Among his littermates Bertie was the least outgoing. He was the puppy that sat back and watched as visitors came and went to the puppy pen, lifting his much more outgoing littermates for cuddles. It wasn’t a shyness or nervousness that held him back, he was the first in the litter to climb over the edge of the whelping box and explore further afield, he was just always more serious about life and what was required of him. Like an old soul in a young body.
When the puppies were eight weeks old Bertie was booked to go to a gentleman who was looking for a wildfowling dog. On the day his perspective new owner arrived, the puppies were out playing together in the garden. No amount of coaxing and encouragement on the part of the gentleman that morning would bring Bertie out from behind my legs and to my dismay, but not surprisingly, the gentleman left the puppy behind.
At nine weeks old an acquaintance, who had been impressed by Bertie’s father on the shoot in Wicklow, expressed an interest in running him on. He was a spaniel man and believed he’d enjoy the challenge of training a different breed of dog. After three weeks I rang to check in and see how Bertie was progressing. Alas, the news was not what I‘d hoped to hear. Bertie had spent his three weeks howling every time he was put in the kennel. The trainer was also a little disappointed that his new puppy was nothing like his father, and showed no interest in retrieving more than one dummy before getting bored and walking away! I thought it best to take the eleven week old puppy back at that stage before any serious long term damage was done.
Now, anyone who’s ever given any animal a second or third chance will be familiar with what happened next. True to form, Bertie slotted right into the household. He took his position at the bottom of the pack and worked really, really hard to impress the one person he knew would be the hardest to break…..my Husband Des.
One evening, not long after he’d returned Des took me out to the garden to show me something. The puppy sat on the edge of the lawn and watched as Des walked away from him and dropped a tennis ball, unseen. Des returned to the puppy and pointed to the ball. The puppy followed the line of his arm and off he went, straight to the ball and returning straight to hand. Again and again he repeated the task relishing the praise he got on each return. He had never been trained or taught to do any of this. He just seemed to have an innate sense of what was required and a desire to retrieve just for the reward of being able to do so .
We began then, to get glimpses of the type of dog he could become. We were excited but terrified at the same time that we would wreck him. Neither of us were experienced enough in gundog training to know if we would push him too hard too soon, or not push him far enough. In the end we decided that what we wanted most was to enjoy every moment of working this dog. We thought our best course of action would be to let him set the pace.
I would never previously have dreamed of exposing a young puppy to a driven shoot but for a phone call from a friend, who’d bought a litter sister, to tell me that his five and a half month old Chesapeake , Rosie, had just retrieved her first duck. She’d been taken out as an observer with a more experienced Labrador. When the lab was sent for the retrieve, the puppy had no hesitation but to jump in behind. Fifty yards out and the lab gave up. The puppy lifted her head clear of the water, winded the bird and locked on.
The following week, Winnie, Bertie’s mother, slashed her pad while out working the shoot. With no dog to work we took a chance. If he was unable to deal with the pressures involved with working so many birds and became too stressed with all that was going on we’d put him away until next year. On his first outing he retrieved ten birds, all to hand. He never looked back. We allowed him his head that season, no emphasis on steadiness or whistle control. Just building confidence and letting him enjoy the experience. He had game-sense that you would expect from a dog twice his age, taking no time to figure out the link between gun and bird. He was a puppy with huge energy and drive but balanced with sense and focus which allowed him to start work as young as he did.
With his first shooting season finished the natural course of events would have seen us commencing formal gundog training. That summer however saw our lives take a different path when our beautiful daughter Elly joined our lives. Adjusting to motherhood meant that gundog training was put on the back burner, so to speak. This also meant that Bertie entered his second season more unruly than I’d have liked but his hunting skills and use of his nose improved. His whistle work and steadiness did not!
The spring of his second year we started formal training. Never before had I experienced a dog with such a desire to learn. As with all young dogs mistakes are made. Sometimes by the dog, but more often by the trainer. Bertie, like most Chesapeakes, did not like being corrected but neither did he sulk. He would return to my side glance up at me as much as to say, ‘right let’s try that again and I’ll do better’. He put such heart and soul into every retrieve, He was a joy, and still is, to train.
He ran ten novice working tests that summer of his second year. Starting in early April and finishing the end of September. On average he ran in a test every second weekend. Out of them he placed in seven. It was intense but he thrived on every second of it. My heart swelled with pride every time we walked away from the line. He was one big brown dog among many small black labs and proving with each competition that it is possible for another breed to throw down the gauntlet.
By his third season and with a summer of decent training behind him, he was developing into one of the most enjoyable dogs I’d ever had to work with. When Spring returned that year and just shy of his third birthday he finished third in an Any Variety retriever working test. I think that was one of my proudest moments in competition as it was the first time I really felt he could challenge AND indeed was worthy of challenging the best of the Labradors.
Maturity has only improved him and we have enjoyed some memorable days in the shooting field and the world of retriever working tests where Labradors generally reign supreme. He has continued to place well in Open AV working tests, competed as part of the UK Chesapeake team and won top scoring dog at last years minor breeds team test, as well as gaining his Irish show champion title!
There is no doubt he has travelled this path somewhere in a previous life. He has never been a ‘ young’ dog in the sense of where his focus lies in relation to work. As the years have passed I’ve learned to relax, enjoy him more and not worry that I’ll wreck him if I push too hard. His drive has never lessened but training has allowed me to channel and control it more .
I hope, in some small way, here in Ireland he has changed people’s view of what they expect from a Chesapeake in competition.
Yes Bertie was the Left-over puppy, the one that never shone in the whelping box but kept his talent hidden for the right handler to come along perhaps ? and when I think back on that puppy that day I wonder sometimes who picked who, and I smile……
Copyright Riverrunchesapeakes 2012