Champion gundog trainer Margaret Allen and her Toller Porcorum kennels
PUBLISHED: 16:43 26 November 2014 | UPDATED: 16:43 26 November 2014
Understanding what makes your dog tick can lead to a happy partnership according to champion gundog trainer Margaret Allen. Labrador owner Tony Jackson went to her Toller Porcorum kennels to find out more
By working out how the dog’s mind operates, Margaret Allen believes we can make the connection that leads to a fruitful partnership with the dog. “My approach to dog training is simple... I try to find out how a dog thinks, so I can deal with it in a way the animal understands. It’s a humane way of proceeding because it’s using behaviour traits that the dam or pack leader uses rather than human methods.” Margaret, who lives near the West Dorset village of Toller Porcorum, has gained an enviable reputation as one of the country’s leading gundog trainer. For many years she has studied the behaviour and mental processes of gundogs, animals which are, despite thousands of years of domestication, still pack animals.
Her gundogs, mostly Labradors, have won in field trials, in working tests and in the show ring, its no wonder that her crack team of Labradors are much in demand picking-up on local shoots. Where, I asked Margaret, did it all begin? The surprising answer was Bermuda! Margaret is in fact ninth generation Bermudian and as a child she always had a dog, but it was not until an American lady came to the island to give lectures on dog training that she became hooked. Margaret recalls how she put her 10-year-old cocker spaniel, Rusty, through daily lessons. Later the family emigrated to Western Canada where she acquired a husky collie cross named Skipper who won many competitions for her. The family returned to Bermuda with Skipper and, as Margaret proudly tells me, 40 years later you can still see Skipper type dogs on the island!
Labradors really came into her life when, after marrying, and starting life England, her husband gave her a yellow Labrador. Basic training turned her into a useful dog for rough shooting, but it was not until Margaret met the renowned Labrador breeder and trainer, Audrey Radclyffe, that she really began to appreciate and understand the complexities of serious gundog training.
In 1986 Margaret established her own kennels Tanderswell Gundog Training Kennels in Toller Porcorum. When she first arrived at her new venture, apart from a bungalow, there were just four loose-boxes, two acres of ground and an extremely muddy car park. The boxes were swiftly converted into kennels, and a second kennels was built. Having to service a hefty mortgage Margaret readily accepted any breed of dog for training - from German shepherds to King Charles spaniels. As her reputation as a trainer quickly spread, she was able concentrate on her first love, yellow Labradors.
Throughout the summer Margaret runs two training classes, one on Tuesdays and one on Thursdays, in south and north Dorset. The classes are hosted by very generous land-owners who provide a wide variety of terrain, including water, rough cover and all the conditions a gundog can expect to encounter when working. These classes, as I know from my own experience with a young Labrador, are extremely popular with a wide range of gundog owners; some arrive with youngsters just coming into training, others with older dogs requiring a refresher course.
However, Margaret does not work exclusively with gundogs she will also help people with problem dogs of any type or breed, though she will not have anything to do with aggressive dogs, having once been badly bitten by a German shepherd. “I would never encourage anyone to keep an aggressive dog. It only takes a moment’s inattention and someone can be scarred for life,” she remarks. “It’s particularly sad if it happens to a child.”
The two most common problems she has to deal with, whether pet dogs or gundogs, are pulling on the lead and not coming when called. “A dog tugs on the lead because it can and the owner hasn’t shown the animal that it has a choice, to be comfortable or uncomfortable,” she explains. “While the reason a dog won’t come to call is because it has been allowed too much freedom too early. Once a dog learns that nothing unpleasant happens to it when it is away from its owner, it becomes increasingly independent.”
Margaret is particularly forthright on the subject of making the selection of a gundog which is intended for the field. “The novice would-be gundog owner must take time to choose the right dog. They should find someone they can trust and take their advice on selecting a puppy or, maybe, an adult dog. However, you must be certain that it is the dog that suits you. Hopefully it will be with you for well over a decade as a companion and working animal.
“It is essential that the gundog, whatever its breed, comes from good working bloodlines. Some show-bred dogs can be worked in the field but it is much easier to select a dog that comes from parents and grand-parents with a proven working background,” she says, adding that they should also be Kennel Club registered. Margaret Allen’s thoughtful approach to gundog training is based on years of practical experience and, as she has proved time and time again, she produces dogs which fulfil the job for which they were bred. It is, she says with a wry smile, the owners who often need the training! “Dogs can get off to a bad start through harshness of the owner, over-indulgence, negligence or a complete failure to try and understand the world from a dog’s point of view.”
I was so impressed with Margaret’s approach to gundog training that, three years ago, I persuaded her to write a book explaining her methods. I felt that this book would be of genuine value to both novice and established dog owners. Last year In the Bag! Labrador Training from Puppy to Gundog was published and has proved a resounding success. In it Margaret expands on her methods in detail and with a clear, forceful pen shows you how you can train your dog to be a pleasure to have in the home as well as in the field.
Could a cosseted family pet have potential as a gundog? Margaret taps into Boris’ working Labrador genes
Deborah is the proud owner of Boris, a handsome black three-year-old Labrador bred from good working stock on both sides. However, as Deborah freely admits, he is a much loved family dog and has received only basic training. What, she wondered would Margaret make of him?
It was a fascinating exercise. After a few minutes preliminary sniffing and romping round one of the training paddocks, Boris was told to sit and wait while Margaret threw a canvas training dummy 40 yards away. Deborah was asked to restrain Boris by his collar and then say “hi lost” and let him go. Boris took off in grand style, picked up the dummy and raced back. Although he was at first reluctant to release his trophy, Margaret soon took it from him and the dummy was then placed in front of him and he was made to sit and stay.
Full of energy and eager to please, Boris, said Margaret could have a future as a working gundog but would have to be firmly handled. She showed Deborah the muzzle holding technique. One hand holds the dog by the collar or scruff at the back of the neck, while the other is placed over the dog’s face, with thumb on one side and the fingers lying across the dog’s eyes. Pressure is firm but not a grip. If the dog shows signs of submission . . . putting its ears back, lowering and feebly wagging its tail and panting, then it can be released. If there is resistance, the handler continues to hold the dog until it offers its compliance. This is the same method used by the dog’s mother when, as a puppy, she wanted to exert control.
Sp what was Margaret’s verdict on Boris: “He’s a big, strong dog with lots of talent and he would like to work. He’s riveted by the idea of retrieving dummies and is giving us his full attention, whereas some dogs simply don’t care.” So it’s thumbs up for Boris on his first day at training school!
For more details about Margaret’s training at Tanderswell Gundog Training Kennels in Toller Porcorum visit tanderswell.co.uk or call 01300 321381