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Spaniel Training – Ian Openshaw

( published in Spaniels In The Field – summer 2000 )

Watching a young spaniel work I remarked to the handler how much I liked its style and hunting ability, “Aye!” he answered

openshaw2“It’ll win its first stake and will he a Field Trial Champion by the end of the season”. Hearing that from most handlers, you could be forgiven for thinking this was just an idle brag. However, when that handler is British hunting dog trainer Ian Openshaw, you know he not only means what he says but it will happen. As a Journalist, commentator, hunting dog trainer and trials competitor for over 25 years I have been lucky in being able to watch and work with the best in their field and I have no doubt that the best I have seen training and hunting spaniels is Ian Openshaw. He has an eye for a good dog, a natural intuitive approach and talent, understands dogs and their work and most of all works hard at what he does. Often considered outspoken, he has the courage of his convictions and regularly backs his words with deeds. So much so that he is now rewriting the records. He is one of those trainers who can read a dog like an open book, he knows what they are thinking and going to do long before they even consider it and has the ability to build a partnership with a dog that fills you with admiration. He makes everything look easy. I can remember one Championship where game was difficult to find and dogs were struggling to make contact, when in came Openshaw and Rytex Racine. Almost immediately Racine was finding game and producing it for the gun and doing it so well she went on to win that Championship.

In Britain the English Springer Spaniel is a popular hunting companion and spaniel trialing is highly competitive. With any sports there have been the greats, and the heroes and there is no doubt that the name Openshaw in spaniel trialing is now up there among them with the best there has ever been. As always we can debate who was the greatest as we do with any sport, how often have sports fans debated, could Joe Louis have beaten Mohammed Ali or Ali beaten Tyson. We will never know but results and ability speak for themselves.

This year at the 2000 Kennel Club British Spaniel Championship, Ian Openshaw trained and handled cockers to first and second place in the Cocker Championship (the Championships are the equivalent of the Nationals in the US), and English Springers to first, second and fourth place in the Any Variety Spaniel except Cockers Championship. Only one person has completed the double before, winning both the Cocker and Any Variety Championship and that was back in 1927/28 when James Thomson won both, with Mr C.A. Phillips `Rivington’ dogs. There is no doubt today, the number of dogs and arguably the overall quality of dogs running, is much higher. This success in the Any Variety Championship Stake was Ian’s fifth Any Variety Championship win, which equals the record of another great British trainer, Lawton Evans.


Ian Openshaw is a `son’ of British country sports and was introduced to shooting at an early age by his father Jim, himself a very keen shooting man. Born near Wigan in Lancashire in 1960, at the age of seven he shot his first two pheasants with a single barrelled fourteen gauge shotgun flushed out of a field of turnips on a visit with his father to the Highlands of Scotland. By the age of nine he was a very competent shot and is now a first class shot of all forms of game. At a trial last year, that this time Ian had organized, they were short of a gun. Ian said he would stand in and shoot. Not prepared for this eventuality he did not have a gun, so was loaned a very old 20 gauge with a stock about one inch and a half too short. With cartridges he `borrowed’ from his father, he went on to shoot over half the days bag, only missing one bird. One of the judges remarked with a very knowing smile “You missed one I’m going to make a note in my book, it’s never happened before!” Much of Ian’s training involves shooting over his own dogs and he rarely misses a bird or rabbit. His philosophy is that to keep a dog going well and full of drive, they need not only the finds and flushes but also the game to retrieve. He provides them with plenty of game to retrieve.

Ian got his first dog at eleven years of age. His father had bred a litter of English Springer Spaniels and Ian asked for a little black and white bitch for himself. From that time on, his bedside table was never with-out the `Bible’ of British dog trainers Peter Moxon’s “Gundogs: Training and Field Trials” which his father gave him. At thirteen Ian ran this young dog `Jess’ in the North Western Counties Field Trial Associations Novice stake and took second place. This was the beginning of the trial `bug’ which bit very deep into his life. Ian’s ability to get to the trials however depended upon his father `ferrying’ him around but Jim was a policeman and had difficulty getting the appropriate days off.

openshaw1So Jess was sold and the beginnings of Openshaw the businessman were founded. But that did not stop him training and he soon had a second dog “Mallowdale Smut”, again bred by his father. With Smut, Ian this time won a Novice and followed it very quickly with an Open Qualifier. Unfortunately Smut was then struck with Parvo Virus a relatively new disease in Britain at that time and although he survived it, he never really had the drive he had prior to the illness, however he still won a further two non-qualifiers and took second in eleven Open Stakes. Ian was only 16 years old.

Although Ian tried his hand at other jobs it was the countryside and dogs that held the `magic’ and all his spare time was spent training, hunting and working with gamekeepers. By the age of 19 he had trained and sold a few Labrador retrievers for shooting men but it was spaniels he lived for. Around this time his skill with his beloved spaniels was beginning to be noticed especially by well-known spaniel trainer John McQueen, who, upon his retirement recommended Ian to Richard Fair-fax Naylor the owner of Rytex Kennels as his replacement. Ian moved to the Rytex Kennels as dog trainer and gamekeeper on the 4th January 1980. How does he remember the exact date? Well he got married to Wendy his boyhood sweet-heart just the day before. No time for honeymoon, there was work and a new life to begin.

Now the spaniel world really had a partnership to watch for. Equally as outspoken as Ian, Wendy was the perfect match and could work as hard as Ian could any day of the week. In those words lies the secret of their success hard work. Ian often says, “The harder we work the luckier we become”. Luck does not even enter the equation. As a keeper he turned an average shooting day from a forty-bird day into a three hundred-bird day, his ability at dog training matched by his ability to rear and produce birds for the gun.

When he arrived at Rytex, there was only one dog that Ian considered a good competition dog, Rytex Ria. So immediately he started looking around for a good dog from lines he liked. His search led him to Raffle of Rytex which went back to the Rytex lines. Raffle and Ria were now the basis of the new Rytex spaniel lines. The mating between these two produced FTCh Rytex Ruby, FTCh Rytex Rocky of Bellever and FTCh Rytex Racer of Craigfellin. Ria was then mated to Inlers Gruff from Ireland and produced FTCh Rytex Rod. Ian has never been slow to follow his intuition and beliefs and at seven months old Rod was mated to his half sister Ruby. Many would think this a risky mating, a dog so young and so close a relationship. Ian told me at the time “I could not find anything else I wanted to use on Ruby and he looked so good, even at that age”. The result was British Any Variety Championship winner FTCh Rytex Racine, a bitch stamped in the Rod mould with style and natural game finding that was a delight.

Sadly, the owner of the Rytex kennels, Richard Naylor passed away at a very young age missing by only a few months what he always wanted to see, Ian becoming a member of the England Team and running his dog in the International Gundog Event at the Country Landowners Association Game Fair, the biggest in Britain. One of the few regrets in Ian’s life was that Naylor was not there to watch Ian handle his dogs for England, he told me “The governor (an affectionate name for his boss) would have been proud and delighted, I think he was watching over me that day”. Following the sudden death of Richard Naylor, Ian continued running the estate shoot as a commercial proposition for two years, before he and Wendy decided to go it alone and set up their own kennels in Peplow, Shropshire.

Ian and Wendy bought a property, now Rytex Kennels that you could say was “In need of some re-modernization”, how-ever it did have ten acres of land. With the usual Openshaw attitude Ian and Wendy knew exactly what they wanted and had no doubts they were going to succeed. Hard work saw them building kennels, and extending and modernizing all the living accommodation. A visit to Rytex Kennels has your head spinning. The house is never without guests, people talking dogs, training dogs, watching dogs, buying dogs and admiring dogs. The telephone is constantly ringing and if ever there was a hive of spaniel industry Rytex Kennels epitomizes just this. Ian jumps up from his kitchen table after a phone call to America or Japan or wherever a dog is required “Do you want to see this little bitch work?” he asks. “Which little bitch?” I ask. He appears not to hear my question and continues. “She’ll win her first stake this one”. I follow him over to the Rabbit pen. Everything is so relaxed, the moment he has a dog in front of him. Relaxed in an air of concentration, this is the master at his best. He talks to you but his concentration never leaves the dog, he sees rabbits creeping into a corner under a woodpile and works the dog towards them. The style and pace of the little bitch has me mesmerized.

Never changing pace she drives under the cover, two rabbits emerge and she stops inside the cover her nose just peeking out, sitting the moment the rabbits were evicted. Ian appears to have done nothing, no whistle, no words, and no urgency, it all happens like clockwork. “I like her Ian” I smile at the pleasure of watching this little bitch. “Aye she should be alright, she’ll win her first trial” Again he makes the statement matter of fact.

rytexWatching him you can be forgiven for thinking that he is not really handling the dog, but you would be completely wrong. His concentration is total, his reactions immediate and at trials his nerves are jangling, such is his desire not just to do well but to be first. Many who have met him ask when he relaxes and that brings me to some wonderful memories of times spent with him. To go shooting rabbits with Ian is an experience never to be forgotten. Usually you are asked to drive, which believe me is by far the best for your own nerves. Ian gets into the car looks ahead and says “That way” nod-ding his head forward. Within seconds he is asleep in the passenger seat. Not sure where you are? You ask quietly which direction to take, he opens his eyes has a quick look around and gives another instruction before once more falling asleep. I have shared hotel rooms with Ian and even with a wedding disco on full blast directly below us, the television showing a very noisy war film and all the lights in the room beaming brightly, the second he closes his eyes he is asleep.

To bring his dogs to the standards demanded in today’s competitions Ian spares no effort, his life revolves around training and competing with his dogs. Whatever is required to prepare the dogs Ian goes to great lengths to provide it. From June onwards he drives three times a week to the Yorkshire Moors to shoot rabbits for them, a three hour journey each way which means getting out of bed at three a.m. to be there at first light. He then returns home after training them for a second time in the late afternoon early evening, not arriving home until often after midnight. These are important training sessions and essential to prepare for competition. So much so that on one such excursion even the collapsing of a back axle on the dog trailer did not stop him working them. It collapsed on the way up the hillside to the rabbiting ground. Ian took his dogs out of the trailer and told his fellow travellers with a smile “I came to train the dogs, I’m sure you know how to mend that better than me.” And off he went to train, dogs at heel and gun under his arm.

Dedication and determination to be first is the driving motivation, second place does not enter his mind, and even after all his achievements he never considers winding down, laurels are certainly not for resting on. He has more drive and desire to win than ever before and a work ethic that can only be admired, he never stops. To date he has made up to Field Trial Champion status thirty one English Springer Spaniels, six Cocker Spaniels and eleven Labrador Retrievers. In December 1990 he won the Irish Spaniel Championship with FTCh Rytex Racine then went on in January 1991 to win the British Any Variety Spaniel Championship with the same dog. In 1993 he won the Any Variety Spaniel Championship with FTCh Poppet of Balscote and again in the following year 1994 with FTCh Kenine Tina. In 1997 he won the same Championship with FTCh Rytex Rime and then this year the final accolade when he won the Cocker Championship with FTCh Parkbreck Perfection and the Any Variety Championship with FTCh Rytex Roel.

Although I have barely mentioned Labrador Retrievers, He is as good a trainer of a lab as he is of a spaniel. Eleven Field Trial Champions is quite an achievement in any one’s book, especially in Britain, and with one of these dogs, FTCh Swinbrook Twig, in 1987 Ian took second place in the International Gundog League’s Retriever Championship (equivalent to the US Retriever National).

Ian has shown his ability not only as a trainer and handler but also as a breeder of quality dogs. The Rytex lines are now recognized Internationally and Ian’s own dog FTCh Kenine Robb of Rytex was not only top sire of the 2000 Any Variety Championship dogs, with 11 of the 47 qualifiers being sired by him, Robb has produced a record four Championship winners and around 30 Field trial Champions.

Ian Openshaw is generous in many ways hut especially so with help, advice and support to others. He not only has the ability to train dogs hut also to select dogs for other people and show them how to train. Two close friends who he helped and supported have both won the Any Variety Spaniel Championship and another won the Retriever Championship. If he can help in any way he will, but if you ask for advice and opinion expect the truth and it being given straight sometime his words are not for the faint hearted or those hoping just for approval of what they have done or the dog they own.

openshaw3Success and a few years have mellowed the Ian Openshaw I first knew. Although he still has a wicked sense of humor and enjoys ‘winding up’ colleagues, he does not come across as outspoken as he once was. On a trip to America he was once asked at an Open Stake trial whether he thought he could beat the top competitors there. His answer “It would be like taking candy from a baby”. Unfortunately his sense of humor did not ride well with some. The cocky young man of old has now developed into a character who although not humble does not project the swell headed image he once had. He has more than proved that he can do what he says he can do, he is in a class of his own. A class in which he has been more than ably supported by his wife Wendy, herself a first class trainer especially with her first love, the field bred English Cocker Spaniel. Ian is the first to recognize the role Wendy has played in the success of the Rytex spaniels and each time he gives a thank you speech at the end of each Championship he has won, his voice fills with emotion as he thanks her for her support. Underneath that tough exterior there beats the heart of a sensitive man, but don’t tell him I told you!

Over many years I have been fortunate to train with, judge, be judged by, compete against, ghost write for, make videos with, do business and especially visit and enjoy the company of a very good friend, Ian Openshaw. He is to the spaniel world in Britain what Michael Jordan is to basketball or Tiger Woods to Golf. He is the man you have to beat and that is no easy feat. Ian and Wendy Openshaw have made the Rytex name synonymous with quality bred and trained English Springer Spaniels, the records may be in the process of being rewritten hut hold on, at the age of 40 there is more to come. I once asked him when he won his second Championship what he now wanted to achieve. His answer was that every trial was there to be won and the Championship was just another trial. My own personal feeling after many years of friendship is that ‘Opie’ has more drive and ambition to win `the next trial’ than ever before but I have a suspicion that it could be a secret dream to win not only the Cocker and Any Variety Spaniel Championship again but to also win the Retriever Championship, – maybe all in the same year. Impossible? Don’t you believe it when Ian Openshaw sets his mind to something, nothing is impossible.