How a Derbyshire website designer created the UK's largest online dating agency for gundogs
PUBLISHED: 12:05 17 March 2015 | UPDATED: 12:05 17 March 2015
David Marley discovers how a love for man's best friend inspired Steph O'Brien to create a dating agency for working gundogs
It is often said they are man’s best friend but to Steph O’Brien his dog is also the perfect hunting companion. ‘My wife says I spend more time outside in the countryside with my dog or inside the house on my computer than I do with her,’ he smiles cheekily. ‘I love being with Oscar, my five-year-old cocker spaniel, exploring the Derbyshire countryside, hunting and shooting pheasants, rabbits and partridge – to me it is a way of life.’ The 43-year-old website designer, who lives in Ashbourne, recently combined his passion for gundogs and his professional computer skills to create the UK’s largest online directory for gundog breeders.
In recent years the popularity of the gundog has dramatically increased. High profile and famous gundog owners, combined with popular television dramas featuring the working breeds, such as the labrador, spaniel and pointer, led to the gundog becoming the ultimate canine companion for families up and down the UK. ‘After the Duchess of Cambridge was photographed training Lupo, her adopted working cocker spaniel in the gardens of Kensington Palace, the popularity of gundogs has soared – and who could not be moved by the final scenes of Downton Abbey at Christmas when Lord Grantham said a tearful farewell to Isis, his beloved faithful old, yellow labrador,’ reflects Steph.
The intensified popularity of the gundog has also led to a number of problems. There has been a big rise of reported thefts in recent years – dognapping in Britain is on the increase, with almost 3,500 estimated cases of dog theft in 2013. Criminal gangs are now targeting kennels and vehicles containing gundogs at shooting events throughout the UK, with the cocker spaniel being victim to the biggest increase in reported thefts.
An increase in unscrupulous dealers selling working dogs to people as family pets has also created difficulties. ‘Many new owners do not understand the traits and needs of the gundog – they have been bred to hunt and are not always suitable as pets,’ says Steph. ‘Typically, working dogs are very driven and focused; many unsuspecting new owners may find them too hot to handle. After all gundogs need to be worked and if they are not they will soon start to find mischief.’
Five years ago, when Steph started to look for a new puppy to train up, he began to discover how difficult it was to try and buy a working dog. ‘At the time, I found it really hard to find a good resource of breeders and puppies for sale. I became increasingly irritated that I couldn’t find the information I needed to connect with breeders without paying a lot of money – and I thought that was wrong,’ he says. ‘I was also concerned with the rise of inappropriate dealing in dogs by dodgy traders, so I decided to do something about it by setting up a free-to-use online directory giving people a definitive list of UK gundog breeders.’
Creating the directory was a challenge to begin with, requiring lots of telephone calls to gundog owners and countless emails to breeders – however, putting the information online was much easier for Steph. ‘I am a website developer and designer by trade, so I was determined to create a website that was very accessible for people to use and engage with,’ he says. ‘I started to spread the message that whether people were looking to buy a gundog, or had a gundog for sale, or even were wanting a gundog for stud, this was the website to look at.’
By promoting the website – www.gundogbreeders.co.uk – on the internet and to shooting clubs it soon started to gain the attention of breeders throughout the UK. ‘They were impressed that the site enabled them to create their own profile pages, which are totally self-managed, as well as creating adverts for dogs and puppies for sale and for stud.’ Steph also created a Facebook page to promote the website and to allow members to keep in touch with each other and share news, such as the arrival of new puppies. Incredibly, all of this was achieved with a budget of only £1,000.
Five years later, he has not lost any of his passion for the imaginative and innovative online project. The site has now been expanded to contain many new features, a lot of which he designs himself. ‘The website now attracts over 12,000 visitors a month, each spending on average over six minutes on the site. It is great to see the website grow – amazingly, we are now the biggest gundog breeding website in the UK, with over 1,500 breeders signed up from as far away as Aberdeen to Cornwall,’ adds Steph proudly.
The website has enabled Steph to link potential new owners to suitable breeders. The online directory helps breeders to select perfect partners for their gundog. Information about each dog’s historical pedigree is available, along with details of genetic disease tests, annual eye examinations, as well as facts about the dog’s ancestors and how well they have performed at past field tests and trials. ‘The quality of the UK gundog is exceptional. It is important to ensure breeding dogs are compatible to stop inbreeding and to preserve the shape, size and conformity of the dog – and all of this information is available on the website,’ explains Steph. ‘A good stud dog can breed up to six times each year. The size of each litter very much depends on the breed – for example a typical cocker spaniel will have around five to six puppies while a labrador could have up to 10 or 11.’ Staggeringly, Steph estimates that since the website was created over 250,000 puppies have been born through connections made via his directory.
Steph is very passionate about the importance of ensuring the gundogs are properly trained and worked. ‘Typically, over 90 per cent of the puppies produced via the online directory will go to working homes,’ says Steph. Some of his more wealthy users of the website even arrange for their puppies to be sent to finishing schools – the Eton and Winchester for gundogs. ‘Increasingly, dog owners with large disposable incomes are sending their puppies to fully residential facilities. The dog will receive intensive training and the skills gained are shared with the owner when they collect them!’
Steph is keen to stress that not all gundog owners are wealthy and live in large country estates. ‘I am a regular person, living in a normal semi-detached house in Ashbourne. I simply have a passion for gundogs, and I work my cocker every weekend during the shooting season,’ he explains. ‘I love the countryside and my family have always had working dogs – going back to my first one when I was a young boy. My current dog Oscar is a big part of my life. We spend a lot of time hunting and we work well together.’
During a formal shooting event, Steph uses Oscar to find and flush out game – such as ducks, woodcock and pheasants – towards the shooters and then by working closely together they gently gather and deliver the animals efficiently and carefully. ‘Cockers have an incredible sense of smell and hearing, making them the perfect companions to work a shoot,’ explains Steph. ‘On one drive I have seen Oscar collect up to 25 ducks, from varied locations, such as hedgerows, dikes and ponds. As a handler I use a mixture of commands delivered by a whistle or a click of my fingers to control the dog’s direction and speed. On a shoot day Oscar will only concentrate on what I tell him to do, no one else matters to him and all he wants to do is work, work, work. Cockers are soft-mouthed so they won’t break the skin or hurt the bird and they always let go when they are told.’ Typically, for a day working on a shoot Steph and Oscar will earn about £20 plus a hot meal. ‘I don’t do it for the money – it is a way of life.’
In addition to attending shooting events Steph also spends a lot of his time teaching basic outdoor skills. Working with the Yeaveley Estate, situated near Ashbourne, he helps organise shooting events and country sporting activities. ‘We work with shooting coaches to improve adult and young people’s outdoor skills, such as clay pigeon shooting, air rifle shooting and crossbow shooting. We also show people how to make a shelter, how to light a fire, basic camouflage skills, how to make a snare, how to skin a rabbit and how to pluck a pheasant. At the end we even get to cook what we have caught,’ smiles Steph.
His passion for gundogs has now become a family affair, with his wife Susan recently starting to train up her own working dog. ‘Gundogs are very special to me and my family and it has been so rewarding to see the website become so popular – I just wanted to be able to give something back to a community that over the years has given me so much pleasure,’ he concludes. n
For more information about Steph’s website visit www.gundogbreeders.co.uk