ou can do better than that!" Mick said, when he heard that I was getting another Irish water spaniel to take the place of Jake, the water spaniel who I had just lost to cancer at the cruelly young age of six years. Mick is a dyed in the wool springer man and field trialler - and his wife always has a bevy of sleek, black labrador bitches jostling for position at her left heel. Mick was my shoot captain. He had taught me to shoot and invited me to join his syndicate.
Five years later I reminded him of his remark. We were shooting together, standing on a sticky, ploughed hillside. It was the end of the drive with pheasants lying dead on the field around us. I had left Jiggs, my IWS, safe in the Land Rover. There was a field road at the bottom of the hill that bisected this drive. A water spaniel with pheasant in his nostrils just may not hear a whistle if a vehicle came along. Dogs and traffic don't mix.
As the beaters came out of the wood with their dogs, I asked one of the men with a springer to have a look along the hedge at the top of the hill. During the drive I had shot a hen pheasant which had lain, apparently dead, on the winter wheat. As I picked up my birds at the end of the drive and moved towards the hen, it came to life, scuttled up the field, over the brow of the hill and into the hedge.
The beater with the springer came back from his search empty-handed. I got Jiggs out of the vehicle, re-crossed the road, set up the dog with his nose pointing uphill, and said, "Get back!" The dog galloped away kicking up the soil behind him. He reached the top of the hill, stopped, and turned. "Back!" I signalled, and he disappeared over the crest of the hill. Some minutes later he re-appeared with the bird in his mouth, joyously racing down the field, ears flying, bald tail waving, and curls bobbing. "That was a bloody good retrieve," said Mick.
Jiggs is now in his ninth shooting season. He has been my constant companion, fulfilling the English Kennel Club's description of the Irish Water Spaniel as an "all round gundog". He is my peg dog, my beating dog, my picking-up dog, my pigeon-shooting dog and my wildfowling dog. Picking-up on commercial and large private shoots he has retrieved hundreds of pheasants and partridge, as well as ducks and geese, rabbits, several woodcock - and one hare. Some of those retrieves are quite memorable. They give me pleasure in recalling them.
Incredibly, his first ever retrieve on fresh-shot game was of a Canada goose! We went along to an event arranged by the Sporting Irish Water Spaniel Club when he was about ten months old. We arrived at about seven in the morning, in the dark, on a blustery, wet, December day to an area of former gravel pits which had been flooded and which attracted a multitude of water fowl. The guns were already busy shooting as we donned our waterproofs. The dogs quivered. As well as giving experience of a shooting situation, there was also a judge assessing the dogs in turn as he asked them to retrieve.
I remember the secretary of the club panicking as he sought a boat to row out to an island where his champion bitch IWS was caught up by something under the water. During this emergency, a goose was shot as I was called in by the judge. It landed on the open water, swam to an island where it tucked itself under some overhanging willow branches, died, and over-turned.
"Do you think your dog will bring that goose?" the judge enquired.
I didn't answer because I didn't know! But I set up the dog and sent him over towards the island. He swam through the willow curtain, and tried to hold the bird. Eventually he grasped it by the top of the wing and swam in a curious side-stroke back to where I was, beside the judge. I was bursting with pride as the young dog dragged the huge bird out of the water just as the champion bitch freed herself and swam back to her handler.
A couple of years later, I recall a rough shooting occasion, with Jiggs hunting the reeds around a fairly shallow lake dotted with islands, on one bright, frosty morning. The lake was covered with a veneer of ice. Suddenly, a dark coloured cock pheasant chortled and rose vertically - clattering out of the cover at the approach of the questing water spaniel. Almost instinctively, I shot the bird and it fell dead into a circle of water, kept ice-free by the paddling of half a dozen ducks. All that could be seen of the pheasant was a long, black tail feather sticking out of the water. Before I could stop him, Jiggs had waded out to an island, then pushed off from the island into deeper water toward the pheasant. He heaved his legs out of the water, crashing his front repeatedly onto the ice, making himself a passage until he reached the feather. He pushed his head under the freezing water to take a firm hold of the bird, and returned triumphantly - incredibly brave, and incredibly foolish. The farmer who witnessed that retrieve still reminds me of it five years later.
"Get over!" I commanded. Jiggs disappeared into the reedy cover down the steep bank. Then silence."
Up until twenty years ago, the best Irish water spaniels in the show ring, were used out in the shooting field - and also in tests and trials. The situation is changing. Just as we now have whippetty, working-bred labradors compared to their more statuesque show cousins, there is a smaller, faster IWS emerging, bred to win gundog working tests. (They will never win field trials, because too many have a tendency to whine.) These smaller dogs bear little resemblance to the over-coated, over-large water spaniels that can be seen at dog shows. Jiggs is show bred, but from lines which have always been worked. He even had a second prize, in a class of nine, at Crufts! But in gundog working tests he is invariably pitted against the working bred dogs.
Jiggs was drawn to run first at a water test in Shropshire. The first exercise involved two retrieves. The dogs saw the first dummy thrown along the opposite bank of a fast flowing river, which was about twenty yards wide. After making that retrieve there was a blind retrieve behind, where a dummy had been hidden in a hedge bottom. Dog, handler and judges were standing about ten yards back from the bank. The dummy was thrown on the other side of the river.
"Send your dog!" said the senior judge.
"Get over!" I commanded. Jiggs disappeared into the reedy cover down the steep bank. Then silence. There was no splash. The senior judge stepped forward to look down the bank. I was tempted to ask the judge whether the dog was in the water yet, when Jiggs appeared, swimming strongly, already half way to the other side. He tried to scale the almost vertical grassy bank. Repeatedly, he slipped back into the water only to swim along a few more yards to find an easier exit. Making an almost super-canine effort, and using his dew claws, he finally heaved himself up the bank. He trotted to the right where he had marked the dummy, picked it, then returned to face me across the water.
Momentarily he paused at the top of the bank. "S**t!" I thought. "He's going to look for a bridge!" But then he slithered down the bank into the water and re-appeared on my side of the river, where he put the dummy down for a shake, before delivering it. "Marks lost there," I thought, as I set him up for the blind, which he found without problem. For the next hour I watched incredulously as the other competitors, the cream of British working bred IWS, all failed to complete the exercise. None could make it up the far bank. I need not have worried about that shake. Jiggs, the show-bred dog, won the test and no other prize was awarded!
There was another noteworthy retrieve three years ago. At the end of the day, Jiggs and I were standing well behind the guns, picking-up, with our backs to the big wood which contained the release pen. The pheasants were flying well on a brisk wind as they soared fast over the guns with most escaping back home, unscathed. One hen bird, though, dropped a leg as she was hit. But she had set her wings and glided high above us back into the wood far behind. I turned Jiggs to face the wood. "Get back!" I had little hope that he could find that bird. It was needle in a haystack time, but we had to try.
Jiggs leapt cleanly over the pigwire fence, topped by a rusty barbed strand. At first I could hear him crunching over the dead leaves, pushing through the bramble. Then silence. Five minutes passed. It felt like half an hour. Where was that bloody dog? I imagined the chaos he could be causing back at the pen. Was he having a gay old time chasing the exhausted birds that had just escaped the guns? I scrambled over the wire and went into the wood. I stood in a clearing and whistled. Nothing. Not a sound. I called his name. No response. I stood for many more minutes, peering into the gloom of the darkening wood. Just as I decided to go deeper into the wood, something pushed me from behind. I turned and there was Jiggs, carrying a bright-eyed hen bird with a dangling, bloody leg. "You old b****r!" I said as I took the proffered bird from him. He had obviously been back to where I should have waited, then had had to come back over the wire with his prize to find me.
Who said, "Trust your dog?" Jiggs had taught me another lesson.
Last February, Jiggs had had a hard season. In addition to my own shooting, we had been picking-up on a large estate for several days each week. Jiggs was tired. His once velvety-brown muzzle was scratched and raw. The hair around his eyes had disappeared; the coat on his shoulders was thin where he had forced his way through bramble. He had no topknot. For a month we just walked out to the shops for the newspaper. We went to the park and did a little obedience to get him back on the whistle. The excitement of the birds, the guns and the other dogs had made him a little wild.
Then we went pigeon shooting. The farmer telephoned to say that the birds were hitting his oil-seed rape. Could we help? We set up our hide outside a wood in an enormous field. There was a stand of three oak trees in the middle of the field about 250 yards away. The wind was brisk and blowing at my back. And the pigeons ignored my decoys. Instead of gliding into my pattern of birds, they flew over us, fast and high, back and forth from the wood. There was some test shooting and Jiggs was needed to find dead birds which had dropped behind us. I added the fresh shot birds to the decoy pattern.
I then hit a bird which flinched and flew on strongly, to land in the oaks in the middle of the field. Twenty minutes later, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed it drop dead out of the tree. I lined Jiggs up. He needed to ignore the decoy birds and get out beyond the oaks to pick up the scent on the wind. Down the field and through the decoys he went. When he was level with the trees, but twenty yards out to the right, I blew the stop whistle. The revision had worked. He sat and looked back at me. I gave the left signal. In he moved toward the oaks. "Peeep!" He stopped again. I sent him back. He turned on a sixpence as he winded the bird, scooped it up, and cantered back up the field through the decoys. We didn't shoot many birds that day, but we had protected the crop. And most importantly of all, my dog was fit to work again.
Since last October, Jiggs is enjoying the shooting season again, but he is sharing the work with his young son, Jazz. Dave, a friend of Mick, who runs a shoot on which we work, looked at me quizzically when I mentioned that I had a son of Jiggs, as much as to say, "You could do better ...!" This is the same Dave, who at lunchtimes on shoot days will ask Jiggs and I to go out and look for the runner that the other dogs couldn't find. Can I do better than have yet another Irish water spaniel? Maybe. But it wouldn't be half as much of a challenge, or a quarter as much fun. The joie de vivre of this clown of the gundogs, more than makes up for his independence of spirit and (sometimes) misplaced initiative.