Nature vs Nurture

Gundog Journal

Gundog Journal

These blogs are supplied in partnership with Gundog Journal. It’s the UK’s first title specifically dedicated to all things gundog, providing content for everyone who works, owns or simply has an interest in gundogs.

When two dogs from the same family have very different personalities, by Will Hetherington.

In early February my black Labrador Ella turned nine years old. Of course, this didn’t mean a lot to her, but it meant something to me. Nine years is a long time and the bond is strong. We both instinctively know what the other is going to do next. When we go to the car, I know she will wait ten seconds before jumping in, and even then, it will take three encouragements. When I give her a rawhide cigar chew as an occasional treat, I know she will take it away and repeatedly circumnavigate the coffee table for five minutes before settling down to get stuck in. Out on our daily exercise she keeps a regular tab on me when she thinks I’m about to turn and head for home, and she’s rarely wrong.

Problems on the peg

Equally, I know this otherwise sedate dog will go through a Jekyll and Hyde style personality change as soon as I want her to sit quietly by my side on the peg as a steady stream of pheasants fly over my head. She will whine and sometimes even bark and jump, thereby coming close to ruining the drive for me. In short, as a peg dog she is distinctly lacking. She is an excellent retriever and has always been an impeccable companion in almost all situations, but some dogs just aren’t cut out for the peg.

I am no doubt guilty of poor training in some sense, but from the moment I got her I spent time every day on some aspect of general or gundog training and I sought advice. When we had the occasional ‘bad day’ I knew it was best to stop right there, draw a line under it and come back the next day. But she just wants to go and retrieve those birds as soon as they are shot and sitting on the peg waiting is not in her make-up.

It’s never got any better, so I resigned myself to using her mainly for picking-up, but over the years I have occasionally been tempted into trying again, thinking advancing years may have calmed her down but it hasn’t happened. As I mentioned, she’s a magnificent retriever and I remember after one drive at the beautiful Boconnoc Estate in Cornwall when Ella kept going back into a wood over and over again and coming back with a pheasant every time. Even the head picker-up came over at the end of the drive and briefly muttered: “Good dog that”. You can imagine how that brief phrase made my day.

The twist in the tale

I also have Ella’s three-year-old niece Bracken, so it’s interesting to have the comparison between the two. Bracken is smaller and has always been impetuous and occasionally defensive. She tends to try her luck then ask for forgiveness, but in her defence, she always showed promise with the training dummies. The ironic thing is that when it comes to sitting on the peg quietly this otherwise livewire Labrador can do it. She will happily lie down and stay completely still as the drive unfolds. Then when the gun is sleeved off she goes and does her business.

So, what can I deduce from the behaviour of my two Labradors? My older dog probably had more training and is a better-behaved dog generally, but just can’t keep calm on the peg. My younger one is more hot-headed in general life but far better on the peg. They are from the same genetic pool and have both had the same home life and similar training. Therefore, I have to refer back to what I mentioned earlier – some dogs just aren’t cut out for the peg.