Chesapeake : “I think therefore I am” …..more tricky to train, maybe?

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Your eyes meet across the small pond, both minds set on the challenge ahead, both thinking exactly the same thing but wanting very different outcomes …..Is the Chessie going to come back with his retrieve through the water on this warm summer day as his handler wishes? Or Is he going to mentally assess a more energy saving option and take the land bridge home???

Which would you choose??

I have found myself, as a handler in this predicament on many occasions.Watched as Labrador after Labrador diligently took the same line back as they took going out without a flicker of questioning but knowing that even before I cast my dog across the water he is already reading the landscape with his eyes and doing mental calculus on how to get home better.

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The Chesapeake is a thinking dog. Their survival as a breed often working in life threatening weather conditions out of sight of their handler meant that the ability to read a situation was imperative to getting both them and their quarry home safely. They needed to know they had options, however, it is this very ability to think through every life scenario that often mistakenly lands them with clichés and stereotypical labels such as, “difficult to train”, “hardheaded” and “not good enough to Field trial”….

In most cases, if you’re lucky, you will get fair warning of  this ability of the Chesapeake to think ahead and weigh up His options. It will be evident from the moment He opens his  eyes and totters about the whelping box checking out the perimeter. He will lift his tiny muzzle above the lowest point in the box where Mum skips in and out. Rather than wait patiently for her return he learns very quickly that there is another option….He  can simply follow that wonderful smell of milk and fill his belly quicker. These are the Chessie babies that, because their need to figure things out comes early in their development, will train you as a handler and an owner to walk slowly and take your time through training.

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….oh but then there is the other type of Chessie puppy….

So there you are all fuzzy and warm, basking in the glow of the newness and excitement of having your new Chessie puppy.

He or she  no doubt is smart,( smart as in human terms,learning things quickly that please you ), and pretty soon you are proudly able to list off all their accomplishments of how they have mastered sit, wait, stay, heel and come all  within a week of ownership. You will talk about how friendly and sociable they are around other dogs, how they love all dogs large and small. In fact I can pretty much guarantee that doubts will even cross into your mind about whether the warnings and cautions your puppy’s breeder gave you about taking your time in training, about the importance of socialising your Chesapeake puppy properly are really true at all….

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Time passes, and buoyed with the confidence of how easily and eagerly your young dog took to basic training you decide to increase the pressure and you again are pleasantly surprised how easily he starts to  run lines, obey some whistle work, maybe taking a left and right  cast AND still only 9 months old !!!.

Then, just when you think you have trained the beast, when you can sit back and give yourself a giant pat on the back for a job well done everything starts to unravel …..he starts to push ahead when he should be doing impeccable heelwork, he ignores all direction and acts like he has never heard a whistle before let alone the sit command, a scent trail is more fun to follow than coming back to you when you call him, he squares up to other young males when out walking despite your admonishments to ‘play nicely’…

What happened ?? Where did it all go wrong you may wonder ?? Where in god’s name has that wonderful puppy that you worked so hard to mould and train gone to and how do you get him back?

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And the answer is simply your Chessie just realised he has options other than what you ask him to do. His maturing mind, the one needed to help him survive the brutal foreshore currents in times past, has kicked into gear in readiness for his future role as a working widldfowling dog.

This is the hardest stage, I think, in Chesapeake development for both Dog and Owner. It is the stage that I ,as a breeder, am prepared to get the most calls about and hope that in the long conversations that follow I can offer some insight into what can seem like a neverending episode of ‘ dog behaving badly’.

So, as a breeder I will tell you that this is the time your young dog needs your guidance most,( even though He thinks He doesn’t). Tease out the strands of his training, allow him to think through each small aspect of what you ask him to do by shortening your sessions and breaking them down more. Allow him to question and think things through so he can understand. And when that doesn’t work guide him some more.

You will always have a thinking Dog, it is in their DNA but I believe when a Chesapeake fully understands what is being asked of Him or Her they give their very best performances.

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Sometimes though all  the cajoling in the world will not win out over a Chessie mind that knows the shortest and safest route home with a retrieve is by land when your eyes lock across a small pond in Summer…..but that’s another story.

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Work AND Show can co-exist.

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…he hides behind no mass of coat….

Today the dog that stands before you  on the green carpet  is a showdog. He hides behind no mass of coat or flashy eyecatching movement. He is a functional no nonsense breed of dog and He has come as a representative of everything that is great about the breed from which he developed.

All those noble dogs that spend their winters working hard along a frozen foreshore watching and waiting in the fading light for the geese and duck to come. A loyal hunting companion whose superior scenting abilities and tenacious spirit make him equally proficient in pursuit of upland game and perhaps most important of all a valued and trusted family member.

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All those noble dogs that spend their Winter waiting….

Stand back for a moment and take the time to fully appreciate perfection in simplicity. As you let your eye follow down along his body the story behind the dog may start to reveal itself. His demeanour , as he stands before you, is one of power and confidence. He does not feel the need to greet with the eager exuberance of a puppy. This is a working dog and although his face may still bear the scars of a Winter spent hunting heavy cover, the tools of his trade, the very reasons this breed has been made the way he has, are immediately evident….that nose that will hunt a diving duck through the thick swathes of elephant grass has wide clean nostrils,the length in his muzzle and sculpted bones of his jawline give a clue to his ability to carry his quarry with a gentle mouth. His body is fit and lean, he was not built for speed but power and stamina.  The confidence that saw him through a season of taking on the heavy winter waters, tidal estuaries or following on the tail of a wounded cock pheasant no matter how deep the cover is borne out in his easy, fluid movement around the ring,  in the way he carries his head and watches his master with an alert and happy attitude.

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His confidence is seen in the way he carries himself.

There are many who fail to see the relevance of showing dogs in relation to what is required in the working field. It is all too easy to look at the finished picture of the dog before them standing on the carpet at Crufts and see only a groomed dog presented to perfection and forget the story behind how they and their breed come to be there……perhaps then the BASC gamekeepers classes go some way to reminding us that working AND Showing gundogs can sit in the same sentence.

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Work AND Show can co-exist.

For the last three years, along with entering the breed classes at Crufts we have also competed in the BASC gamekeepers classes. It is a separate competition which runs concurrently with the breed classes. Every dog entered has to have written confirmation from the gamekeeper that they have worked with during the shooting season. The classes are big, over 20 in most cases , and they cover all the subgroups in gundogs. The vast majority of these gundogs also compete in their respective breed classes.

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Chester, competed in gamekeepers aged 11.

Mossy and Chester were the only two representatives of our breed that stood in the  BASC Gamekeepers classes at Crufts in 2013. That year out of a class of 27 dogs made up of Flatcoats, Goldens, a Curlycoat and Nova- scotias it was a proud moment when Mossy was pulled 2nd behind the eventual overall winner. It was an even prouder moment that his father Chester, at the age of 11 years, was there also and testament to the fact that age does not limit fit for function.

In 2014 Mossy and his half sister Uisce pushed the boundaries one step further in the BASC Gamekeepers classes. For the first time in the history of the breed Mossy won The Shooting Gazette trophy for Best Any Variety Retriever Dog and Uisce won the Marsh Trophy for Best AnyVariety Retriever Bitch.

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Uisce and Mossy in BASC gamekeepers Crufts 2014.

To be associated with a breed where form and function remain so inextricably intertwined is something I feel passionately about and proud that when we hand back the trophies this year the names of the two Chesapeakes also carry the titles of Show Champion and Champion.

Retriever training with Mr Paul Toal Altiquin Labradors

I have known Paul since I became involved in gundogs over a decade ago and I’ve always admired his calm approach when working his dogs.

Colum and I have reached a point now where we realise that if we want to progress our dogs we need to improve our handling skills and not just merely rely on luck for the dogs to find the dummy. Both of us are aware that we fell short of the standard at the last working test.With that in mind we were able to gather a small group of four and booked Paul for an afternoon of training at Lough Ennell.

Our group comprised of a flatcoated retriever, a golden retriever, a curly coated retriever and a chesapeake…all working dogs attempting to play the summer gundog games.

Paul started the session with the very basics . Tips for tightening up on heelwork and steadiness.These are things I tend to get lazy about preferring to focus on lining and blinds but it’s often the small things that lose the most marks in a working test.

The next aspect was most interesting as I subsequently was told the same thing by another trainer last weekend. When teaching the hunt up command I had traditionally just introduced the whistle when the dog put its head down on a marked retrieve and worked it from there. Now retrievers are being taught to hunt up in a quartering style, like a spaniel. It’s much more specific and much more efficient. The real beauty of it is that Bertie loves this game. Already I’m seeing an improvement in his attitude to the whistle as it’s not being used to nag him but to steer him.

Moving onto improving marking skills , again he showed us some wonderful ways to encourage our dogs to mark better, to succeed and build confidence. All just little things that can make a huge difference to our dogs.

We finished the session with blind work . Again incorrect use of the whistle appeared to be one of our main problems when handling our dogs but something that was so simple to correct. Remembering to use the whistle as an aid rather than  a corrector.

I think the most important thing I gained from the afternoon was that there is always scope for learning and that retriever training is progressing and moving all the time. Paul has a very open minded and patient approach to his training which works well when dealing with novice handlers and dogs. As he worked with us that afternoon he gave a structure with which we can carry forward to our training sessions in the next few weeks.We will most certainly be calling on him again before the end of the Summer.