I acquired Spencer three years ago from a breeder in Scotland, he was owned by a syndicate and had been a successful show dog with a promising career ahead of him before he managed to knock out his front teeth, he was promptly retired at the grand age of two. Spencer is a stunning dog, he weighs 40kg and is at least 5ft6 when he jumps up to lick your face, which he frequently does. He has a strong head with a few white flecks of hair above his left eye which are battle scars from a previous fight, he has kind dark brown almond shaped eyes and a glossy black coat with dramatic feathering that accents his muscular body. Top judges have struggled to put into words Spencer’s beauty, however very little can be said for his brains. At best Spencer is stupid, at worst borderline retarded. Unfortunately I did not know this when I let him into my life.
Spencer’s first day in our family home didn’t get off to a very good start, he charged into the kitchen, checked to ensure that none of the bitches needed to be mated and mounted all of them anyway just to be sure, he urinated on the curtains, jumped on all the furniture and was so unruly and enthusiastic in his unruliness that we had to tie him to the legs of the oak kitchen table with two leads like a disgraced gladiator. He then spent the rest of the evening panting at me adoringly like some sort of canine pervert. I would decide what to do with him in the morning and assigned him a crate to sleep in overnight. The morning started approximately 4 hours later with Yorkshire Terrier pitched yapping.
Although the daily threats of beatings and euthanasia (and sometimes both) continued, Spencer’s sense of humour and persistence quickly secured him a position within our pack, he loved unconditionally and uncontrollably and so we forgave him for everything, always. As my family regularly work our flatcoats the time soon came for Spencer to join the ranks and attend training with our local club. Our debut was embarrassing beyond belief and can be summarised as follows – no recall, no retrieves and no respect. We were promptly demoted to the puppy class and forced to work on retrieving balled up socks. During our first training season Spencer was used by the trainers Dougald and Calum to demonstrate how to correct your dog when it misbehaved, they used Spencer because, as they both liked to remind me, the one thing you could rely on Spencer to do was get it wrong.
Despite the humiliation we persevered, Spencer desperately wanted to please and you couldn’t fault his enthusiasm (although you could fault practically everything else). We practiced basic commands, steadiness and varied retrieves in the field every evening throughout the summer and gradually we both started to improve, once I felt Spencer had mastered a particular command I would summon my entire family to the kitchen window to watch, however it soon became very evident that Spencer suffered from terrible stage fright. When the shooting season eventually did start I decided to take Spencer beating to introduce him to the format of the day, I got up early to prepare pack lunches, hot drinks and after the meet set off for the first drive full of excited optimism. It didn’t last long, the first gun was fired and 40kg of flatcoat dived under the nearest Rhododendron bush and melted into a quivering, whimpering heap. We were forced to retire early and sent back to help with the lunch.
Refusing to accept defeat the training continued, having never trained a gundog before much of it was trial and error, sometimes all of it seemed a terrible trial and a lot of error. However two years of hard work and dedication later and we are picking up on large shoots with 400+ bag days, Spencer is no longer gun-shy and trembles with excitement rather than fear, he is a fantastic working dog and picks up birds that the labs and spaniels have walked over, he adores water retrieves and being sent into the undergrowth after runners, in addition he always gets complimented by the guns who think he is “rather splendid”. Sadly in November the cottage I was renting in the beautiful Northamptonshire countryside was flooded, this acted as a catalyst for some rather life changing career decisions.
While these life changing decisions were being made I reverse evacuated myself and Spencer to London to live with my boyfriend. Family and friends were horrified, Spencer in London! They couldn’t even begin to imagine the chaos! Determined that we would manage, against all sound advice I moved my large, energetic working dog in peak fitness from the shooting season into a small flat in the middle of the city centre. Only when we were in London did I truly appreciate how much my untrainable dog had come on, the trust we had built up meant that Spencer would follow me anywhere with his tail wagging, without any hesitation he follows me onto the overground, the underground, on buses, on lifts and up and down escalators. Spencer remains steady at my side as we pass men, women and children wearing religious clothing, disabled people in wheelchairs, drug addicts, policemen, street performers, graffiti artists, prostitutes, businessmen, homeless men, yummy mummies, tourists etc etc, he treats them all as a potential friend and giver of food. Because of Spencer I have had conversations with so many interesting people who I would otherwise have passed in the street. Spencer has become the official mascot of the Nike Spitalfields running club, he has been to Canary Wharf, he has commuted through Liverpool Street station at rush hour, been to Richmond Park and not done a “Fenton”, he has been to an aquarium and licked the turtles through the glass, he has been to the London Ice Sculpting Festival, he has taken a dip in the Trafalgar Square fountains, swapped Spaniels for East London Staffies, countryside sticks and stones for city glass and chicken bones, he has taken everything in his stride and we are even planning our debut at Buckingham Palace.
Yesterday I was sitting on a busy tube with Spencer lying at my feet and everyone around me was talking about how perfectly behaved he was and how he must be so used to going on the tube, a true city dog so to speak, thats when I realised that training a gundog is about more than whistles and retrieves. Training a gundog involves creating a strong relationship with your dog so that they trust you to lead them through life and its challenges, whether they be water retrieves or escalators, training a gundog is about creating a dog that is accepting of all people and all situations, a dog who is steady and disciplined. Without even realising it I had somehow reformed Spencer into something resembling a trained gundog! Of course we still have moments of desperation and despair, for example the morning when Spencer rolled in something a homeless man had produced after what was probably a heavy night of drinking and a dodgy kebab (and it wasn’t vomit…), however on the whole things are on the up. I will freely admit that in the time it has taken me to train Spencer to behave in a socially acceptable manner I could have trained 10 labradors to be Field Trial Champions, however I doubt any of those dogs would have kept me laughing through the last six months which have involved leaving home, starting a new job, living alone, floods and norovirus all followed by being unemployed and homeless. I am very lucky to have such a wonderful friend.