Short days, cold Gun barrells and numb fingers…….Shooting season is here…..

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It happens sometime in August. You go out one morning and the steady beat of Summer has given way to the restlessness of Autumn. It is an almost imperceptible change. Those of us that have lived and grown up in the countryside feel it. We can almost taste it. Suddenly we are sent tumbling back to childhood , where happy afternoons were spent roaming the hedges for blackberries and picking apples from the orchard in Brickfield. In recent years, however, this change marks the approach of something different for me and my dogs…..

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Time is approaching. The giddy excitement of looking forward to darker evenings and shorter days. Standing on the lakeshore or walking a riverbank as the first fingers of sunlight reach across the sky in midwinter. Sitting in a boat as an angry northeast wind pounds your back with sleet and hail or  standing in woodland, alone, with only your faithful dog for company shivering as much in anticipation as from the cold while you both wait for the sound of a hunting horn and the pheasant drive to start. Walking through miles and miles of heavy plough, fingers numb on the barrel of the gun, breath hanging in the air as you pull tired heavy legs from the thick brown clay. All the time just waiting, watching and listening…Time slows down. There is nothing else to think about. It’s just you, your dog and nature.

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Then it happens. Just a flutter of wings in undergrowth, the call of a drake as he rises from the rushes or the simple change in the body language of your dog. All tiny clues but because you have learned to watch and wait and be patient, you and your dog have become good at this game….and sometimes, maybe just maybe you’ll get lucky.

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Happy hunting everyone!

Chesapeake Training day with professional trainer and handler Mr Norman Onen

It was going to be a lovely day, warm with a light dusting of cloud and the slight chance of rain. Perfect for training dogs. I had heard much in recent months about Norman Onen and his wife Sandra. They had offered a Chesapeake training day in the Spring and judged the working test the following day. Jason, our working test secretary, had organised a competitve training day in July which also got great reviews from all who attended. So it was with much anticipation and excitement that I had been looking forward to this day.

We don’t get opportunities like this in Ireland. Ground to train dogs on is hard to find but ground specifically set up to train gundogs with a professional trainer is even more elusive.

I was impressed when we first drove onto the property. The training grounds are laid out within a small shoot. Fields of beet and game crop with partridge pens flanked either side of the laneway as we drove down to where the other vehicles were parked.

The main training field that was to be used for the day was wide and flat with shortish pasture grass. Enough to make the dogs hunt a little but not too heavy that they might struggle and lose confidence. In the center of the field was a large fenced off square spanning about half an acre. The fence was about mid thigh level and topped with thin wood. Designed to help and teach dogs to jump.

The day was planned to help us work and concentrate on ‘close work’. This is an aspect of training to which I have to admit I am sloppy about. Unfortunatley I have experienced the consequences of it this year when I attended the mock walk up with Bertie in March. I spent that day constantly pulling him back in line and although he picked his retrieves easily he lost easy points due to poor line manners.

It is an area I have worked on throughout the Summer but in truth we do not have to contend with walk ups very often when competing in working tests in Ireland so it is an easy thing to let slide. If Norman could offer me  guidelines to improve Bertie’s ‘creeping’ in line it would be money well spent for the day.

..And so we started. Dogs sat in line and dummies thrown, some with gunshot. Very soon as the excitement level grew various problems began to emerge with each of our dogs. This is exactly what you hope to achieve when you attend a training day. No point in spending the whole day with a perfect dog and nothing to work on.

Most of the problems that cropped up were solvable and most were very simple solutions. Norman was strict on the handlers but extremely fair and patient with the dogs. Solutions were inevitably offered through encouraging our dogs. Areas we worked on went from creeping in line, running in,  slow return, squeaking in line to basic handler error as in where and when to give commands, and when and how to use the whistle.

Small things to help the dog  such as taking a step forward in line after we cast our dog so it’s easier for our dog to spot us from a distance if they need help; guiding our dogs into us when they return to aid their delivery. Never to use the whistle for correction just for direction. My favourite though, as I run male dogs and hope this one is taken on board by judges, is Norman’s theory that if a dog stops to pee for more than three seconds then they’re emptying their bladder and NOT scenting as is commonly believed.

The morning session was intense but I could see improvement in my own dog even in that space of time.The afternoon session was set up to concentrate on problems in and around water. The stretch of water we used was along the river Avon, slow moving and mostly high steep banks, one section had a gradual slope into shallow water which was used to demonstrate how to correct the problem of shaking and dropping coming out of water.

The problem I was hoping he could help me with here was Mossy’s big water entry. They look impressive but I don’t like them and not from the point of view of disturbing game but more that someday he may do himself a serious injury if he lands in water that’s not as deep as he thinks. It was with great relief that again Norman came up trumps and showed us all a very simple way of teaching a dog to enter water with care. By using the steep banks he sat the dog at the edge and rolled the dummy down the bank and into the water..it worked..for the first time in a long time Mossy entered the water by using the bank instead of leaping from it.

The day ended too quickly. Always a sign that it’s been a success. There was a feeling of great camaradarie that we had all achieved something positive with our dogs. The day was run with a sense of fun and good humour which breaks the tension we often experience when trying to teach our dogs. One thing Norman was very clear on was that anger has no place in the training field.

There is one point he still has to convince me on and that is his assumption that dogs are not inelligent creatures and that I do not need a dog that can think for himself. This is something I not only feel I have in my dog but I know is an absolute necessity in the area of dog work I use him for.

Paul Toal of Altiquin Labradors second Summer training session.

It’s been a month since we had our training session with Paul. He finished that session by giving us a set of guidelines to work with and a basic structure that we could apply in our training sessions.

I can only speak from personal experience but I applied what he suggested to the areas I had been struggling with and I have seen vast improvements in Bertie’s and Mossy’s response. In fact, Bertie went on to win an any variety advanced retriever working test following this session.

 

We had agreed at that time that a second session would be of benefit to reinforce what we had been taught and bring forward any problems we would have encountered in training during this time frame.

Last Wednesday evening our small group met for the second time on the shores of Lough Ennell. Although Katherina could not attend due to work committments the Goldies were very ably represented by Stina. We started the session with Paul asking each of us ,in turn, how we had been getting on and any areas which we particularly wanted to focus on in this meeting. Each dog and handler then had an opportunity for some one on one tuition as the rest of us listened and learnt. Small groups allow this unique opportunity that a bigger group may not offer.

We worked on solutions to ‘running in’, teaching and reinforcing hand delivery from water, improving marking and lining for blind work.

What I gained most from both of these sessions is simply that it is okay for both handler and dog to make mistakes in training. I think most novice handlers, myself included, sometimes feel we have to test our dogs in training. This of course leads to the inevitable frustration when what we test for doesn’t work out and our dog loses confidence and interest.By keeping training simple and allowing room for error more progress is made.

 

For example, I have been struggling to get Bertie to take a straight line. He’ll often pull off to the left or right. Although this has improved in the last month since I stopped nagging with the whistle it’s still far from perfect. Yesterday evening I lined him for a blind and typically he pulled left. Paul then suggested I walk him in two or three strides and line again. If he failed again just walk in another three strides recast and repeat until the dog gets it. As he explained you can always lengthen the distance once the dog succeeds but you need to find the dog’s level first. On the first walk in Bertie took off like an arrow straight to the blind. Such a simple solution but something I would never have thought of.

Sadly this is the end of our Summer sessions for this year. I want to thank my training companions Colum, Mariann and of course Elly for making it such a fun Summer along the lake with our dogs. A special thanks to Paul Toal of Altiquin labradors who was brave enough to take on our little group of Any Variety Retrievers.

 

We will be back next year and if anyone wishes to venture into gundog games but is not sure how to get started you’re more than welcome to join us at our little meet along the lakeshore..until next year..Happy Hunting..

 

 

Uisce throws caution to the water…

Two incidents in the last week have made me re-evaluate my approach to Uisce’s training going forward. Both involved water.

My approach to puppy training has always been very organic. Most of what they learn in their first 6-9 months is purely by virtue of the fact that they are running with my adult dogs. Recall is learnt by turning when the older dogs turn. I love to give them a lot of free running as I feel its the best way for them to develop an awareness of their own bodies .

Uisce appears to have inherited more than her fair share of independence genes than any of my previous puppies. She is not a follower of the adult dogs and will quite confidently explore by herself when out walking. Her recall on land is improving. There is still that one or two second delay when called , as much as to say ‘in a minute I’m just smelling something here’. Now in many ways I like to see this in a puppy. It bodes well for hunting that she will persist and stick with a retrieve until found. However I need a reliable recall so I’ve started curtailing her freedom on walks by placing her on lead at intervals. Only letting her off where I can see her and when she’s on her own.

The water episodes really blindsided me. We went to the estuary for a walk last Monday. As usual it was blissfully quiet. I let the dogs out of the trailer and they rollicked around enjoying the freedom. Winnie likes to swim parallel to shore as I’m walking and recently Mossy likes to do the same. They dip in and out as they need to. I was delighted to see Uisce do the same. She was turning out to be a natural in water.

On our way back a slight wind rose making the water in the estuary churn up a little. This seemed to excite Uisce and she swam further into the waves. When she was about one hundred meters from shore I called to her , no reponse..she just kept swimming away from shore. I started to panic. She had been swimming for quite a while at this stage and I knew she was bound to tire as she is still less than five months old. If she tired out there she would drown. The other dogs on the shore and in the water seemed to have the effect of pushing her further out ot sea.  In desperation I put them away and roared her name . She turned. I threw a stone and the splash made her come closer, only for a second though before she headed away from shore again. Once more I filled my lungs and bellowed her name across the waves, again she turned and I repeated the sequence of stone throwing and calling, taking no gap until she came to shore. My heart was pounding. It was a mixture of relief and confusion that I put her back in the car and headed for home. I hoped it was a one off.  I was wrong.

Wednesday evening came and we headed to Lough Ennell for our usual training session. At the end of the evening I took Uisce on her own to  the water , threw in a tennis ball and let her in to retrieve it. She swam straight to it, picked it up and kept swimming. I was quicker to call for her to come back in but she completely ignored me. On and on she swam . Nothing would entice her back. My friend, Marianne, was on shore with me and was as perplexed as I was. I took of my wellingtons and waded into the water until I was thigh deep. I called her name and threw stones between me and the shore. The stone throwing again seemed to break the spell . She started to  come to shore. I was relieved but angry and when she came within reach regrettably I shook her and dragged her back to shore. A very subdued Uisce sat on the shoreline while the humans discussed this connundrum..

After seeking advice from a wide variety of sources in the dog world Uisce will be longlined when near water for the foreseeable future. Land recall will be perfected . Schooling will begin much earlier than I’d anticipated . I can afford to take my time training and working with her but I cannnot afford to lose her.

Breffni Gun Club Charity Cold Game Test.

Something really amazing and special happened last Sunday. Something I had only ever dreamt might happen but never really believed it could. Bertie won an Open AV Retriever Working test and this is how it happened.

The clouds were gathering on the horizon as I headed north to Cavan. Heavy showers were forecast with winds from the north-west…. I had packed for every eventuality weatherwise, wet-gear, picnic and flask of coffee so was prepared to bed down for the day.

Breffni Gun Club were running a charity cold game test in aid of a childrens’ respite care center in Cootehill. This was their first year running such an event. I found it very well run,plenty of throwers and judges assistants meant it ran smoothly between each retrieve. They raised an amazing 420 euro for their chosen charity. Cold game tests, although popular in the past, have become increasingly rare in recent times. Forward planning is required as game has to be collected and stored from the previous hunting season.

I like these tests for two reasons..they give you an idea of how your young dog will react with their first encounter of fur and feather in a strange environment and I find that the extra scent raises the excitement a little in the dogs, pulling them in closer and quicker to the fall of a mark and making them hunt with just a little more energy than on dummies.

The ground was marsh meadow, undulating and uneven underfoot. This is the type of ground that levels out the playing field among dogs as speed is not an option….emphasis is more on memory, marking and scenting ability. The tests, I feel, reflected this.

The novice test had twenty dogs entered. The numbers were made up of labs, springers, a curly-coat, flatcoat and three chesapeakes. There were four tests. The competitors were divided into four groups and moved in rotation from one test to the next. We were also each given a scorecard which the judge marked up following each retrieve. I have seen this done at one other working test and really like the idea. It gives an openness to the marking system and an opportunity for judge and competitor to discuss where marks were lost and gained.

Mossy was my novice dog. First test for us was a single seen memory retrieve over heavy rushy ground and across a ditch. This involved walking to heel, sit and watch the bird  fall, turn your dog , walk back to heel twenty metres turn and send your dog. He scored 24/25. Next up for us was the water.

We stood fifty metres back from the lake for a single seen into lily pads. Score 25/25. The next retrieve was a double. Two throwers either side of a narrow field, birds were thrown at not quite a 120 degree angle. Either bird could be taken first. This was a testing retrieve for young dogs as the ground was rushy bottoms meaning the fall of the birds were hidden from the dogs’ eyeline. I needed to work Mossy on both these retrieves but he handled well and persisted when I asked him. He found and brought back both birds, one of which was a woodcock, a species he had not picked before. His score here 17/25. Onto our final retrieve….a long single seen retrieve across short pasture grass. Always a nice type of retrieve to start with as it settles dogs but also nice to finish well. His score here 25/25.

The first and second placed dogs were well clear of the rest of the field with scores of 99/100 and 93/100 but Mossy was called in for a three dog run-off to settle third to fifth placings. It was a long single mark across a ditch and into cover. He got the retrieve but needed too much handling to be in with a shot for the final placings. I was pleased with his performance. His persistence when asked was encouraging to me as he is a dog that had been shutting down if over-handled in the past. Hopefully Sunday’s performance indicates I’m moving in the right direction with regards to his training. For his efforts he got Judge’s choice .

We broke for lunch. This gave me the chance to meet another Chesapeake owner whom I had never met before. Chesapeakes are as rare as hen’s teeth here in Ireland and meeting another at a working test is unusual to say the least. This man had two with him, a father and daughter. Both lovely representatives of the breed. Quiet, relaxed in the company of other dogs and a really nice working style. This was their first time to compete at any sort of gundog competition. Both dogs will spend their winter up north on the shores of Lough Neagh, a place where serious wildfowlers and serious dogs hide out. The waters of Lough Neagh are notoriously unforgiving and many of the chesapeakes that have been brought into Ireland in recent years have found themselves along its shores.

The Open Dog competition got underway after lunch. The number of dogs entered was twelve made up of labs, a flatcoat, and two chesapeakes.

Due to the small numbers, dogs were all run consecutively and not split into groups. First retrieve up was a long single seen retrieve uphill on pastureland. I had been struggling with Bertie’s marking skills this season. He takes a beautiful line but overruns. I have spent the last few weeks working on this problem, taken advice from various quarters  and applied it. All you can hope for when you enter a competition is that what you have prepared and trained for will work. He took a beautiful line but on this occasion I wasn’t prepared to forfeit all that hard work so sarificed some marks and blew the stop whistle just as he reached the fall. I was relieved when he dropped his head, picked the bird and returned to hand. He lost a single mark here.

The second retrieve was a long blind, again across pasture. The field fell away from right to left but there was an unforeseen difficulty in that this retrieve was very close to the fall of the previous one. This could pull a dog off-line in an effort to return to the previous fall. Sometimes it’s an advantage to watch other dogs run ahead, watch where errors occur and try to correct them when it’s your dog’s turn.  It doesn’t always work out that way but today it seemed as if it would. I watched as most dogs pulled uphill off line, possibly trying to curl back to the previous fall. I lined Bertie and slightly overcompensated by angling him down hill, he took the line down the hill and I purposely let him run on past the bird. I stopped him and right cast him up the hill, with the advantage of the prevailing winds he pulled in on the bird fairly easily .

The third retrieve was the one that saw the undoing of many. There’s always one to weed out the placings but this one, if your dog could do it, was sweet..

The set up was a narrow field about one hundred metres wide. A thrower was placed on either side. One thrower had a pigeon, the other had a duck. The ground was made up of high rushes and marsh meadow so that although the dogs could see each throw go up they could not see the fall. Because the field was narrow the birds were landing in such a way that there was no more than twenty metres between them. It was very easy for a dog to pick the wrong bird if hunting the area. The pigeon was thrown first, then the duck and the judge wanted first bird thrown..so again going against the dog’s natural inclination to pick the last bird first. I watched and waited. If he could do this, regardless of where he finished, it would make my day. Normally when I approach a double I will allow my dog to have a good look at both retrieves. On this occasion I wanted him to concentrate on that left bird only and just acknowledge the right bird using it as a blind if needed. So I set him up facing the left bird and as planned he just about acknowledged the right bird. Off he went, one stop and hunt whistle was all it took to bring him back to me with the pigeon..magic..now had he seen enough to find that second bird ? I lined him as if I was  setting him up for a blind, aiming him towards the right hand thrower and sent him….again one quick stop whistle and hunt up, a raised hand from the thrower to indicate he had found the bird….my mouth was dry and my heart was racing. We had one more retrieve….the water.

I have said at the start of the year that I felt last year while doing the working test circuit we were on the back foot each time it came to water work. Good water for training on is not easy to come by in Meath. We have plenty of rivers but no lakes. So I made it my mission that Summer training this year would be centered around or near water. I can now see the benefits of that, particularly with Mossy. Everyone expects a Chesapeake to excel in water and they do…. but they need to feel confident in it and like everything else water requires a certain type of fitness which only comes with regular use. We have worked on water entries with long run-ins, longer swims, blinds on water and taking direction..

The water retrieve today was a long water entry, through high bull rushes with the bird lying among lily pads. It was a seen so if Bertie could do this without handling we would be in with a shot at the placings. The bird was thrown and the dog sent. He took his usual beautiful line straight to the fall, no hestitation at the rushes and out to the bird. I could feel a surge of emotion rise in my chest..we had done it!! I didn’t care whether we won or lost I just knew that we had put in an impressive performance and that everything we had trained for had come together. That’s all you can really ask for at the end of the day.

Well the story ends as it begun..Bertie did win. He scored an incredible 99/100. Although the number of entries were small the dogs in second and third place are highly respected field trial dogs. Gundog competitions are fickle affairs and I am very much aware that on another day with another set of tests we may not fare as well. However, Sunday was Bertie’s day and nothing can take that away from him. He showed that even with a very average handler Chesapeakes are every bit as capable of competing for honours in the Summer circuit of Gundog games.

Coccooned in a bubble of euphoria on the drive home rain started to fall. It fell across the car and caught the sunlight in such a way that it looked as if a rainbow was cascading from the car bonnet..is it possible that my dear sweet Bailey, perhaps, had a paw to play ?..