I showed my Chesapeakes without coat…..

I showed my Chesapeakes without any coat!! I put my hand up and am guilty as charged.

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Even though it is written in the New Complete Chesapeake Bay Retriever ( 1994), Chapter 5 by Dr Daniel Horn :

“Coat has been the most important type feature in the description of the Chesapeake Bay Retriever” and furthermore he goes onto say :

“if exhibitors would keep their dogs out of the show ring when dogs are out of coat, it would be easier for judges to become familiar with these important Chesapeake type features.”

Soon whispers trickled down to me from those higher echelons that the doyens within our breed that sit ringside were not happy. That they were shaking their heads in despair that a Chesapeake shown out of coat would bring a disservice to the breed.

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So is it worth taking the chance that perhaps a Chesapeake possibly can be defined by more than just coat? Is there a possibility that this breed, primarily still seen as a working gundog might be evaluated equally on soundness and movement? Perhaps the overall outline and profile too separates this breed from any other? and what of attitude and expression? I had hoped that the Chesapeake could be seen more as a combination of unique breed traits rather than simply seen as a specimen with or without coat?

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I had thought long and hard about this as I pored over the show schedules earlier in the year. The window of opportunity to show Chesapeakes at Championship Shows where CC’s are on offer in the UK is very small. There is just over 6 months between the first set at Crufts in March and the final single CC available at Driffield in September.

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Time and timing are of the essence and preparing these dogs for the show season goes way beyond a quick dip in the sea the day before a show, (that’s not to say I don’t do it.. 😉 ). Diet, condition and level of  fitness are assessed on a daily basis… long before we set foot inside the show ring I will have walked and run many kilometres, doing road work and swimming, to maintain the hard core fitness that was laid down during the shooting season and build back up any condition lost. These are the things I can control to some degree but the one thing I have very little control over is the seasonal variations in coat.

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Ironically their coats were at their best this year when they needed them most but also when they weren’t been judged by them. All through the shooting season both Mossy and Uisce retained the thick impenetrable coats that this breed is known for. Their coats offered protection throughout the weeks as they worked the river duck on the Avoca and also as an extra barrier when hunting for birds beneath the gorse and brambles.

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During this period I never needed to treat for broken skin, bleeding tails, or damp, cold dogs sitting for long periods as their coats fulfilled every aspect of what their were designed for just fine.

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Then Spring came, shooting season ended and as we turned our attention towards preparing for a long season of dog shows nature decided their coats had served their purpose and it was time for them to go…

Three weeks before Crufts Mossy left all of his undercoat in a neat pile on the floor of the National Show Centre in Cloghran. I had expected it to happen but still I watched in dismay as the small brown tufts of candyfloss blew gently across the floor. There was nothing to lose at this point by giving him a bath and stripping what remained of his coat out completely in the hope that some new coat may have filled in by the time we headed for Crufts.

The next morning after a bath he was down to a very thin layer of guard hairs and skin!!! The next few weeks were a cycle of sea swimming and rubbing with a chamois. By the time we hit the green carpet on the first week in March his coat had filled in well, not at it’s full depth but enough to be rewarded with a 1st in the BASC Gamekeepers classes  under judge Ms Di Stevens and winner of the Shooting Gazette Trophy for Best AV Working Retriever Dog.

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Uisce at this stage was still holding coat nicely. She was in a post season bloom and it showed in her results. Still not 2 years old when she competed in Crufts this year, she held her own in the Open bitch class among bitches 4- 6 years her senior finishing a very credible 3rd. Then entering BASC Gamekeepers and winning  the Marsh Trophy for Best AV Working Retriever Bitch  under judge Mr Terry Bailey.

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Our dogs made breed history that day never before has a Chesapeake won either of these trophies let alone be won on the same day by half siblings.

Back in Ireland a week later Uisce won Green Star bitch, graded excellent and Mossy won Best of Breed under Gundog Specialist Ms S Taggart and Mossy followed up with a Group 4 under Mr A Mc Kiernan at the Celtic winners Championship show on St. Patricks day..

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The show season was now in full swing juggling shows in Ireland and campaigning in the UK is difficult but balancing this alongside competing and training in working tests, certainly keeps things interesting. So far, we have been over and back the Irish sea on average every fortnight since March. The weekends in between have been filled with shows and working tests on home ground, oh and a family wedding!

Along with the mileage clocked up we have brought home 2 reserve CC’s for Mossy. At home in Ireland from 2 shows he has 2 Best of  Breeds, a Group 4 and a Group 1.

Bertie, as part of the UK Chesapeake team competing in the Minor breeds in April finished with a team 2nd and he was awarded top scoring individual dog. At his first AV working test of the year he won Open class and has spent 3 days training along with Uisce at the the Bettinsons in Wales.

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As Mossy’s coat returned to full bloom Uisce’s disappeared. She is due in season in the next few weeks and her seasonal blow came just as we prepared to travel for Birmingham National in the second week of May. It was a much more difficult decision as to whether to show her without coat. Loss of coat showed her immaturity of body in comparison to her more mature competitors in the open bitch class. However, because of breeding plans her opportunity to compete could be shortened later in the summer. So a year would be lost before she could compete in the UK again.

My decision to show her and give her the chance came because as a bitch on the move she is one of the best I have had. With or without coat she is foot perfect on the move whether coming, going or side on she never breaks stride or misses a beat..Her worst result in  Birmingham, when she really had no coat she finished 3rd of 3 in Open bitch and at Bath two weeks later with coat on the return out of a class of 6  she  finished 3rd behind the CC and RCC winners.

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Now two weeks on and just in from our latest Championship show yesterday Uisce took Green Star Bitch and beating her litter brother, Ceann Comhairle, for Best of Breed at Cork and District Championship show under gundog specialist Ms K Savage.

So was I right to take the chance to show a Chesapeake without coat? Did I do a disservice to the breed? Is the Chesapeake to be seen as just a clothes horse on which to hang a beautiful coat? Or is it a breed that can be recognised as much for it’s profile, strong confident movement, head expression, strong tail and character?

Next week Uisce and Bertie are set to compete in a retriever working test…this time they will be judged on many other things but it is unlikely they will lose or gain any marks for the appearance of their coat.

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When man created the Chessie ….

When Man created the Chesapeake Bay Retriever it was for places like the River Shannon.

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Its name, taken from the Irish goddess ‘Sionna’, means wise river, a name that certainly is reflected in the secrets it holds as you travel its length on a cold Autumn morning. When the skies above and around are filled with thousands of wildfowl, the depth and variety of which is unparallelledd anywhere else on this island, you wonder what is it that attracts them to this particular place.

From where the Shannon rises in the Cuilcagh mountains of Cavan it cuts a path through the very heart of Ireland on its way south to the Atlantic. Separating the east of Ireland from west of Ireland, passing through eleven counties, fed by many substantial tributary rivers and widening its girth at three points to form the lakes of Lough Allen, Lough Ree and Lough Derg. It runs for almost three hundred kilometers and most of that is through quiet, unpopulated countryside.

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The secret to the river Shannon’s success in drawing in such diverse numbers of birds most likely is due to her shallow basin. This has prevented massive use of the river for industrial development and also much of the surrounding land is bog land thus preventing large scale intensive farming. Once the first heavy rains of Autumn blow in, the Shannon spills her banks and spreads for vast distances across the surrounding countryside sometimes reaching widths of a couple of miles.

A dog worked over this type of flooded bog land does not require great speed or knowledge of straight lines. Strength, soundness of limbs, endurance and the tenacity to stay on a bird when all the elements of nature are fighting against him are much more valuable in a wildfowling dog in this particular environment.

When I arrived to my friend Pat’s house last Tuesday morning the river level was at a tricky stage, it was not quite high enough yet to decoy on the floodplains, our only option was to take the boat and walk into spots along the way. I wasn’t expecting much, the weather, which seems to be usual for my forays wildfowling, was bright and sunny but it was wonderful to be out in such beautiful surroundings with my dog and gun for the first time this season.

By mid-morning we had pushed off from shore and Bertie’s tail beat a  steady rhythm against the side of the boat as he snorted in great gulps of air, his eyes scanning the reed banks for movement as we clipped along the water.

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Even on its calmest days, like last Tuesday, the Shannon waters’ demand respect. As I looked down into the peaty waters that flowed past the boat a shiver ran through me. The wide expanse of water allows the slightest breeze to whip up a swell. The prevailing winds coming from the south west and the rivers current, which is flowing south, are at constant odds with each other.

There was no shortage of birds to be seen either. Migration had started and the low fields on either side of the river were filled with lapwing, starlings and golden plover. All rose in one single mass as we passed and synchronised their erratic flights making it difficult to my untrained eye to pick out the goldens from the lapwings and the starlings. They were here in their thousands. I could see vast numbers swoop in black bands against the grey sky in the distance. We saw reed buntings, mute swans, whooper swans and  all the while on either side of us, but just tantalisingly out of range, flocks of  mallard and teal got up from the reeds and saluted us as we passed.

Pat has spent his entire life hunting and fishing the Shannon and having somebody who knows these type of waters well is essential for this type of shooting. Not only to have knowledge of where the birds will drop in to feed but more importantly knowing the water and all the factors which influence the river such as wind direction, surrounding land and movement of the birds. One foot placed in the wrong spot can have catastrophic consequences and I’m not just talking about a soggy sock!! When the river floods over bog land what looks like three foot of water is in reality an extra two foot below as your foot sinks through the peat. The effort required to walk this type of terrain certainly made decoying a more appealing option.

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Our first bird in the bag that morning was a female mallard. We had just pulled into reeds after seeing a group of teal lift along with some lapwing. A good spot for feeding, and on this occasion Pat’s instincts were spot on. A duck and drake mallard wheeled off to our left. One clean shot brought the female down in the field beyond the reeds. I sent Bertie and he launched himself from the boat and waded through the reeds . The water here was chest height but the peat bottom made it doubly difficult. It would have been almost impossible for either Pat or myself to wade through that type of ground. Bertie needed to use a combination of drive from his rear and strength to pull from his front to keep his momentum going as he worked a path through to dry land. He needed no reminder as to where the bird fell and swiftly picked the duck for  His first retrieve of the season.

We had just passed Clonmacnoise Abbey and as we came round a bend in the river there was movement everywhere. The fields on either side were low and green and had attracted large flocks of lapwing and plover, the wind carried their high pitched screech up towards us. Swans were feeding in the shallows behind the reeds. This looked like a promising spot. We edged the boat into the reeds again, cut the engine and waited. It didn’t take long before a group of Wigeon passed just within range. The first hit the water with two more winged and flying on to the far bank.

The bird on the water was stone dead, not going anywhere, but it was the obvious one that Bertie marked. However, the two wounded birds on the far bank were the more important retrieves to take. We  moved the boat out and retrieved the bird from the water en route to the far bank. Pat had a rough mark on both birds. The first was easy, I spotted its head up before we reached shore and cast Bertie from the boat, hunted him to the area, he found it easily and brought it to hand. We pulled the boat to shore and walked in from there. Finding solid footing was difficult. Each step found my leg disappearing to knee level. I sent Bertie on ahead to a fence line where Pat had seen the bird come down and asked him to hunt from there. He picked up scent quickly and hunted a tight area but lost it again. I cast him left down towards the river where he dropped his nose to follow a trail and there just along the shoreline we found our duck.

Friday November 1st.

River Duck on the Avoca river.

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This is a completely different type of water but equally as challenging. The basin is deep, carved out of the granite Wicklow hills and fed by numerous fast flowing rivers. By the time the river reaches the point where the Shelton drive begins it is wide and fast as it hurries towards the Irish sea. The loose gravel bed means the water channels shift and swirl developing sweeping narrow streams within the river that are flowing at twice the speed of the remainder of the water.

As we set ourselves up beyond the gun line on the river bank it was almost four o clock. The dogs had been working solidly, retrieving driven pheasant, since ten o clock that morning. The light was fading fast and temperatures were dropping.

The dog’s knowledge of how the currents work is important, they need to know not to fight against the charging white water. An experienced dog will slip into the current with little effort then turn into it and work slowly across. The fact that they may be carried downstream as they work forward will not bother them , in fact many times they will calmly thread water focussing on the river ahead and waiting for the current to carry that bird to them. Once retrieved an experienced dog will go with the current until it carries it close to the bank, which again will be forty- fifty meters below its starting point. The drive is fast, intense and finished in thirty minutes. In that period of time any single dog working the water here will have made a minimum of ten retrieves.

Only the strongest dogs on the shoot will work the waters at the widest and fastest point in the river. It is exhausting cold work for a spaniel or some of the finely built Labradors who remain on the riverbank but are kept busy with any duck that land in the cover there.

It is easy to see why the Chesapeake excels at this particular type of work and why it is so important that not only  their structure remains as it currently stands but also perhaps to a greater degree their strong mental attitude. The terrain they were built for gave no quarter to half hearted effort.   A strong front and sound rear drive is certainly an asset when a dog is pulling its body through the glue-like peat in pursuit of a retrieve along the banks of the Shannon but without an equal measure of bloodminded determination ( which Chessies possess in abundance), many more birds would be lost when tough retrieving is required.

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Our final bag on the Shannon yielded one mallard, three wigeon and two golden plover. I marinated the wigeon and mallard breasts in spices and orange juice. Roasted them for twenty minutes and then deep fried for a minute. Served with some sweet chilli dipping sauce….absolutely divine….

Hope Valley Team Test

Vintage Massy Ferguson tractors shined, greased and oiled to perfection chugged their way along the road in convoy through the moors, their drivers waving us by in salute whenever the road straightened enough to do so. A heavy fog hung over the valleys but on the higher peaks great swathes of purple heather broke the otherwise grey morning. We were on our way, in our own little Chessie convoy, to Hope Valley Agricultural Show to compete as part of a team in a retriever working test.

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The view from the showgrounds – Peveril Castle.

Do you know what I love about agricultural shows? There is a comfort in knowing that people still take pride in the art of jam making, baking cakes, knitting and needlework to enter them in competition. The preservation of certain specialised breeds and types of sheep, cattle, pigs, horses and goats is ensured as long as there are stockmen and women interested enough to bring them out to be judged against a standard. Wandering around the back of the holding pens you see just how much care and attention to detail goes into presenting their animals in their best possible light and the judging is intense, every inch of the animal is examined…the horsemen taking it to an extra level by even having the judge ride each horse in the class. These are our heritage, I feel, skills that if lost will surely leave us poorer as a race. Which is why I feel that in our own sport working and showing our gundogs should continue to be an important part of bringing our breeds into the future.

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Showing horses.

Hope Show had everything on offer that day from sheepdog trials, show jumping and one of the most unique retriever working tests I have ever been a part of.

Eight teams, each team a different breed of retriever- a team of Chesapeakes, Chocolate Labradors, Golden retrievers, Irish Water Spaniels,Yellow Labradors, Flat Coated Retrievers, Curly Coated Retrievers and finally not to be forgotton Black Labradors.. The event is run and organised by the Northern branch of the United Retriever Club. Each team ran as a unit, made up of two novice and two open level dogs, completing a series of four tests throughout the day. The Chesapeakes were first team up that morning so not much time to think about nerves or strategies. We would hopefully set the standard for others to follow…

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Irish Water Spaniel in action at Hope.

The fog in the valleys cleared quickly to reveal Derbyshire county at her finest. Sapphire blue skies created the backdrop for the rugged ridges of Winnats pass and Mam Tor. As the day warmed up the most amazing sight of dozens of hang-gliders resting like giant butterflies on the side of the Tor could be seen before they lifted off and glided gracefully to the valleys below, allowing the air thermals and breezes to carry them in whichever direction they wished.

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It’s not always the easiest to run from the front but we started well that morning, scoring well above average and were in the lead after the first four teams ran. By the end of the third series in the afternoon we were still holding well in second place, with just the Yellow lab team stretching the lead in front.

The yellow Labrador team put in a strong challenge to immerge victors.

The yellow Labrador team put in a strong challenge to immerge victors.

The last test series was upon us and as we stood in  line for the last time I could certainly feel the pressure. The teams were piling up behind us, slowly but surely pulling back points with each retrieve. We needed a fairly clean sheet to hold our position.

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The final test was split into two parts. The first part was a straightforward mock drive incorporating gunshot and beaters. All that was required here was steadiness from the dogs. Our team of brown dogs sat impeccably throughout. At the end of the drive we were asked to put our leads back on and turn our dogs ninety degrees away from the direction of the drive. The second part of the test was explained. There were six dummies to be retrieved from across the fence in front of us. To the left was an area where the dogs had all worked and retrieved from that morning, as well as the area where they had just seen ‘birds’ fall. This could potentially draw them to an area the wrong side of the fence. There were two ‘runners’ planted at the lower end of the field on the right, if retrieved bonus points were gained. In theory, a straightforward test but its  those simple ones that allow such little room for error that can mean the difference between final victory or defeat…

The eight teams line up for presentation.

The eight teams line up for presentation.

In hindsight I would have handled Bertie differently. My intention was to get one of the ‘runners’ but he thought otherwise and pulled left from the start towards the area of an old ‘fall’. It’s always a split second decision in these cases. Of course in training I would have immediately called him back, gave a definite ‘leave’ command to his left and recast him right but in competition there isn’t this option. There were two choices running through my head the moment I saw the direction he took…let him run on to the fence, clear it and then stop him and cast right or stop him immediately cast right/angled back and then over. In that split second I chose the former and it was the wrong call. Three whistles more than I would have liked to get him back down the field to the area of the fall. He got the ‘runner’ and subsequent three bonus points bringing his final score to 18/20. Now we had to sit back and wait, hoping that the remaining teams would stay chasing our heels and not overtake.

In the end there were too few mistakes from the chasing pack we finished fifth overall and got a certificate of merit rosette. We had set  a great challenge and as we stood in line for the presentation with the other teams I felt very proud and honoured to have been invited to run and represent our lovable brown brillo butts…..maybe next year we’ll reclaim that  silver cup….

Bertie’s individual scores for each of his retrieves were :

18/20; 20/20; 18/20; 15/20+3 bonus points.

Our Chessie team.

Our Chessie team.

The time had come to leave in chessie convoy but this time we took a turn right on leaving the show grounds and followed the road through Winnats pass and up to the base of Mam Tor. We parked the cars and trekked all the way to the top with six chessies and a tough little four year old girl. It was after seven in the evening but the air was still warm. All along the path on our way to the top flying ants were warming up their wings before lifting off into the evening air. And finally we were there and it was so worth the climb. To think this great expanse of openness is just thirty minutes drive from one of the most densely populated cities in the world is a testament to how the British have valued the preservation of their rural landscape.

The view from the top of Mam Tor.

The view from the top of Mam Tor.