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.

Scents and sensibility..

An experienced gamefinding dog is invaluable.

An experienced gamefinding dog is invaluable.

Scent and a dog’s ability to use it in relation to hunting has long fascinated me.  When I watch dogs’ work and figure out the story which a scent trail reveals I can appreciate that this sense, more than any other, in relation to dogs is perhaps their most valuable hunting asset. Dogs trust their noses more than their eyes. Sight will bring them to the area of a fall but it will be their nose that will finish the trail and find their quarry.

Of course, the role a dog handler plays in helping track a bird should not be underestimated either. We have the advantage of height, sight and logic. It is this combination of skills between dog and handler which leads me to the following tale.

It is a story  about scent and the  combination of factors that fall into the mix when a wily cock pheasant decides to play chase. It tells the tale of how scent can be elusive and  frustrating. Even with the assistance of the handler, who often has the advantage of height and sight, sometimes a bird can lay a trail which only the cunning and experience of an older dog can untangle.

So let us go back to mid- November on a cold bright morning at Shelton Abbey. Staffords was the first drive of the morning and the birds were flying well. This drive is a mixture of tall conifers, sitting down in a valley with open areas of low, heavy undergrowth. The birds break from the top  of the bank behind the trees, clearing the tree- tops and offer quick, high challenging shooting to the guns standing on the  narrow path below.

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Staffords offers a narrow window for challenging shooting.

Des was working Mossy further up the gunline but I had hung back for this one as the ground is too difficult for Elly to walk through. We had taken a stroll, instead, back along the path  looking for pine cones and Elly was having fun cracking the ice from some puddles.

Elly enjoying the outdoors.

Elly enjoying the outdoors.

As the drive wound down I wandered back towards the game cart. A bird had come down behind the end gun with a wing down and was on the run. The spaniel directly behind the gun had marked the cock bird well and her handler sent her to retrieve him.  It should have been as straightforward as that, but the cock pheasant had other ideas. The young dog took a line directly on the bird  through the pine needles but lost him when she hit some marshy ground. She quartered the ground well covering the area of the fall and retracing where the pheasant had last been seen. Her owner  helped her by pushing her back further into the swamp in the hope of picking up the trail again.

At the game cart Michelle and Coral could see  the bird as it ran on deeper into the woods towards the roots of a fallen conifer. Coral took her young cocker to hunt the area  in the hope of either picking up the trail, or as sometimes happens,  finding the bird had hunkered down into the cover which surrounded the tree. Both young dogs worked well covering the ground asked of them but for some unknown reason the trail kept going cold; almost as if there were gaps in the scent and where the bird had run.

High birds and open sky.

High birds and open sky.

The drive was over so I took Winnie and Chester out to see if they could help figure out this riddle. I checked with Michelle that the area  behind Staffords was not going to be used that morning so, if necessary, I could allow the dogs range a good distance if they picked up a trail.

I took them to the fallen conifer where the bird had last been seen and set them to hunt. Just like the spaniels did before them, they covered the ground well. There was plenty of scent as many birds had landed in this area throughout the drive. The dogs would have to differentiate scent given off by the uninjured birds that landed  and the one bird running through this area which was injured. Nothing was pulling them away from the area to indicate that the bird may have moved on through the woods. He had to be here somewhere.

Then Chester skipped across a small stream and picked up a trail heading back into the woods towards the gunline, after a few minutes out of sight I could hear the lusty call of a cock bird as he rose and flew into the distance. That was not the bird we were seeking. Winnie continued to work the area but wasn’t showing any signs of hot fresh scent. Chester returned and again picked up a trail on the far bank of the stream, this time heading back up hill towards the area of the sweep drive. He was soon out of sight and was gone for much longer this time. There was no point in calling him, he would not hear me but I knew the ground well enough that he could follow a bird a good distance without difficulty and without endangering himself by crossing roads or fences. He is doggedly persistant and will trail an injured bird until he finds it.

Cover in Staffords .

Cover in Staffords .

We were just heading back to the gamecart when down through the woods comes Chester, carrying the wounded cock bird. He had sought and found the right trail. The pheasant had not made it easy he had outwitted three dogs and three handlers all of whom had worked hard to untangle the scent trail he left or didn’t leave behind as he made good his escape!

It is a retrieve which stuck with me in the weeks following and one which I am still perplexed by. Why did the trail go cold so quickly after the bird hit the ground? One old timer’s theory, when I told him about it, was the pine needles. He reckons they disrupt scent and recounted an incident where he almost lost a young dog in a pine forest some years back. There may be some truth in this as when Chester crossed the stream the woodland becaome more mixed with decidious leaf litter as opposed to pine needles but I will never truly know.

I also wondered about the retrieve from a trialling perspective. It was through no fault of any of the dogs that they lost the trail of the pheasant but what would have happened in a trial? Would each subsequent handler be allowed to move further into the woodland in order to pick up a trail? The line which Chester initially took flushed a bird, possibly lightly pricked, would that have been taken as the initial bird or could Chester be allowed try again? Sometimes the confines of trialling may limit gamefinding skills rather than enhancing them perhaps?

The indominitable Chester.

The indominitable Chester.

Close encounters with canines…

Uisce aged eight months

Uisce aged eight months

It is inevitable that at some stage in every young dog’s life they will encounter and have to deal with an altercation with another member of the canine species. Whether your dog is the agressor or the recipient of such, an event will ultimatley affect how you deal with the incident going forward.

Two weeks ago I took Uisce along to what was to be her last show of the year. Although only an open show it is one which attracts a big entry and this year was no different, with an entry of over five hundred dogs. She was entered in her breed class and also puppy stakes, it was her final chance to qualify for the Pup of the Year, an exciting prospect.

Uisce had already been seen by the breed judge and been awarded best of breed, she had shown well and was enjoying being out and about. I was standing ringside, chatting with some friends, when a dobermann  lunged forward and attacked her full on the face. Taken aback Uisce jumped away, something which prevented the doberman from maintaining a grip and causing further damage. As it was Uisce was left with a toothmark above and below her eye but worse still she quickly decided that this showing lark was no longer any fun and shut down. She pulled in beside my friend Katherina and refused to move.

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The reasons behind the attack make little difference, it happened and I have to deal with the effect it has and will have on her going forward. How the doberman owner deals with her dog’s behaviour is not my concern. Uisce was unfortunate that day to have encountered this particular dog, which I subsequently learnt had earlier attempted attacks on other dogs and the owner had refused to acknowledge the problem.

I washed the wound out well with saline solution, thankfully it wasn’t deep and would not require veterinary treatment. Convincing Uisce to move through the narrow passageways between rings was an entirely different matter. She bucked and pulled against the lead, treats were no consolation prize on this day. She just did not want to know. I understood her fear but at the same time I also knew interaction with other dogs, outside of her aquaintance, were going to be a huge part of her life going forward. She was going to have to figure out a way to deal with this, today however was not the day for that.

I did not leave the show immediately as I felt it was important that the one bad experience that day should be counterbalanced with plenty of good ones.  I took her into the puppy stakes ring not putting any pressure on her to perform but I wanted her to be left with a positve impression of the judge. It is much more difficult to regain a young dog’s confidence in people than it is with other dogs. I explained to the judge what had happened and like all good judges she treated Uisce with patience and kindness, talking to her while all the time going over her. I felt heartened to see that Uisce’s trust in people had not flinched as she calmly stood for the judge under examination. However, when asked to move, everything about her body language screamed ‘I do not want to be here’. After her examination I gave my apologies and withdrew her from competition. We took a walk outside and she relaxed a little but when we re-entered the show center she clammed up again. One more cuddle with my friends ringside and I decided nothing further could be gained from staying.

Chesapeakes, in my experience, have a long memory. It works well from a working perspective but the downside of it is when they happen upon a bad experience it generally means going back to the beginning and working from scratch. They are a breed that can quickly turn off showing and it is very, very difficult to motivate a chesapeake if they do not want to do something. This is why I believe in putting very little emphasis on minor details, like stacking, at an early age in the show ring. I prefer to use the ring as a place of fun for my young chessies. I knew after the encounter at the show it could be a long slow climb if she decided the show ring was not for her.

We are extremely lucky here in Ireland, in that the show centre which hosts many of our dog shows,  is also the venue for training classes during the week. It is a huge building. Noise carries far, but at training classes the space is there to allow a dog that might be feeling slightly intimidated to dip in and out as they need to. This is where I will be spending most Tuesday evenings for the foreseeable future.

I could never have anticipated Uisce’s reaction that first Tuesday evening after the show when we entered the centre. I would have expected some hesitancy on her part but she had obviously thought long and hard about her experience the previous weekend and decided that shying away from encounters like that were not for her. She entered the center, pulled herself up to full height, flagged her tail and let out the most enormous bark as much as to say ‘ I’m back’. This was a better reaction than what I’d hoped for but  ultimately I want the pendulum to swing back just a little. What I’m aiming for is a reaction of indifference to what other dogs do and don’t do. This is something she is going to have to learn, with my guidance I hope.

We by-passed the ringcraft classes that evening and headed straight for puppy socialisation with Mary Kennedy. I want to continue her education in the environment of a dog show scene but offering something with a little more focus on me and perhaps even a little bit of fun. There is plenty of time to get serious about dog showing. Right now it’s just a pleasure to see my young girl has bounce-back…

Her first week back went well and last week I took her to a second class. On this occasion I was fortunate to be introduced, by our class instructer, to a giant schnauzer called ‘Harper’. Mary felt it would be good for Uisce to experience a large dark coloured dog. She knows Harper and her owner. Uisce’s reaction was interesting. On their initial introduction Uisce dropped her head and tail but raised her hackles, clearly not sure what kind of reception she was going to receive. I felt this was an appropriate reaction as it showed a healthy respect for a dog she didn’t know and was unsure of.

There were many who felt that day at the show that I should have taken the issue further. My feelings on this, I hope, I’ve outlined above. I believe all dogs are capable of aggression and, in the world of dog showing where often dogs are passing and standing in extremely close and unnatural circumstances, incidences such as the one my young dog encountered will happen. It is my responsibility to protect my dog as best I can, be it by means of crating or benching at ringside or, if possible, standing away from crowded areas. I do not believe dogs should have to tolerate another dog invading their space, however, I do think all dog owners should teach their dogs to be able to tolerate such confined conditions without reacting.

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