The Left-Over Puppy.


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… 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


Dipping a toe into Dog Show Judging..

I had the rare pleasure of judging at a Golden Retriever match , last week, in the beautiful grounds of Holycross Abbey. It’s not often I have the oppurtunity to stand at the other end of the leash and I think it gives me more perspective as a handler into how difficult, sometimes, judging dogs can be.

There are things you see from the center of the ring that are often invisible to anyone else except the judge but can make or break your decision between putting one dog in front of the other.

My final selection came down to two bitches. Both very different in type and both , possibly, making it to the final two dogs for different reasons… the overall winning bitch presented the complete picture , in my head, of what a Golden Retriever should be..all the right angles in all the right places, strong but still holding that feminine outline and a head and expression to die for.

I have judged a few times now and although I appreciate and can admire a dog that is carefully stacked and presented I feel that I am a person who will inevitably judge  dogs on movement. More than coat, head, tailset and expression I feel that if a dog is made correctly it will all come together on the move . When I asked them to go around for the final time both bitches were faultless…those lovely flowing lines, front and rear moving in symmetry to hold a topline that was poetry in motion..each footfall perfect. At this point with two dogs so equal the final decision, I feel, comes down to the individual dog/bitch…which one wants it more?

Many times over the past few years I have listened to people bemoan the fact that their dog should have won the challenge as they were the better dog/bitch.However, I feel when it gets to that point in the competition there has to be something that gives the eventual winner more of an edge and it has to be something more than just good movement. I like to see some sparkle , something that says ‘hey, look at me’ . So as I watched them take their final turn around the ring that afternoon she had it. I could feel it as I watched her..that imperceptible thrill and pure enjoyment coming from her as she moved around that small country hall.

Balancing working/show condition during the Summer months.


We are now in the height of the Summer Working test/Show season. Each weekend brings either one or the other with some weekends bringing both.

Keeping condition on dogs at this point in the season is one of the most challenging things , I find, for a dog doing both disciplines. The early months of roadwork and sea swimming have laid down a solid base of condition and now its simply a matter of maintenence. The rigours of training, however, can take its toll on a dog and if not watched for carefully can leave them too ‘light’ for the show ring.

It is important that condition is not mistaken for simply adding weight, something which should never occur in an active working gundog.Personally, I find the most effective way of keeping and holding condition is to increase protein percentage in their food without increasing volume. I  also like to add plenty of oil in their food to keep skin and coat in peak condition. This system seems to work for me as, so far, none of my dogs have broken down through injury either through hunting season or the Summer circuit.

In addition to daily assessment of their physical condition there is ongoing work to progress their gundog training. Each working test is used as a marker with which to pin point areas that need to be worked on in training

My plans for the boys , Bertie and Mossy are progressing as outlined earlier in the year. I removed Mossy from the show ring in Ireland , for this season,to concentrate on his gundog training and am campaigning Bertie in the ring .At present Bertie has three green stars from three shows towards his show champion title. He will need another four to complete which I expect him to achieve before the start of shooting season..

Mossy has competed in two working tests and has been unlucky not to be in the ribbons. Competition is so tight at prelim and novice levels that it takes a near faultless performance to finish in the top four and at the moment he needs tidying up on his presentation.

The next two weeks will be extremely busy. Another working test to attend this coming weekend then final preparations for our next trip to the UK. This time to compete at East of England champ show on Saturday and the Chesapeake Bay Retriever Club Champ show on the Sunday. We will be travelling with four chessies and puppy. Chester is returning to the showring following a spell in semi retirement. He will be competing at East of England and the Club show with plans to return in August to attend Welsh kennel Club.

After an intensive morning training, last Sunday , on Lough Ennell I thought it would be nice to take a photo of some of the silverware and rossettes which they have gathered in the last year.


Lough Bawn Working Test

Lough Bawn has long been held in the hearts of all who compete with retrievers in Ireland. Nobody can quite recall exactly when they started to be run there but almost everyone has had the experience of running their dog there. I’m not around long enough to remember the original hostess Mrs Tennyson, by all accounts, she was quite a character but the house still holds a certain charm that beckons you in and invites you to relax and enjoy its surroundings. It sits comfortably overlooking the lake with lawns spreading out like a giant picnic blanket before it. The current hosts have continued the family tradition of going to extraordinary lengths of making all who organise and attend the event feel most welcome. This is helped by the congenial atmosphere which the secretary, Mrs Jean Johnston, and her very capable committee provide.

Today I was again running two dogs. Mossy in preliminary and novice and then Bertie in the afternoon advanced test.The grounds provide a range of cover and landscape but are compact, which makes for good viewing from the gallery and ease of movement from one test to the next.

The first test in preliminary consisted of a two dog walk up with a single seen. Mossy did this test well scoring 30/30. Next a single mark into cover with shot fired. He scored 18/20. Finally onto the water again a single seen for which he scored 16/20. Total score 64/70 was not enough to put him in the ribbons. On to novice and his first retrieve here was a single mark into cover with shot, the distance of course longer than in preliminary. The next retrieve a four dog walk up and single seen. Now, one of Mossy’s problems last year was unsteadiness in line. This was his first opportunity to sit in line with four dogs and he was last dog up. I am relieved to say he sat quietly and steadily throughout. He needed handling on both retrieves in novice which would again knock him out of the top placings.

Lunchtime gave me the chance to take Uisce to the lake. It was a beautiful warm afternoon and she entered the water of her own accord and swam around like a little otter. The working tests have been wonderful oppurtunities for her to mix and meet all sorts of people and dogs and I can see her growing in confidence each time I bring her out.

After all the practice I did with Bertie over the last two weeks with jumps and marking sods law neither featured in yesterday’s working test!  This was a test which required precise and experienced handling.  Poor handling meant that dogs over-ran and needed to be handled at length to the required area. This in turn made the dogs’ run look clumsy and unstylish.

The first test Bertie ran was a long single blind uphill into woodland. No shot but a bolting rabbit on return. There was no clear or straight track and although the handler could clearly see the patch underneath the tree where the dummy was laid it would be easy to lose the dog in the heavy cover en route to the area. Bertie succeeded in spite of my overzealous whistling. In hindsight I should have let him take his own line until parallel with the dummy then cast him either left or right. This was a mistake I repeated again at the water. Instead of trusting my dog to enter the water I fought against him and pushed him back along the bank where he lost confidence and momentum. The result of which meant walking down to the water and sending him from the bank. When I asked two of the judges afterwards what I should have done both agreed that his earlier water entry would have been their course of action. My dog listened to each command I gave, however, in their opinion, I was giving a combination of incorrect hand signals and commands.

In summary, Lough Bawn delivered on location, hospitality, and patient judges. I came away though feeling through my inadequate handling and my failure to trust my dog more, that I let him down and for the first time felt truly out of my depth when competing against more experienced handlers

Walks with the dawn chorus


6am starts have become the norm in the last few weeks. This is my busiest time of the year in relation to my business as such I find early morning the best time to work alone with my own dogs. So before Des goes to work and Elly wakes up I head for the Hill of Tara. Just me , my dog and the dawn chorus.

After the working test last weekend it’s now time to turn my attention again to the show ring. We have two shows in the UK next weekend. We will be travelling with four dogs. Chester, Mossy, Winnie and Uisce( her first big trip abroad).

Looking at each of the dogs I’ll be showing I’m happy with the overall picture at the moment. Luck has been on my side with regards to Chester and Mossy’s coats, for some reason they blew them in early Spring,( possibly because of the warm spell in March), and are now in full coat. Winnie, bless her, is still trying to grow coat since she had the puppies so she’s coming along for the social side of things and to show Uisce the ropes…

Competing in the UK takes time, commitment and money. Trips are planned a long time in advance. The last thing I need  a week before a show is a dog going lame . So this week excercise is kept within fairly safe parameters of road work and running on soft ground. Gundog work at the lakes is shelved until next week for any of the dogs going into the ring. I don’t worry about such restrictions when competing in Ireland as cost and time are not such immediate concerns .

Bertie now has a gap between shows so it gives me an oppurtunity to concentrate on little things that are a problem in his gundog work. I have worked consistently throughout the Summer on his heelwork and sitting still in line, ( he had been creeping while waiting for a retrieve) . Both heelwork and steadiness are much improved as the marks for walk up at the last two working tests reflected. Jason, our WT secretary, had given me an excercise to work on to tighten up his hunting pattern and it has turned into one of Bertie’s favourite games, he loves it , and happily is now putting his head down and working a tighter area when asked. He had been ranging too wide.

This week Colum, Mariann and I have booked an afternoon’s training session with Paul Toal . What we hope to work on is our handling skills. It should be a fun afternoon.i promise a full report after Wednesday..

Will the real working gundog please stand up?

Apparently I’ve been deluding myself into believing that my chesapeakes are ‘working gundogs’. You see, this morning I made a phonecall to a magazine Editor. It was a follow-up call to an email I’d sent in last month when I was looking for feedback on my blog.

His lack of interest was due to the fact that although my dogs work and compete at advanced level in working tests they do not field trial and as such, in his mind, nobody would be interested. Oh, and there was too much emphasis on their show ring success in my writing..

It does make me wonder what I’ve been spending my Winters doing for that last decade.  All those days picking up on two shoots when my dogs have come home bloodied and torn and brought countless birds back to the game cart. The day when my winning Crufts dog  covered four guns on the lakeshore in freezing conditions and entered the water again and again to retrieve every bird shot bar one.Afternoons’ roughshooting when they will track and trail a runner and return only when it is found. I have taken my dogs as the sweeping up team after a trial when their ‘Field trial stars’ took the podium for honours while the ‘Hunting handmaidens’ searched and found what was left behind.

When I started writing this blog in January it was to open peoples’ minds to the fact that there are real working gundogs throughout the shooting world that can also hold their own in the conformation ring..  On a level playing field  ie. the real working field, any one of the Minority Retrieving breeds can match the Labrador for Gamefinding and retrieving ability. When you strip away the finer points of Field trialling each of these noble breeds can stand alone and be counted. They are all trainable, maybe not to the nth degree that Field trialling requires , but more than enough to achieve the balance between a dog able to use its own inititive and a dog unable to locate a bird unless whistled directly to it.

As a person who both actively works and shows her dogs I have seen more prejudice against dogs that show from people in the working field; than I have from people in the showring to dogs that work.

I hope , for the sake of the future of our Retrieving breeds, that the attitude of the Editor I spoke to this morning does not reflect the attitude of Shooting people in general.It is equally important that our Gundogs retain their conformation in order to fulfill the working role they were bred for. Working ability alone is not good for the health of any breed.

It was my first rejection, it stung a little..but I am grateful for his feedback.