Is my gundog ready to work on a shoot?

Once you’ve found a shoot, you need to decide if your training has paid off and if your gundog is ready to work in the field.

In the UK there are restrictions as to which birds you can shoot and when.

If you have a gundog, it’s likely that you’ve heard people mention The Glorious 12 before. This marks the start of the red grouse shooting season, which runs from 12 August to 10 December.

While a famous date, most Guns and gundog owners don’t venture up to the moors where the grouse live. 

And so for many normal shooting folk, the real start of the season is 1 September, the date from which you are allowed to shoot partridge.

The most popular pheasant season takes place from 1 October to 1 February. Many commercial shoots focus solely on pheasants, while others only put down small numbers of partridge, and so a lot of beaters and pickers up don’t really get started until October.

Other quarry seasons include the common snipe from 12 August to 31 January, woodcock from 1 October to 31 January, and the duck and goose season from 1 September to 31 January inland, or until 20 February if below the high water mark.

If you’re going out rough shooting, it’s really important you know what is in season and what is not.

Types of shooting in the UK

Now you know what’s in season and when, before you decide if your gundog is ready to go on its first shooting experience, you need to have planned what type of shooting you’ll be participating in.

There are three different types of shooting here in the UK - walked-up, driven and rough shooting.

Walked up shooting

This involves walking in a line with retrievers at heel through the game cover, with spaniels or HPRs hunting in front. The birds get flushed by the hunting dogs, shot, and then picked by the retrievers.

Driven shooting

Most of the commercial shoots in the UK are driven. This is where a team of beaters and their dogs will round up the birds and push them to a flushing point. The Guns stand in a line in front of the flushing point and shoot the birds as they fly over. During the drive, picking up dogs will be sent to retrieve runners and injured birds. They will then pick the remaining birds after the drive has finished. The Guns sometimes bring their own peg dogs who get priority over picking up at the end of the drive.

Rough shooting

This is usually just one person but can be a group of people, walking through cover and shooting the game their dog(s) flushes. Often a spaniel or HPR is used to flush and retrieve, but a labrador could also do the job.

While all breeds can work on all different types of shoots, stereotypically, on driven and walked-up shoots, spaniels tend to be better at beating and flushing the birds, while labradors are better at retrieving them. HPRs tend to excel at rough shooting because they can locate the birds, flush when you give the cue, and then retrieve them for you.

You also need to choose a role that will suit you, as well as your gundog. I have been both beating and picking up, and now pick up regularly on a large commercial-driven shoot here in Mid Wales.

If you like being busy and walking miles through the countryside, then train your dog to beat. If you don’t mind waiting around, then picking up requires a lot less energy from the handler. It’s still strenuous because there will still be miles to cover, and you’ll have to carry birds to the game cart, but on the whole, it is the dogs that are doing all the running around.

Your decision might also be based on what you have access to locally (more on how to find a shoot below) and how shooting will fit around work and your existing lifestyle and routines. For instance, if you have lots of family commitments at the weekends or work shifts and can’t commit to days in advance, you might be limited to rough shooting.

How to find a local shoot

If you plan to work your gundog on a driven shoot, you’ll now need to find a shoot to get involved with.

If you haven't been born into this way of life, please don’t feel intimidated.

I only started picking up with my first labrador Benji, about 10 years ago and prior to that, I had no knowledge or experience of shooting or gundogs.

One of the best ways to find out where local shoots are located is to join your local gundog clubs. You will need to pay a small membership fee each year, but it is a great way to make connections with people in the gundog community and build relationships with people who are already involved in shoots near you.

Another option is to join some of the gundog-related groups on Facebook. There are some specifically dedicated to beating and picking up opportunities, and the general gundog training groups should also be able to point you in the right direction.

Generally, picking up is quite hard to get. Usually, there will be a limited number of pickers up in a team, especially if they have a good number of dogs each. These people tend to be invited back every year and unless they retire or move out of the area, it is rare that a space opens up. Equally, most shoots favour pickers up with two dogs or more, so if this is your first and only dog, it is unlikely you’ll be top of the list.

That is to say that you shouldn’t enquire. Situations change and there are also lots of smaller and syndicate shoots that are run differently and might have availability.

If you are set on working on a commercial shoot, then the best way to get in is to go beating. This might be your end goal, but even if you intend to move on to picking up, beating is a great place to start because shoots are always looking for beaters.

Some shoots will want you to go without your dog for a while. Others will let you take them from day one. While others still will never want you to bring your dog and will only have the keeper’s and underkeeper’s dogs out beating. It depends entirely on the shoot.

Again, networking and increasing your connections within the gundog world can help you to find a shoot that is going to be a perfect fit for you and your dog.

Is your gundog ready to go on a shoot?

Once you’ve found a shoot, you need to decide if your training has paid off and if your gundog is ready to work in the field.


It goes without saying that your dog must be able to retrieve birds and deliver them to hand. They also need to retrieve birds without mouthing them or causing any damage - basically, you want to be able to hand birds over to the game cart in the same condition they came out of the sky.

Your dog also needs to be happy to pick a range of different birds. Some dogs will do this naturally, others, like my dog Angus, will have to be taught to retrieve every different type of bird.

Before you go on a shoot you might want to make sure they have experience retrieving cold game. If you have connections with people who shoot, they should be able to provide you with some birds for training.

For beating dogs, retrieving isn’t necessarily a requirement, but there might be scenarios where you find yourself with a walking Gun. They might shoot some birds which will need to be delivered to hand, just like a picking up dog would.


In an ideal world, your dog would be sat steady off lead while waiting for the end of the drive. If this is your first time on a shoot, or if you have a young dog, it is possible to keep them on a lead to prevent any accidents. If there is a runner, it’s not going to take too long for you to whip the lead off.

What is imperative is that your dog is calm and can cope with the distractions - the noise, the birds falling, the other dogs perhaps picking runners etc. You don’t want them to be lunging at the end of a lead, because it will be a stressful day for both you and your dog.

Beating dogs also need to be steady working around live game and steady at heel.


At the end of the drive, you don’t want to have to line up your dog and send them to each bird, so you will also want to make sure that your picking up dog can hunt and sweep an area confidently.

For a good beating dog, the main thing is that they hunt close, and have a nice quartering pattern to ensure all the ground has been covered.


If you haven’t got a reliable recall your dog is not ready to go on a shoot. As well as the safety considerations of having a loose, uncontrollable dog running around near Guns, beaters will also need to prevent their dog from rushing ahead and pushing the birds forward too quickly.

Stop whistle

There will be moments when you will need to handle your dog onto a blind. This might be a bird you’ve seen fall, or a runner - either way, you will need your dog to be able to stop at a distance and take direction from you.

When it comes to beating, you need to have good control over your dog and being able to stop them quickly is vital. Sometimes the keeper will want to stop the beating line if the birds are being pushed forward to the flushing point too quickly. You will need to stop your dog and they will need to be able to wait until you’re ready to go again.


Nobody wants to spend the day with a noisy dog. Not only is it distracting for the Guns, but is also annoying for handlers.

It just shows that they are frustrated or over-excited and is probably one of the biggest signs that they are not ready to be working in the field.


Make sure you’ve introduced your dog to the sound of gunshot before. Some dogs, even those that have come from working lines, are gunshy or gun nervous.

Depending on the severity, you can work through this, but it’s also about how you introduce your dog to shot in the first place that makes a big difference.

When you do go shooting, just be aware that your dog might find it a big jump to go from the sound of a starter pistol to having loud shotguns right by them, especially if you are very close or right next to the Gun line. If they are a little uncomfortable or anxious, you can still take them as a shoot is the best place for them to make a positive connection between the sound and then hunting and picking up.

The basics

Whether beating or picking up, you need to have good basics in place.

I know a lot of people who do the Gundog Club grades always laugh about the really challenging sit stays, but there will be times on a shoot when you need to leave your dog in a sit to deal with something else.

Off and on-lead heelwork is also important. Even if they can do everything else perfectly, having a dog pulling you round on a lead makes it look like they are untrained. There will be times when you have to walk past the Guns and need to make a good impression. Equally, having a dog that’s not always pulling on the lead will make for a more enjoyable day.

Your dog will also need to be able to work with and around other dogs. So if they are intolerant or have fear issues, then this could be a problem. You do find that most dogs tend not to bother when they are working, but you do then need to keep an eye on them when they’re finished working as this is when they can have a go at another dog if that is in their nature.


Travelling around on a shoot is one thing that I think a lot of people forget about because it is not something formal that we train for.

You might be lucky that the shoot you are on is laid out in a way that you walk to the different drives, but often this isn’t the case.

Often the shoots want as few vehicles as possible driving around and so it’s unlikely that you’ll be taking your dog around in your own car. But the vehicles on a shoot aren’t necessarily what your dog will have been used to in the past. You’ll probably have to put your dog in a strange vehicle or a confined space that they’ve never been in before with other dogs they’ve probably not met before.

If you want more information on taking your gundog on a shoot, I have a replay masterclass which also covers what to wear and what equipment to take on a shoot day, preparing for your first shoot, how the day is run and what to expect, how to humanely dispatch game, carrying game, scenarios on a shoot and how to plan ahead, and some general rules: what you can and can’t do on a shoot. Click here for a beginner's guide to working your dog on a shoot.