HERE’S the sales pitch. Do you own a gun dog? A retriever, say, or a cocker spaniel? Would you like to see it trained in the ways of the countryside? Then why not attend a Field Trial? Not only will you see your dog working as it was intended to, out in the open retrieving game, you’ll also experience a friendly sport in the company of other people who love dogs and the countryside just as much as you do.

Now, here’s the reality. Many of the dog trainers you will meet are not very nice people. There’s a good chance they might tell you the best way to train a dog is to hit it, or kick it, or even bite it, or use an electric collar. You might also see dogs being dragged by their ears, or dangled by their leads, like a noose, or hear them yelp in pain as they’re beaten into silence and submission. And if you’re thinking of complaining – don’t bother. Because there’s a good chance nothing will be done.

How do I know this goes on? I know because I have spoken to people who’ve witnessed the barbaric methods for themselves. And the men and women I’ve talked to are not the usual suspects who you might expect to complain about field sports – they love traditional country sports and pursuits and they have shot game themselves. But they also believe that among some of the men and women high up in the world of gun dogs, there is – in the words of one of the people I spoke to – a cult of cruelty.

I should probably explain at this point exactly what a Field Trail is. Essentially, it is a competitive event that’s designed to test the ability of gun dogs in conditions similar to a day’s shooting in the field – birds will be shot and the dogs are trained to retrieve them. The events are run under the auspices of the Kennel Club, but trainers will also sometimes hold more informal training days which involves them getting a group of handlers together to put their dogs through their paces. The owners will pay the trainers for their “expertise”.

The problem comes with the way some of the trainers handle their dogs. One Scottish dog owner I spoke to, who has been training and breeding working labradors for 40 years, says he has seen dogs being abused and beaten, even though the culprit will often try to hide what they’re doing by taking the dog into the woods.

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The man also showed me a video of a training event at which you can see one woman dragging a dog by its ear. You can hear the dog yelping in pain. The problem, says the trainer, is that the men and women handing out the advice are stuck in the old school of the 40s and 50s when it was normal to beat a dog.

To make matters worse, the dog trainers and shooters who are concerned about field trials say there is a culture in the gun dog world that suppresses dissent and discourages anyone from speaking out. One trainer told me she thought treating dogs in a harsh and cruel way was in some trainers’ DNA. “They won’t stop,” she said. But the other problem is dog owners are reluctant to go public because they know they will be ostracised or sidelined in competitions.

And they are right to be worried. The Scottish trainer told me everybody in the gun dog community knows they can’t speak out if they want to keep competing. He also says the Kennel Club’s disciplinary procedures mean that, if there is a complaint and someone does come up in front of a panel for cruelty, the chances are the people on the panel will be friends and associates of the accused and they will be let off. The result, in the view of some trainers, is cruelty with impunity.

I’ve spoken to other trainers and gun dog enthusiasts who take a different view and deny any of this is happening. I’ve also spoken to people within the Kennel Club who say they do not tolerate harsh handling and that if they receive reliable evidence of cruelty, they will follow it up – the problem, they say, is much of the evidence they do receive is anecdotal. One high-up figure at the Kennel Club Ltd said to me: “I think perhaps you’re right people are worried they will be ostracised in some way, or they will get into trouble, but they sure as hell won’t get into trouble from us.”

But the fact that many dog trainers do not believe what the Kennel Club says and do worry about the consequences of going public is significant and means other ways will have to be found to get to the bottom of the problem of harsh treatment. If there is a network of trainers reinforcing each other’s cruel methods, then the Kennel Club or some other organisation will have to conduct undercover work to expose it. Dog owners should also remember that if they witness cruelty, they should report it to the police as an offence under animal welfare law.

There should also be a government inquiry into the training methods associated with shooting and gun dog training in the UK. And – based on what the trainers tell me can happen to the birds – it should investigate the use of alternative methods for gun dogs that involve the use of dummy birds rather than the real thing.

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The Scottish trainer told me, for example, that he has seen terrible mistreatment of birds at training days – birds removed from backpacks and flung into the air, or shot when they are wet and cannot fly properly. On one occasion, he also saw a pheasant having its wings broken and a foot cut off and set free to run away the best it could so a dog could be trained to chase it.

There will be resistance to changing these practices. There will also be objections, as there usually are, that ill-informed townies are trying to impose their attitudes on the countryside. But this is about ensuring that a rule that the Kennel Club itself says it believes in – that you do not need to hit or kick or attack a dog to train it – is obeyed by the men and women acting in its name or under its jurisdiction. Those who break the rule are not dog lovers. They cannot justify what they do by saying they come from the countryside. And their cruel behaviour must be consigned to the past.