Award-winning dog trainer Ben Randall — who looks after the dogs for everyone from David Beckham to Gordon Ramsay — happened upon his own approach to training which made him hugely successful. These days, he's sharing the secret, and Paula Lester paid a visit with her labrador, Nimrod. Photos by Sarah Farnsworth for Country Life.
‘Would you like a dog that sits and stays, comes back when it’s called, greets people nicely without jumping up and doesn’t bark or chew its bedding?’ asks Ben Randall. ‘Well, I can help you get that.’
This might seem like a bold statement, but it’s an incredibly attractive proposition, because for those of us who own a dog, there’s no greater source of pride than a companion that excels rather than embarrasses. It’s an aspiration that I’ve tried to reach with previous dogs and a goal that, when I got my labrador puppy Nimrod three years ago, I was determined to achieve. However, despite my best intentions, life — not least a very busy job on Country Life and a lack of confidence in my own ability (although I’m a gamekeeper’s daughter and am married to a retired keeper, my dogs have always been somewhat unruly) — soon got in the way.
At first, I was fortunate to have help from family, friends and a talented local trainer. Nonetheless, I struggled to attain the steadiness required in a reliable retriever and, somewhere between last year’s various lockdowns, I almost gave up. Almost, but not quite, and especially not as pictures and videos posted by a Herefordshire-based dog trainer kept popping up on my Instagram feed.
I’d heard of Ben Randall before: he’d made field-trial history when winning the Cocker Championship back-to-back for the first time in 39 years with Field Trial Champion (FTCh) Heolybwlch Fatty in 2011 and 2012. Yet, I’d never seen his positive, reward-based training methods — which use meal times to teach dogs patience, steadiness and drive — in action before.
There was something that caught my eye about the way his dogs were allowed on the sofa at night, but, when out training the next day, ignored all distractions to bring retrieves straight back to him. And, in April, when Ben launched the Gundog app, featuring videos of short, easy-to-follow lessons, I knew this was the training regime for me.
‘I know that, at times, dog owners feel under pressure,’ empathises Mr Randall. ‘You feel stressed that all the lessons you’ve had aren’t working, but these methods will work, because I’ve proven they work with thousands of clients with all sorts of dogs all over the world.’
That is not to say, however, that it did not take him a few years to come up with a way of training that would help even the busiest people with their dogs. Brought up on the outskirts of Bristol, Ben, 46, has long had an affinity with gundogs, beginning with Tess, a lab he used to take wildfowling on the Somerset Levels with his father. Later, he spent his school holidays helping his uncle, a professional labrador trainer. But it wasn’t until he was living and working as a grounds manager at Bristol Grammar School, where he was also a rugby coach, that he came up with his Beggarbush training foundations.
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In those days, Ben and his wife, Nikki, then a primary school teacher, kept a Jack Russell along with working labs and spaniels at their house in the school grounds, which backed onto neatly manicured rugby pitches.
‘I would use them to train my dogs to retrieve on the white lines,’ recalls Mr Randall.
‘One day, I put a bowl of food under the rugby posts to teach my dog to run in a straight line because it could see the bowl.’
Next, he placed a bowl on either side of the posts, to teach it directional commands, from left to right, followed by sending the dog for one bowl, then asking it to stop, before sending it in the opposite direction to the other bowl.
‘I thought, my god, this is a good idea, then developed it until, eventually, I had taught my dog nearly everything at feed times by the time it was six months old.’
It was using these methods, together with the realisation that he’d given one of his first cockers, FTCh Cheweky Housten of Beggarbush, too much freedom — by encouraging, rather than harnessing, her natural drive and instincts, making her hard to handle — that led to Ben being so successful with her half-sister, Fatty.
In addition, he and his wife bought a rundown boarding kennels near Ledbury in 2009 and moved there with sons Joe and Jack, transforming it into a five-star establishment used by the likes of the Beckhams, Gordon Ramsay and BBC news presenter Kate Silverton, where canine guests stay in a calm, relaxed, home-from-home environment. Managing the kennels and helping so many animals with all sorts of issues, from barking to pulling on the lead, has not only given him more time to focus on his dogs, but has further cemented the trainer’s belief in his approach.
‘I’ve studied human and canine psychology for more than two decades and I know that anyone can follow the Beggarbush foundations, because everyone has time to feed their dogs and to make them sit patiently as they do other things,’ he says.
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Those who follow Ben’s Facebook or Instagram accounts are able to see how effective these methods are by watching his yellow lab puppy Bonnie’s rapid progress, who at only 14 weeks of age is performing extraordinary feats.
Although my dog, Nimrod, has some way to go to match Bonnie’s promise, I’m pleased to confirm that he did not disgrace himself by chasing Mr Randall’s hens. In fact, I was bowled over by the assertive, but kind and consistent manner in which this highly intuitive trainer got him working so well. Within 15 minutes, Nimrod was walking to heel, jumping fences like a gazelle and delivering to hand.
We’re not perfect, by any means, and Ben sent us away with lots of homework, including not talking too much or repeating commands, as well as continued work on his delivery (with and without a dummy) and walking to heel. However, I’m chuffed that Ben thinks my dog has natural ability and motivated by how simple it is to follow all the necessary exercises via the Gundog app.
‘We can have a vision of the dog we want in two or three years,’ says Ben. ‘But, if we want it to last for another 10, we’ve got to build good foundations.’
For one-to-one training sessions with Ben Randall (@beggarbush on Instagram), for £80 plus VAT, visit www.beggarbushgundogs.co.uk ; unlimited access to Ben’s app costs £25 per month; for dog-boarding gold service from £40 a day plus VAT, telephone 01531 670960 or visit www.ledburylodgekennels.co.uk
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