How we began: Pippa's story

The Gundog Club has introduced the world to an exciting new concept. Graded Training for Gundogs. The Gundog Club's Graded Training scheme was conceived and implemented by gundog enthusiast Pippa Mattinson. This is Pippa's story of how it all came about

How it all began

Late one dark autumn afternoon in 2005 I stood in my kitchen watching my eleven year old son working with a young Labrador pup in the pool of light that spilled out onto the patio through the french windows. It was raining gently and boy and dog were doing some simple heelwork together, she gazing up at him with her tail wagging, and he encouraging her cheerily along at his side as I had shown him.

“When can I take her shooting” asked Tom as he shook off his wet jacket back  in the warmth of the kitchen. His face fell when I replied “Oh, not for a year or two”. He was seriously unimpressed of course, because a year or two is forever when you are eleven. Actually it’s a very long time for most of us

I decided there and then to try and ‘break down’ the training process for Tom. To divide it  into stages, and I resolved to think of some way to reward him as he completed each stage, to give him some motivation.

I enjoy keeping notes on projects I embark on, and dog training is no exception. I also enjoy describing processes in an ‘easy to follow’ format and had some experience of doing this as I had already created effective staff training manuals for some of the team we employ in our small family business. I had also trained as a fitness instructor in the 80s and was used to teaching physical skills in simple stages and constructing lesson plans.  

I had kept some training notes on my progress with previous gundog pups and I set about putting these onto my computer and began writing down my own training techniques in simple instruction form for my son, as if I were creating a training manual.   I had no idea then, that  these instructions would just a few months later  form the basis of my gundog instruction manuals which now sell all over the world.  

The Benefits of Structured Training

All my children have at some point completed some of the  instrumental grades run by the Royal School of Music. Whenever they got bored with practising and felt like quitting, I would say “no problem, you can quit as soon as you have taken your exam” Sure enough, success in the exam would usually be motivating enough to carry them through to the next grade. Most sports seem to have some sort of grading like this. I have spent many an hour with other parents delivering children to and from karate classes and purchasing an ever increasing array of different coloured belts. These kind of gradings help to motivate and encourage students as they undertake the long process of training in a complex skill.  

A competitive sport

There is no doubt that gundog training is a complex skill too, but back in 2005 there was nothing in the way of gradings for ‘gundogs in training’. Certainly not in the UK, and to the best of my knowledge nowhere in the world.

It seemed to me that this was a great shame. We did and still do, however have competitions for gundogs, both in the UK and abroad, where dogs trained to a very high standard can show off their skills, and where the best dog on the day gets to take home an award. These competitions, or ‘Field Trials’ are run through a network of Clubs under the auspices of the Kennel Club.

Field Trials are held under shooting conditions and are a great way to discover really talented dogs.   The KC also run a system of Working Tests which are easier to organise because they consist of artificial ‘set-ups’ and retrieves are usually carried out with dummies. However, Working Tests are also competitions, and only one dog gets to be the winner.

 Standards for both Working Tests and Trials are high, and they are not a suitable place for assessing a young dog during the early stages of the training process.  

A system of graded assessments was needed

It struck me that if the only goal I had had to aim for, whilst learning to play the piano, was competing against some of the top pianists in the country, I would probably never have bothered to learn at all. I doubt if many other people would either.

And I wondered why there was no system of assessment for gundogs-in-training in the UK, no ‘stepping stones’ on the route to a fully trained dog. I began researching training and assessment systems for gundogs in other countries and discovered similar situations to ours existed elsewhere, I did however discover an interesting difference in the USA.

In America, they also have Field Trials, and their Hunt Test system is somewhat equivalent to our Working Tests, but with one difference: Hunt Tests are not competitive. In a Hunt Test, each dog is tested against a standard, and not against other dogs.  Many dogs can enter a test and all those that meet the standard set down, gain their award.  This system is very popular, and runs happily alongside Field Tests.

Gundog handlers seemed to get a great deal of pleasure out of collecting their ‘ribbons’ or rosettes towards each level.  I began to wonder if a non-competitive system would work here in the UK.

I thought perhaps it might. I also thought that it should not be just for dogs that are well under way with their training, but rather take the whole training process, from the beginning in a logical manner, as gradings do in other sports. Like our K.C Working Tests, Hunt Tests set high standards and are not for dogs just setting out on their training, in the way the Grade One Piano, or Violin tests the new musician as they learn their first simple tunes.

In fact nowhere could I find a system of non-competitive assessment for gundogs that followed the whole training process from beginning to end. A daring thought then came to me. Could I create such a system myself? Even if I could, what about my lack of credentials?  

My background

I grew up with gundogs, a Golden Retriever, a Labrador cross, some Cocker Spaniels, a Springer Cross, there were always one or two gundogs in our home. None of them were ever worked, but my mother was an avid obedience trainer and taught me the basics from an early age.

As a newcomer to Field Sports in my early twenties however, I was shocked to discover that my ‘skills’ as an obedience dog trainer did not translate automatically into the shooting field. Controlling a dog in the thrilling environment of a shoot day is not the same as ordinary obedience, this was a whole new world for me and I had a lot to learn.

Looking back now I realised just what a mess I made of the first few gundogs I field trained. Some of the advice I was given was just terrible, some useful, but mostly I just stumbled along, trying to glean as much as I could from books and learning slowly from my own mistakes. I had previously spent three years at University reading Zoology and Psychology, and had studied Learning Theory, but it was a while before I started to recognise this knowledge as relevant to my own gundog training, and  began to put theory and skills together and construct a logical and effective training system that worked for me and my dogs.  

I am sorry to say, I was probably nearly thirty before I started making a really decent job of training my dogs for the shooting field.  

A lot of people are struggling

What I found really sad when I talked to others with working gundogs, even those who had reached quite a high standard, was that so many people shared my own experience of failure – often with several dogs.   It is clear to me that most people starting out training their first gundog ‘mess up’. Many fail to establish proper foundations of obedience so that future training is doomed. Many more create behavioural problems in their gundogs which they then struggle (usually unsuccessfully) to eliminate.

I have now been involved in shooting for over thirty years and have seen a great many working gundogs in action. My husband and I have spent over twenty years running pheasant shoots in the South of England, and it is always a shame to see how few gundog owners reach high standards of teamwork and partnership with their dogs, and how many dog owners really struggle to achieve a most basic level of control.

For those that do succeed it is one of the most rewarding things on earth. To work in partnership with an animal, to do an important job of work, outdoors, in the fresh air, and best of all to see a dog enjoying himself in the role for which he was born and bred. The sense of pride you feel when your dog does well and is admired by all,  is just unbeatable.  

The status quo

Knowledgeable help for novice trainers in 2005 was often restricted to Clubs and Societies that were sometime cliquey, and often very focused on competitive gundog work. Training within these Clubs, was and often still is divided into just two or three levels such as ‘puppy’, ‘intermediate’ and ‘advanced’.

Unfortunately, the actual process of gundog training had also acquired something of a reputation for harshness, and even cruelty. I only became aware that we in the gundog community were still perceived in this way as I talked to other dog owners from all over the world on the new internet forums that began springing up during the years prior to 2005.

Dog training methods have moved on since I first became involved with working gundogs in the 1970s. Most dog training disciplines or sports have moved away from punitive training methods, but it is probably fair to say that some members of the gundog community have lagged behind a little in this respect.

There was no doubt in my mind that this was putting off a lot of potential supporters for our sport from becoming involved in gundog work.  

Gundog training is for everyone

There are close to 100,000 pedigree gundogs registered with the Kennel Club each year in this country and probably as many born again that are not registered. Gundogs account for nearly half of all pet dogs in the UK.

All gundogs have powerful hunting instincts and many of them cause problems for their owners. I have always believed that gundog training and gundog work is the ultimate experience for any gundog. That view has deepened over the years

I began to feel more and more strongly that many more people might experience a sense of pride and pleasure in their dogs, and that many more people might be able to join in our wonderful sport, if they had a structured system for training their dogs as working gundogs, using modern reward based methods.  

Where to begin?

But how could I set something like this up? I had few contacts in the Field Trial community. I did not compete in Field Trials, or belong to any Field Trial Clubs or Societies.  I did not even know if my idea would be welcomed by those in the competitive gundog world. But the idea would not go away and I gradually began to formulate a framework as to how my structured gundog training scheme might work.

It would have to be non-competitive, I was sure of that. And divided into separate Grades. I felt that the eight grades that comprise instrumental awards was probably too much and that six grades would be more appropriate for gundog work. With the final grade taking the dog up to or above K.C. Open Working Test standard. This would provide a programme of training to take the working gundog right from six month old puppy to fully trained working dog.

There would have to be some kind of test or exam at each stage. A 'Field Test' for gundogs in training.

The scheme was beginning to take shape now, but I knew I could not do it on my own. I also had no idea how to organise a Club or a Society, how to run a committee, or a charity. All I knew, was how to run a business.  

Deciding on a structure for our organisation  

I talked to my few contacts in the FT community, and they seemed to think that Clubs already struggled for volunteers to run the tests, trials and training session they already arranged. The general consensus was that they would be most unlikely to want to give up any more of their free time for nothing. Which was fair enough. But what if we were to pay those that carried out Field Test assessments?   

What if my Graded Training scheme for Gundogs could be run as a business? With students paying to take the tests, and trainers paid to Assess them? Perhaps we could sell dog training equipment and the profits from this could help to subsidise the tests and keep costs down?

I began to design a framework for a national Graded Training scheme for gundogs, with six grades and a Field Test assessment at each stage. The scheme would be promoted through a dedicated website, run as a business with training equipment sales subsidising the cost of the Gradings. The organisation was to be called ‘Training for Gundogs’  

Getting some help  

I knew that if I were to be taken seriously by the gundog community I would need to get some experienced help on board.  A panel of experts, to guide me, and advise me on the structure and content of each Grade in the scheme.  

My next task was to draft a letter to some well known members of the Field Trial community and some of the Field Trial enthusiasts that I had made contact with through internet forums, asking for their help. I set out my idea and objectives clearly, posted my letters and waited with baited breath!

In the meantime I turned my attention, to the construction of a website. I had never made so much as a single webpage, and had no idea how to go about doing so. So I purchased a copy of ‘microsoft frontpage’ and a book to guide me, and set about making my very first website.

After a while, replies to my letters began to come in.  Helping a person completely unknown by those in the Field Trial community to implement something so very different for their sport was a risk to experienced and established gundog trainers. Fortunately some trainers liked my scheme enough, and were brave enough, to take a chance on me. I soon had sufficient experienced gundog trainers to make up a ‘panel of experts’ and to make a start on designing the scheme.

‘Training for Gundogs’ was launched in January 2006 along with the first Grade One Test for gundogs, and I began to attempt to recruit a network of experienced gundog trainers to act as Assessors across the country. We set up a desk and telephone in a corner of my family’s company office and I began looking for an administrator.

My eldest daughter Sam was at that time taking a year off from medicine. She had recently qualified as a doctor but was thoroughly disillusioned with the treatment of junior doctors and medical students within the NHS. She decided to help me by working as an administrator for a few months whilst we got our working practices and systems established. Sam has never left and is now my co-director and runs the operations side of the Gundog Club

We registered our very first Assessor on 15th January 2006 and sold our first Grade One Test entry on 27th February that same year.  

The birth of the Gundog Club

As is the way of teenagers, rock stardom beckoned and gundog training rather lost its appeal for my son. I modified my instruction book originally intended for him into a step by step manual for all novice gundog trainers teaching them the skills they would need to pass our Grade One Field Test. We had it printed with a simple ring binding and plastic covers. The book was called Passing Grade One and we sold our first copy on the same day that we sold our first Field Test.  

During the next few months we set up a Limited Company for us to trade through and at the suggestion of one of our panel members we renamed the business ‘The Gundog Club’.  My Graded Training scheme for gundogs was at last underway.  

Creating the Grades

I had decided to create the Field Tests in each of three categories of gundog work, consulting with the relevant members of our panel for each category. I was very well aware that our panel were busy people and initially they gave up their time helping with our test designs, so I tried to make the system as easy for them as I could.

For each new award I first set out a Test Design Introduction document. This document asked a whole range of questions, the answers to which would enable me to create a ‘first draft’ of a test design that they could then comment on and amend.

The questions I asked ranged from how the panel felt the broad layout of the test should feel (duration, location, etc) to the range of skills which should be tested at each stage, and the level at which each skill should be set. I used my own knowledge and experience of gundog training to determine the appropriate questions. I then created a reply ‘form’ which enabled the panel member to answer yes or no, to a whole range of questions,   and to tick boxes for their choice. I also included boxes for them to type in extra comments if they wished to do so.

Based on the panel’s replies, I then created a ‘first draft’ test design for each Grade. This would be offered to the panel in the same way with a reply form for them to create amendments.

Sometimes there would be disagreements between panel members and I would have to make a final decision on test content based on being true to the objectives of the scheme and on keeping a degree of conformity across the various categories.

None of our panel were familiar with formally breaking gundog training down into such very small stages but they threw themselves into the concept with enthusiasm. More recently we have paid panel members a fee for their time and expertise in the development of the Grades. The Gundog Club has now launched five of the six retriever grades, four of the spaniel grades and two of the hpr grades.  

These are named Grade One Retriever, Grade Two Hunting Retriever (which is now widely known as Grade Two Spaniel) etc.  I created each of the current Grades in turn, with the advice and support of my panel of experts, and my co-director Sam Austwick.

This is the very first time such gradings have been introduced into gundog training and I am very proud to be the originator of these gradings and their grade names.

Graded Training, Grade One, Grade Two etc when used in the context of gundogs and gundog training, are all trademarks and the Gundog Club is the only organisation licenced to use these names at the current time.  

The development of the Graded Training Courses

I had anticipated that a lot of people who hoped to work their dogs in the future, would train their dogs,  perhaps with the help of the books we provided or with private trainers, and enter our tests when ready. I had also assumed that Field Trial Clubs and Societies would see this as a helpful and motivating way of preparing their members for competitive fieldwork.

I was wrong on both counts. A lot people were interested in our field tests, and in our books, but they didn’t want to train alone, they wanted us to provide the training and to learn in groups with other gundog owners. Some of these were people from the shooting community but many were simply pet dog owners who wanted to ‘have a go’ at gundog training. Nor was there much sign that Field Trial Clubs or societies were yet interested in our Graded Training Scheme.

Demand from the public for us to provide training for the Grades increased and in Spring 2007 we launched the UK’s first Grade One training course for gundogs. Interest in the courses escalated rapidly.

The Gundog Club now trains about a thousand students each year on our courses and these rapidly become the Club’s main source of income. This significant influx of newcomers into Field Sports is a very welcome one and I and my daughter feel honoured to have been the instigators of it.

Some of our students have been training with the Gundog Club for several years now and are beginning to compete and win awards in KC competitions.  We now have about a hundred trainers registered with the Gundog Club and a waiting list of experienced trainers that want to work with us, and our books have received outstanding reviews.  

It has been a long journey and we still have work to do as the final grades are developed. But it is extremely satisfying to see the pleasure that so many people are now deriving from gundog training, that would not previously have thought of attempting it. It is also tremendous to see our vision and hopes justified as complete novices demonstrate that you can go from puppy to competent gundog, and even to successful competitor , in one smooth journey and on the very first attempt, without any ‘ruined’ dogs. No years of mistakes and ‘messing up’, just successful training, step-by-step with the Graded Training scheme.    

Footnote 1: The development of quality control

The Gundog Club has an international reputation as a provider of structured step-by-step training in the form of its national Graded Training Scheme. It is also developing a reputation as a provider of quality controlled gundog instruction of the highest standards. Students training with the Gundog Club can be assured of an instructor that has met and must continue to meet the Gundog Club’s standards of performance and conduct at all times.

Five years of very hard work have gone into the development of the Graded Training scheme by those that are committed to the benefit and welfare of gundogs and gundog owners. The Graded Training scheme, the Grades that make up the Graded Training scheme, the Field Tests and the books that support the scheme are the intellectual property of scheme founder Pippa Mattinson. The Gundog Club is the only organisation permitted to make use of this property in any shape or form. Pippa and her team are committed to upholding this right and ensuring the preservation for the future, of the high national standards in gundog instruction that have been based on her ideas and designs.

Footnote 2: The changing structure of the Gundog Club

InIn June 2011 a new charity was born.  Founded by Pippa and run by a group of five trustees,  the charity is called The Gundog Trust and is dedicated to Gundog Training and Welfare.  Sam and Pippa have donated the Gundog Club to this charity.   The Gundog Club is therefore no longer a business.  You can read more about these changes and about the history of the Gundog Club in or history section