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 ?..