"You just can't put a price on a good dog, I'm telling you... its impossible."
Dogs in Westmorland not only worked alongside their masters in partnership as they gathered up sheep or herded cows. They also set the pace in two traditional Lakeland sports, at hound trails and fox hunts. This week our series on animals recalls the important role that dogs have always played in local life.
Hound trailing, as a sport, only dates back about a hundred years, and began as a working man's pastime, with the chance of a flutter at the bookies'.In its early days in the 1900s, it soon won the support of the famous "Yellow Earl", the then Lord Lonsdale, who gave it the landowning seal of approval. But the trail was a place for men, never women:
"I go to hound trails today and I see all these women trailing these hounds and all with these men and I'm absolutely flabbergasted. They wouldn't have had them in those days, it was a mans' sport... an ordinary mans' sport like greyhound racing is today", one lady remembered.
As a small girl she shared her father's enjoyment of his trail hounds and recalled how the champion cup-winning strain was lost when he went to the First World War. He loved his dogs so much that he treated them rather too well and they never won him much prize money:
"I tell you, in his latter days, it was just a waste of money going to trails and paying an entry fee because they were too well kept to run. He loved his dogs, he really did. They did win money but it wasn't like it is today. First prize might have been #1. Well, it was nothing when you'd paid half a crown for an entry fee and you'd probably had to walk there."
"When he didn't want to sell one he used to say it was mine. 'I can't sell it, it belongs t'lass.' And I always remember he got #40 for a hound which was a marvellous price in those days because they used to sell them for #2.10s. for a dog and #2 for a bitch."
Sunday morning was medicine time for the dogs:
"He used to open their mouths and I had to give them whatever they were having. He was a big believer in Benbows for dogs and Friars Balsam for their feet, and then he had a marvellous salve they used to make that used to be clear cork, saltless lard and sulphur. And he used to burn this cork - I can see that shovel now on the fire, down to black, then he put sulphur in it, then this saltless lard and it would mend anything for his dogs."
To breed a good foxhound, no money ever changed hands. If a pack knew of a good fell bitch, the dog would be lent on the understanding that there would be a puppy back from the resulting litter. Each foxhound would have its own individual cry, usually recognised only by the Huntsman:
"I could set them hounds off in t'morning and I could be shouting, 'Try away up' or if one was come out I would shout 'Hark!' to this hound because I would know which it was by its mouth....they're all different, a different tune. Some are squawky mouthed and some deep mouthed, then there's some in between."
Young foxhounds often learnt to hunt coupled up to an older hound:
"Some of them will take to it straight away, there's only the odd one that's a bit late in getting a start to work, you know. I nivver known a hound that didn't hunt, no, nivver known one. There's some lazy ones, some of them that cuts corners, they're not all alike, but it takes all kinds to make a pack of hounds.
"They cut corners because they're intelligent, they've summat in their noddles to tell on, in their knowledge box. Some hounds, you know, by gum, they've a good cast with them. What I mean is, say they're running a line of a fox and they come to what we call a check. Well, they'll cast out, you see, cast away out both ways. One with a cast'll strike line, happen say thirty or forty yards away, strike line where its gone. It'll give mouth right off, and then the others will go to it."
A sheep dog has what it takes right from the start - or it hasn't and you might as well not bother trying to train it. A good sheep dog was essential:
"You couldn't do without a dog or you couldn't get anywhere, because sheep knows when you haven't a dog, and it knows if you've a dog that isn't up to much because they'll go all ways on you."
Two old farmers likened their sheep dogs to children:
"You fetch them up from puppies and they go with you every day. They're like children, some is very quick and some you wouldn't make a dog out of them if you had them twenty years. Well, children are the same, you know."
Or, to put it another way:
"A lot depends on the dog. If its there, its no trouble. Its like a child, if its there it doesn't want any learning. If it isn't there, you'll not make it, you'll not get it cos I've had good dogs and bred pups off them and never had any that's any good. They're just useless. Well, t'only way to learn 'em is to take 'em with you and they'll start doing it as pups, they'll gather the hens up, all that kind of craft, without being taught."
When it came to buying a pup, a farmer would avoid a timid animal:
"First one to reach you - have that one. Its sharp. If they're not much good, they're timid, they'll sit back. You know what a dog does, if its a bit timid it will come to you, but if you have one that you've looked at and that one comes running to you, cheeky beggar, have that one."
Training a sheep dog is largely based on developing the dog's natural instincts:
"You take it with your older dog and let it in fields round about but you can't let it on the fell or owt like that. When you whistle to the older dog, the pup goes with it. As soon as you whistle, though they don't all do that, and of course it must be instinct."
A good puppy would start work at six months and be working alone by a year old and continue to work until it couldn't work any more, sometimes ten years or more. Bitches were considered better than dogs because they learnt quicker. One farmer bought a 'wall eyed' or 'China eyed' dog at an auction for a rock bottom price and got himself a bargain. Wall-eyed dogs have a white iris in one or both eyes; the dog was sold and re-sold at a charity auction until it was finally purchased for #1.10s, very cheap considering that sheep dogs could and did fetch as much as #8 as far back as the 1920s:
"I bought it and I kept it because I didn't think it would make any more, its gitting that low down (in price) and we put it in a sugar bag and fetched it home and we had it thirteen years and it was a grand 'un!"
"But it must be instinct. You taught a dog, it knows what you're saying. If we're going for a walk from the house, you say, 'Come on' - and they know, don't they. Must be the same way as learning a blinking parrot, which must be a harder job, mustn't it? You just get stuck in there."