Gus, Jenna and Tia
Since Barry has taken over the feeding of the animals (which has turned into a scientific exercise) they, or the Labradors at least, have honoured him as their leader and follow him everywhere.
This slavish devotion (no, I’m not envious, really!) is most noticeable around meal-times – theirs, not ours, although they’re pretty keen when we’re eating – or rather when Barry is, because he frequently gives them small titbits and puts his plate on the floor for the bio-wipe of eager tongues. (All dishes go into the dishwasher!!)
However, they are almost as dedicated to dogging his footsteps whenever he goes upstairs because ascending to the upper floor may mean that he is about to don suitable footwear for walking – and that means there will soon be an opportunity for much retrieving and splashing about in water and mud and hunting in undergrowth and bracken, brambles and bushes.
Retrieving is as instinctive to a working Labrador as swimming is to fish but they each have their own methods. Gus, the youngest, not quite two years old, watches carefully and races to where the Aqua Kong lands. Once in the general area he relies on his nose to locate it. Jenna, six years old, anticipates where it will land and dashes off – cheating, really! Our daughter’s dog Tia is ten and she watches even more conscientiously and notes where it has dropped. She is not as speedy as the younger dogs and has not yet learnt that the quickest route is over ground. If the Kong has landed on ground on the opposite side of the water she swims across while Jenna and Gus sprint round the edge. The three of them are more evenly matched in the water but while Jenna and Gus leap out at the closest point to land, Tia continues to swim back the whole distance. Foxy, Gillian’s fox red Labrador is six but does not compete with the others – they are faster and she knows it. She has retrieving practice with a sturdy stick. In fact, she is perfectly happy simply swimming but we encourage her to retrieve. Her fastest retrieves occur when biscuits are involved!
We have never trained our dogs for field trials or to the gun, which is a crying shame really as they come from generations of Field Trial and working champions. However, they have a good life with plenty of opportunities for mental stimulation and to use their skills. When I throw the Kong into a pond or lake and they all reach it at the same time it often gets pushed under the surface and then they look as though they’re dipping for apples as each tries to grab it. I’m sure I could train them to take part in synchronised swimming as they spin round in the water.
Sometimes the Kong gets entangled with water plants or simply sinks into the sludge and then they are thoroughly exercised looking for it. A couple of days ago it became completely immersed so that all that could be seen was the knot at the top of the attached rope. The dogs could smell it, even under water, and as they bobbed again and again for it their coats rapidly changed from black to chocolate – apart from Foxy, who went a rather attractive bi-colour red and brown. Gus, a very keen bobber, soon had a mud-covered face, but, undeterred, continued to work.
Now, the bitches - my youngest daughter hates me calling them that so, okay, the girls have superior sighting skills – I think it’s something to do with having the responsibility for bringing up puppies – but even so, Jenna, the champion spotter, needed a lot of direction to find the knot. I did a good deal of pointing and encouraging and eventually she saw it and caught it.
They are such willing workers and it’s a wonderful sight to see the three blacks and occasionally a fox red, quartering the ground and working together in the undergrowth, tails wagging all the while. We can always tell when the quarry has been found because the tail wags become much faster.
But before that comes the trotting in time, like two pairs of carriage horses, clattering across our bare floors after the Master. They stamp around our bedroom, playing rough and tumble, before following Barry down the stairs again, attached to his heels by invisible cords.
Getting into the car is a noisy business, with much pushing and shoving and complaining. Gus performs a neat body slam to Jenna as he leaps and twists in the air to go in hindquarters first. Foxy and Tia, knowing the attractions ahead (much water) behave like most young children on holiday, squealing with delight and being grumbled at by the grown-ups. Jenna and Gus are quiet and Frodo only has eyes for me.
And when we reach home again, with five tired, grubby, wet dogs, Winston is at the door, miaouing a greeting and asking us where we’ve been.