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Royals

The Queen's top dogs

Corgis once ruled at the palace but the queen has shared her affections

She has loyally served her people for more than 63 years and earned a well-deserved reputation as one of Britain’s most successful monarchs.
But given a choice, the Queen would have much rather followed her real passion in life – breeding and training dogs. And she’d have been good at it – according to one of her staff members, Her Majesty is one of the best dog handlers in the country.
Left: The Queen and her Corgis. Above right: The then-Princess Elizabeth in 1936 with her mother’s corgis. Bottom right: Shadowed by one of Sandringham’s gun dogs in 2009.
Royal insiders say the Queen (89) gets on best with dogs, horses and people – in that order. It’s been suggested that her rapport with dogs is the result of not going to school as a child, and having very few playmates. Dogs became her closest companions and she has been devoted to them ever since.
A few years ago, she made the difficult decision not to replace her beloved pet corgis as they died of old age (she’s owned around 30 of the breed since she was 18, along with a handful of dorgis – corgi/dachshund crosses). She did not want to “let them down” by passing away before them, say senior courtiers, and there was also concern that a playful puppy would be a bit much for the ageing sovereign.
She’s only got two corgis left – Holly and Willow – and they’re getting old. But what most people don’t realise is that she still gets to indulge her passion by spending time with the working dogs at Sandringham estate.
Mostly Labradors and cocker spaniels, they are gun dogs, used for retrieving dead birds during shoots, and they work closely with gamekeepers both at Sandringham and also Balmoral, where they are based during summer. There have been royal gun dogs at Sandringham since Edward VII set up the kennels in 1879.
The gamekeepers are in awe of Her Majesty’s ability to direct her black Labradors from many metres away, using only hand signals and whistles. Her former gun dog trainer, Bill Meldrum, says she is the best dog-handler he has ever seen – “probably the best in the country”. On one occasion, she earned applause from other members of a shooting party when she directed one of her dogs to pick up a bird from 730 metres away.
According to Bill, staff at Sandringham don’t need to be told when the Queen has arrived at the estate because the gun dogs alert them. “All the dogs in the kennels start barking the moment she reaches the gate – half a mile away,” he says. “We don’t know how they can tell and they don’t do that with anyone else.” During the shooting parties, often held at Sandringham or Balmoral, the Queen drives herself around with a Land Rover full of dogs.
Because their breath keeps fogging up the windows, she’s had several vehicles modified so there are windscreen wipers on the inside as well as outside. The Queen names the puppies born as part of the gun dog breeding programme herself, and they include a litter named after the Harry Potter books – Gryffindor is a favourite.
Prince Philip has offered his suggestions and as a result there have been Labradors named after cars – including Austin Rover and Mini. The Queen grew so fond of one of the black Labradors that she took it out of the kennels and to Windsor Castle with her, says a royal insider. “She fed and walked it herself but the poor dog pined for its mates, so eventually she sent it back.”
The gun dogs lead a vastly different life to the corgis. While the working dogs live in kennels and make the trip up to Scotland for the shooting at Balmoral in the back of a truck, the corgis travel in chauffeur-driven limos. At Buckingham Palace, they sleep in wicker beds that are raised off the floor to avoid draughts. Whenever the Queen is being fitted for a dress and there’s a risk of pins ending up scattered on the floor, Her Majesty carries a magnet to pick them up, so the corgis don’t get their paws pricked.
A footman delivers containers of her dogs’ food to her private sitting room, along with their silver bowls, and the Queen dishes it up herself.
“Those dogs are very special to Her Majesty,” says one courtier. “They will always get preferential treatment.”
Prince Charles is also a fan of Labradors. He was pictured with his dog Harvey on the grounds of Balmoral Castle on his 30th birthday in 1978.

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