To retrieve a Duck….

Duck rising off the Tailings at Shelton

Duck rising off the Tailings at Shelton

We came to the river again for the Duck Drive, just as the late winter sun dipped below the tree line at the top of the valley.

October 2015 will not be remembered for crisp clear mornings bright with frost , it will be remembered instead for record rainfall and temperatures more akin to late summer than early winter. When November 1st arrived at Shelton, although it stayed dry, the unseasonably mild weather had left all gamekeepers with the unwanted headache of trying to keep birds within boundaries when the hedgerows were still laden with natural feeding.

The first frosts hadn’t come,  leaving the brambles still green and difficult for both us and the dogs to push through. So by the time we took up our spot on the gravel island at the fork in the river most of the dogs were tired from three heavy pheasant drives and the river was not in a gentle kind of mood.

DSC_1460

Full from the heavy rains that fell earlier in the week it would be foolhardy to treat the Avoca, that day, with anything but the utmost respect.

I am always cautious with the dogs I work on the river drive. Young dogs come along only when steady and are kept on lead to watch the older dogs work. I learned my lesson many years ago when I foolishly sent Chester in to this very river on a very lightly wounded duck and watched in horror as the current took both him and the duck round the bend and out of sight. Thankfully, it ended well when he got the duck, found the bank down by the prison and made his way back; but I know it could have ended equally as badly.

Today I had Winnie and Bertie, both experienced dogs in relation to waterwork . We watched as the duck came over the tailings and flew up and across the river. Some were caught by the guns at this stage and from that moment until the end of the drive, thirty  minutes later, the dogs were in constant motion.

DSC_0604

They  worked well with the current , swimming out and turning into it as the birds came downstream to them and then going with the current until it carried them back into their own depth where they brought the birds back to me. They also pushed through the current and retrieved birds that fell on the far bank; occasionally they had an easy run up the gravel island to pick a bird from the stones.

The horn blew, to signal the end of the drive. We had filled two game carriers in that short period of time but there was one final retrieve I needed and as Bertie was the younger and fitter of the pair the task fell to him.

 

Halfway across the widest and fastest flowing part of the river a piece of deadwood rose from the water, strung with all sorts of debris that had got caught up in its branches now it held a drake mallard captive. The bird had been carried downriver during the drive while the dogs were working on other retrieves so they had no idea it was there and the bits of debris flapping like flags in the current masked any sign of the bird from the island where we stood.

 

DSC_1705

 

I cast Bertie on a line above the deadwood, aiming him for the far bank, anticipating the current would pull him in line with the branches by the time he reached mid-river. He entered the water and felt that familiar pull of the river as it gripped him determinedly and pulled him downstream; with each powerful stroke, though, he was moving nearer the branches but also being pulled sideways by the current. Every stroke was  a battle to simply stay on course. Mid river and the current had carried him to where I expected him to be, Bertie was now below the deadwood . I blew hard on my whistle hoping  to get his attention above the roar of the water and asked him to hunt. It worked, he lifted his head clear of the water and searched using both nose and eyes, he caught the scent and  locked onto the flapping debris, pumped those shoulders harder than before to drive into the current and slowly, slowly work his way towards those branches. With one final drive he reached his head forward and pulled the duck from where the branches held it tightly, then he let go of all effort and allowed the current to carry him downriver to where it sweeps past the shallow end of the island. There he found his footing, pulled himself clear of the water and  with bird in mouth he gave  one final shake and made his way back to  where Winnie and I waited…

DSC_9497

 

There are plenty of times my dogs and I mess up during the season and I value these as lessons to be  learned and move on from . But every once in a while it all comes together, like the day on the river,and because  these moments come along so infrequently I choose, instead to hold onto them…they are the days to be treasured for times when I can reach my hand down in search of a brown head and rub a pair of soft brown ears as I retell the story of Bertie’s blind duck retrieve again and again and again..

received_10208648157540448

 

Hope you had a great season everyone from Me and the Brown Bunch.xx

 

 

.

Advertisements

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

DSC_4823

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.

DSC_9761

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.

DSC_6961

….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….

DSC_6738

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?

DSC_0976

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.

DSC_3838

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.

Becoming a Field Trial Groupie….

 

From the outside looking in I never had much time for field trials. As a sport it never gripped me in a way that shooting and hunting with a dog in the conventional way did.

I mean I owned a breed anyway that I believed didn’t naturally submit to a lot of the pressure that handling, control and rigourous field trial training required. The Chessies performed and worked better when left to their own devices in the shooting field.

DSC_0253

But then last year, while researching a piece on how to make up a Field trial champion, a Dual champion and a Full champion in Ireland, I was forced to take a closer look at a sport that in truth I had little faith or belief in; a sport that I felt had digressed away from what was required of a dog in the working field and become an elitist sport for a very tiny percentage of the Retriever world. Trials, I believed, had gone above and beyond the call of duty in relation to the level of obedience and control required to win an Open stake….. And I wondered that if trials had been developed as a template from which all working stock should be gauged, how was it that they seemed to favour one breed and more so only a certain ‘type’ within that breed ?

DSC_0154

What would it mean if someone were to concentrate soley on developing a Chesapeake for trialling as has happened in Labradors? Is it possible to continue to hold the middle ground and have dogs competing at high levels in both the show and field trial worlds? Or would the necessity to specialise in trials force a  breed split as has happened to many other of the retriever, spaniel and setter breeds ? And then if that happened which ‘type’ within that breed split  is a better representative of what defines that breed ? Is it the dog that adapts to work in the ever changing world of shooting and fieldsports ? Or is it the dog that remains true to a breed standard that was laid down over a hundred years ago and modified only slightly even though everything around that standard has moved on and changed?

DSC_3193

In the beginning I really wanted to see where the limitations of field trials lay so that I could justify reasons, I guess, as to why my own beloved breed and many of the other retriever breeds  failed so miserably to compete in them with much success.

DSC_7889

The fatigue of a long summer season of dog shows , gundog working tests and training days was settling on my  shoulders when Bertie and I began our Winter journey as Field Trial groupies….  I was more than  ready to pick up the game carrier, put away my whistle and follow my dogs where their noses told them go in the hunt to find pheasant.

DSC_9375

Instead we found ourselves following Jed, Roxy, Paddy and Ripple, all dogs I had come to respect and admire from competing against them through the summer months of working tests. We travelled to the most obscure parts of the country, in all sorts of weather and always with a middle of the night alarm call that would put the most hardened wildfowler to shame.

We only managed to follow three trials but these dogs and handlers run the circuit from September to the end of January. In the run up to the Championships in December they may compete up to three times a week…many, many times they fail in their quest to succeed but they simply move on to the next trial and try again…..that’s a lot of pressure, a lot of time and a lot of money…

DSC_9538

Every trial was different. The grounds and formats varied greatly. Walk up on partridge in Bracken Hill required good  marking skills and the ability to hold a postage stamp tight area and hunt. If I ever had doubts about whether a field trial dog could face cover, they were put to rest in Connolly when in the middle of the dense Coillte plantations these dogs  never hesitated when asked to produce birds from the thick mess of brambles in boggy ground. And finally the Broadmeadows trial at Slane showed that they could take on the River Boyne in full winter flow and win.

DSC_6114

These dogs could deal with the pressure of sitting under the guns as three hundred birds flew, fell and fluttered over their heads. They picked wounded runners mid-drive without the temptation of switching game, or haring off after another bird in flight

It seemed as if this ‘Elite’ squad of highly trained dogs could do everything but rather than being disappointed that Field trials weren’t as limiting as I had hoped; I found instead that I was drawn to the possibility that perhaps aiming towards this level of controlled precision could be an asset rather than an incumberence to my breed.

DSC_8881

There is such a thing as a dog having too much game sense.

Bertie was all that I had to give it a go and get a feel for this sport that I still didn’t fully understand.  I knew too well that starting a trialling career with a dog that has had six working seasons under his belt was asking a lot, maybe too much, from the outset.
There is such a thing as a dog having too much game-sense and knowing their job too well. All those winters watching birds, learning which one flew on without shot and which ones were possibly wounded, being let run in on birds that hit the ground injured before they disappeared into heavy cover or down river on a strong current. Now I was asking this dog to hold himself back, go against every single instinct he had learned to trust in pursuit of game and to hand over control completely and utterly to me.

Our first trial in November was a four hour drive to Kerry and all I was aiming for was for him to sit steady through a drive. He did,  he  sat through a drive quietly and without running in. He wrong-birded on his first retrieve but we had achieved our aim and that is all I could or would ask of him for now.

Our second trial was held on ground he has worked on over the last six years, since he was eight months old. It was a novice trial at Shelton. I entered this trial as a courtesy to the shoot captain but fully expected to be relieved of my armband before the horn blew at the end of the drive. The temptation to run in would be just too great as he knew which birds he would have been traditionally ‘allowed’ go for without being asked.

DSC_8305

From the deepest pit of my being I prayed that luck would come our way, that the drive would not be too long and that the birds would somehow fall everywhere else except around where we stood. They came, they flew, they fell ….everywhere…..they fluttered into the gorse in front of us and wheeled at head height crashing into the brambles behind. Somehow, by some miracle, Bertie stayed put and finally when every ounce of adrenalin had drained from my body our judge uttered those immortal words, ” you may put your leads on now and relax”. We had done it and I don’t think anyone could quite understand why, when Bertie wrong-birded on his first retrieve again I came away from the line with the biggest grin on my face.

DSC_8815

Mental strength and tractability, two traits I will value in future.

So in the end was I swayed? Did I find the answers to my questions?  I think I did. I discovered that only if you want it to be is Field trialling an elitist sport. I discovered a group of intensely committed hardworking people completely dedicated to producing the best dog for the ever evolving realm of field sports. Yes, field trials may have their limitations, perhaps over handling can compensate for a dog with lesser scenting ability and perhaps the retriever breeds more apt for air-scenting and those bred to work unaided will never feature in huge numbers at the top level of field trials. However, I think trials succeed best in finding dogs that have mental strength, that are tractable and that can bend rather than break to pressure.

DSC_3540

Trials are only elitist if you want them to be.

I found that even with our limited time preparing for trials this season Bertie’s level of competence in the field was not hindered but rather added to my pleasure of bringing him to the working field…..to have a dog capable of sitting out a drive without fear of him running after every bird that falls, to be able to call him off a bird if needed and to follow a walking gun behind the beating line without the heart stopping fear of him running through the drive is something that makes me very proud both of my dog and the breed he represents.

DSC_9497

Preparing for trials enhanced our enjoyment in the working field.

I can see us continuing in our field trial groupie role. We have much to learn and enjoy. My plans now include field trials in the future development and training of my dogs as even working towards a novice level will allow me to see how they deal with pressure. I will always keep their roots firmly in what they were bred for as I think, ( but I could be proven wrong again ), the luxury of having a breed that straddles both show and working worlds has kept this breed, for the most part, unchanged since the inception of its standard.

“It is not the critic who counts. Not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause. Who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.”

Theodore Roosevelt (1858 – 1919)

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..