mouths, steady head carriage, and the utter desire to hunt and retrieve and it should only get better! 

My top tips for bringing up a gundog? Training is so diverse. Every dog and aspect of gundog work can differ so variantly. Some advice that I feel applies to all Gundogs over all is as follows: 

  1. Get that eye contact. If you’ve nailed this, a strong foundation to build on is there. All my dogs look to me when I say their name, in any circumstance. And if they don’t, it sharp gets corrected. This to me is the core to any training and can be started as early as day one at home! 
  2. Don’t rush! A dog should not just be physically, but mentally ready for each part of its training and working process. Most experienced dog handlers would tell you a dog most certainly shouldn’t be out working in the field under a year old, as tempting as that may be. Get them out on a lead to experience the environment by all means, but don’t expect too much too soon. A dog’s maturity develops so much in these first stages that you’re only asking for further problems and having to go over things again later on as your dog’s maturity redevelops. Your dogs will work for you all of their life, the least you can do is allow them their puppyhood. The main things to work on in the first year are confidence and character, it’ll make for a better dog, later on, trust me.
  3. A very personal one for me but take them EVERYWHERE! Training doesn’t just happen on dummies or on your local dog walk. As soon as we can we take them (on a none COVID-19 year) to many popular walks, in the lakes, dog-friendly restaurants and pubs, family events etc. This allows you to teach your dog how to behave correctly in every situation, with many different types of people and multiple distractions and temptations. This also sets them up perfectly for a shoot day and means you rarely ever have to be without your four-legged best friend! 

Hopefully, this gives some of you who didn’t know or was curious as to how a picking up day may go, or how I’ve managed to build a career out of something that is a hobby to most. It’s not been easy, and there have been a few years of little financial gain and some confidence knocks! But I truly, truly love it and I’m getting to a point where I feel I can confidently say it’s successful after a lot of patience and hard work. If anyone wants to know more, please feel free to contact me. As always, sharing stories, memories, and achievements with you girls is always a pleasure! 

Written by Natasha Roberts