Just before Cydney ran off and disgraced me on the first day of the shooting season, she covered herself in glory. This seems to be the way of things with spaniels. They are a bit like children in the sense that, so far as their public performances are concerned, they either fill you with pride or plunge you into an abyss of mortification.
Before she decided to drop me right in it, the little dog performed a really difficult retrieve from a fast-flowing stream. A hen bird was wedged between some fallen branches underneath the current. The head of the picking-up team — who also happens to be the guy who bred Cydney and helped me train her — sent all three of his dogs in, one by one, but none of them could get it out.
The first dog, Cydney’s mother, a truly great gun dog who can usually perform any kind of retrieve, wiggled around in the water, stuck her head under, sneezed, shook her head, jumped back out. The second dog, one of Cydney’s cousins, threw himself in and splashed around manfully to no avail. The third dog, another cousin, managed to locate the bird under the water, but couldn’t pull it free. The dog trainer stood on the side of the bank urging them all to get back in and try again but none of the spaniels was having it. A desperate squeaking sound pervaded the air as they all expressed their frustration with the enterprise.
At this point, I was searching a section of nearby woodland I had been assigned to because it was fenced off. The trainer considers Cydney to be unreliable off the lead, you see, and he blames me for this unreliability. I came to gun dog training for the first year and then it was too hard to fit ongoing lessons into my diary so Cydney had to content herself with home tuition. Like any child whose parents try to educate them at home, she has turned out a little bohemian.
To look on the bright side, for the seven months of the year that she is a pet dog running amok on Tooting Common, picking up empty Heineken bottles, her lackadaisical conditioning works fine. From October to February, when I try to take her out with the shoot, it’s not such an efficient system.
On this particular day, we had done well in the woodland, or rather I had. I retrieved three cock birds from the undergrowth. Cydney was straining at the leash doing nothing in particular to help, but no one need know that. I strode up to the trainer, who was kneeling beside the stream, and held out our haul proudly. He took the birds from me and put them in his canvas game bag. ‘Well done, Cydney,’ I said, ostentatiously patting her.
The trainer didn’t look convinced. But as he went back to urging his dogs into the stream, I had an idea. ‘Cydney loves water. Can she have a go?’ He shrugged as if totally disinterested in this prospect. ‘Cydney,’ I said, taking her off the lead with my heart thumping, ‘bring it! Where is it? Bring it!’ And I pointed at the stream. Cydney leapt straight in and went directly to the place where the hen bird was lodged under the water. The little dog bravely stuck her head beneath the current and came up with the bird.
‘Good girl! Now, bring it! Bring it!’ She tugged and tugged. The bird was stuck fast. But she wouldn’t give up. After a while, she got it free and started dragging it up the bank on the wrong side.
‘Cydney, this way! Bring it here!’ The little sweetheart went back into the water with the heavy bird still in her mouth and climbed the bank the other side to get back to us. She brought the bird straight to me and dropped it at my feet.
‘Cydney! Good girl! Good Giiiirl! My angel!’ I was like the mother at the school concert after the child prodigy performs a Mozart piano sonata.
The trainer harrumphed, tucked the hen bird in his bag and began a sweep of the rest of the field. High on our triumph, I left Cydney off the lead and directed her to join the other dogs to finish the search. Of course she ran off. She hurtled at speed away from us and disappeared into a big wood and all we could hear for half an hour was the scampering and squawking of pheasants as she performed her own impromptu flushing session in the wrong place, sending birds into the air in every place they shouldn’t have been flying. The trainer leaned against a fence with his head in his hands and groaned. ‘Fine,’ I said, ‘so she’s not perfect.’