So you want to train a Chesapeake?

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Beneath that wavy double coat lies a steely determination to get the job done.

Dear reader,

So you think you’d like to train a Chesapeake?

How hard can it be, right? After all, most likely, you’ve grown up around Labradors all of your life, possibly trained quite a few by now and you’d like the challenge of maybe trying something a little bit different?

How different can a Chesapeake really be? You’ve heard they can be challenging, strong-willed and stubborn perhaps?  but a firm hand should be able to sort that out, shouldn’t it?

And apart from that fabulous dense wavy coat they look so similar to the traditional strong Labrador of what you remember from childhood that you know they will train just like any other retriever, right?

….and that my friend is where you will make your first mistake.

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Looks almost like a Labrador, so how different can they be?

You see I’ve been there, done that, worn the T-shirt.

When our first Chesapeake came into our lives  13 years ago I truly thought we were just taking home a wavy coated version of a chocolate Labrador.

I did all the right things, bored him to death by taking him to ‘proper’ gundog training from a young age where I followed instructions from those in the ‘know’ and he learned to sit in line for hours on end and learned to watch other dogs retrieve, take lines, be reprimanded physically and verbally for infractions such as running in or not returning quick enough.

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It wasn’t long before his Labrador peers that had started the same time as him were moving on to greater things, they had an aptitude for taking correction and direction stoically and without fuss. Trying to teach Chester in the same way produced drama, stubbornness and downright refusal. Simple things like telling him to enter a bramble patch to hunt for a dummy resulted in flat out refusal, yet he would hunt the ditches at home on the mere whiff of a rabbit or pheasant.

In fairness to Chester, (and I commend him for this), in spite of all my nagging and pushing  to a large extent he played along and did as I asked but the spark and drive that I saw when he hunted freely at home evaporated the moment I sat in line at a working test. He compounded what many, in Ireland, thought of Chesapeakes at the time….slow, ploddish and indifferent to dummies.

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Labradors, much more appeasing in general.

There was something about all those curve balls he threw at me though that made me smile, no matter how much I tried to enforce my will on him he was determined to do it his way and I loved him for that. If you ever need a lesson in humility get a Chesapeake and run him in competition ‘cos sure as eggs he will find some way to bring you back to earth.

The day I gave up trying to train Chester to become a working Labrador was truly the day my relationship with this breed moved into another level.

I threw away the ‘rule book’ that says all retrievers can and will be taught in the same way, forgot any fancy notions of competing in working tests and went out and had fun with my dog. In training I allowed him ‘run-in’ on dummy retrieves. I let him parade and race round the field with it, got excited when he raced back with dummy to hand, used treats and experimented with clicker training.

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Chester 1st Open UK CBRC Spring working test.

I kept my training sessions short and light, incorporated them into our walks instead of formulating long static sessions. On the odd occasion when some drill-work was required I punctuated it with play-breaks or moving ground.

The single most important thing I learned during this time, however,  is that this breed, the Chesapeake, needs acknowledgment for a job well done. Whether that acknowledgment comes in the form of an affectionate pat on the head, a much prized piece of liver or an all out ‘yippee’ and roll around in the grass the choice is yours. To get them to play your game your way they like payment but the best thing for you as a trainer is that you get to break and bend the ‘rules’ and have F.U.N….

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You’ve got to be brave enough to break the ‘rules’.

In their book ‘How dogs learn’ Burch and Bailey devote an entire chapter on the importance of acknowledging breed differences when applying training methods stating :

” Breed differences, the individual characteristics of each dog and variables in the way they are trained, all play important parts in successfully teaching new behaviours…”

When you understand this and apply it in training,  it is a tool that can be used to huge advantage when trying to get the best from your dog. All of those wonderful traits that make a Chesapeake exactly what they are and differentiate them from other retriever breeds, were what I wanted to bring forward and keep, as well as a trained gundog. To do this successfully I realised I, as a trainer, had to change in my approach to training more than my dog.

If you are the type of person that likes control and a dog that will bend to your bidding then perhaps a Chesapeake is not the breed for you. That strong-minded, independent thinking dog with a phenomenol nose was bred that way for a very good reason. When hunting heavy waters at dawn and dusk a dog with a very strong desire to hunt and retrieve with little direction and repeatedly enter cold water was and is required above all else. That same independence in thinking is often seen as a handicap when trying to teach the finer points of handling.   Try to ‘break’ that strong mind to fit into your regime of training and you will surely fail, frustrating both you and your dog. However, if you are willing to understand and apply the heritage that this breed brings with it and change your own approach to training then and only then will you and your Chesapeake break boundaries in training.

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some success winning WD, WDX and WDQ in the same day with Winnie and her son Bertie.

Less than a year after ‘correcting’ myself as a trainer Chester won the Open Class UK Chesapeake Bay Retriever Spring Working Test and in subsequent years I have enjoyed some success with Winnie  and her sons Bertie and Mossy. Uisce, now just 2 years, has probably benefitted most from my changes and approach to training. I’ve certainly enjoyed the journey we’ve shared so far but I am still very much on a learning curve. Working tests give me focus for training and although the breeds differ I have learned a great deal from watching some top Labrador handlers compete with their dogs.

Getting down and dirty in the working field though is, without doubt, where this breed excels. When I can throw off the shackles of lines and whistle work and just let them be what they are meant to be, a strong, solid, beautiful Chesapeake, that is when everything about this breed finally makes sense.

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The working field is where this breed makes sense.

As yet, I have not focussed on field trials. It takes a certain type of dog to compete in this very specialised sphere. Of the many hundreds of labradors bred with field trials specifically in mind each year only a tiny percentage manage to compete with any sort of success. That’s not to say that it’s not possible for a Chessie to compete but to do so would, I believe, take the breed in a whole other direction….for better or worse I can’t say….it’s just not in my breeding plans at present.

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Beautiful, intelligent, powerful but most definitely not the breed for everyone.

So do you still think you’d like to train a Chesapeake?  For those of you who still feel this is the breed for you please, please take your time. Ireland is a small country with an even smaller population of Chesapeakes but a disproportionate number end up in rescue or seeking a second home between the ages of 2 and 4 years. Choose a good breeder and keep the lines of communication open for help and advice when needed or, at the very very least, seek advice and help from others experienced in the breed.

Good luck in your search whatever path you choose.

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” Uisce ” meaning water….irony in a name…

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Uisce Madra gaelic for Water Dog.

 

All through the summer I worked on Uisce’s confidence in water. I took her to the lake to practise long water entries, the river to deal with currents and the canal to practise retrieves from across water and through cover. We sat in line with other dogs to work on steadiness and honouring. She learned and gained confidence at the lake and on the river very quickly. It was the canal, the narrowest of the water channels and where I would have considered the easiest of the three venues, that she hit a wall in regards to making progress.

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Water entries became more confident with practise.

The problems which the canal presented had nothing to do with her inability to figure out about retrieves from the far side of the water as I had tested her on clean river banks and water ditches without any issue many times. It was so much simpler than that….it was reeds and/or elephant grass!!!!

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Her entry through the reeds and into water on my side of the canal never caused any hesitation, in fact her water entries have become increasingly spectacular and more chessie-like the more confident that she’s become. Then, however, she would swim to the far bank and just as she hit the reeds she would back off and inevitably her frustration would come through with water circling, splashing and biting. I spent a lot of my time this summer standing on banks and thinking, “okay, how am I going to get round this one? “.
Well I tried everything from sending an older dog across, namely poor Chester again, to make a path through the reeds before her, I brought cold game along to see if the scent of game would draw her through the reeds, I threw dummies just short of the reeds and then further up the bank. And with all these I did succeed in getting her to a point where she would push through on a single seen to just beyond the reeds but no way could I get her up through the reeds to the top on the other side and the more frustrated she became the more she backed off, she was losing confidence. Perhaps it was just this particular set up? Maybe she had developed a mental block about this particular stretch of water? To find out I needed to challenge her on strange water….
So last Sunday I took her up to a small lake near Slane. It was perfectly set up for what I had in mind. Clear water surrounded by elephant grass, the lake is small enough to be accessible from all sides but big enough not to offer temptation for the dog to run the bank. There was a  clean bank on a headland from where I placed the thrower, Des, to give Uisce a confidence boost to begin with.
As usual I brought along an older experienced dog, this time it was her mother Winnie who would show her the way. Des called the ‘mark’ and I sent Winnie across. Uisce sat patiently by my side, watching her mother and, I hoped, taking notes!!

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Once Winnie returned Des threw a second ‘mark’. I cast Uisce and she launched herself into the lake, she swam with confidence to the far shore but just as she came to the reeds her ears went back, she engaged the water brakes and threaded water, looking anxiously past the line of reeds but not daring to go through. I urged her on but this only served to increase her worry and she started circling. Des threw another mark into the reed edge which she swam forward for and retrieved with no problems. What to do?

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On her return she delivered the dummy perfectly and in spite of her anxiety she set herself up to go again, and this has been the pattern. The eagerness and keenness have been my indicators to try and push her past, as I see it, this small problem and execute a solid retrieve. Shouldn’t it simply be a matter of trying to find a way of getting her past her ‘block’ on grasses? Or am I perhaps reading her and the situation incorrectly? Maybe I’m expecting too much from her, she’s not yet eighteen months old, because the rest of her training is so advanced? Maybe too far too soon?

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Des’ conclusion after watching her on Sunday was simply to accept that this is her level at the moment, that with so much progress gained in the last few months that she has plateaued for now. This is quite possible and something I am more than willing to take on board.
We finished her training that day with a simple seen into clear water, something she accomplished with finesse.
As we walked back up through the woods reflecting on what we had seen I still had a niggle that I really wanted to find a way for her to learn to get past this sticking point. I didn’t want it to become an ingrained pattern.
So we’ve come up with a plan…today I will leave the dummy bag at home and again head to the lake with just my trusty thrower, Des. This time he will hold onto Uisce while I take up position on the far bank. What will she do when I call her to me? Wait and see 🙂

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Sunday September 15th 7pm.
The plan worked…we set up the recall from two separate points on the lake. The first one I stood on a familiar bank from where she’d retrieved previously but in view of the adjacent bank from where Des sent Uisce when I called her. Once she arrived on shore and sat in front of me she got loads of praise and her favourite treat. The second recall which we set up was one where I stood beyond a fresh bank of reeds and called her to me. This time there was slight hesitancy as she approached the bank where I stood but encouragement from me was enough to convince her that everything was okay.

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There is of course lots more practise needed before fluidity in this task is obtained but I’m glad we took the time to take a step back and figure out an alternative to either just giving up or worse pushing her through when she wasn’t ready. The pressure of not having to retrieve today meant that Uisce only had to focus on one thing and that was getting to me and perhaps the treats in my pocket….either way when I walk away from a training session with a happy dog I’ve got to believe we’re moving in the right direction 🙂

Uisce….when she is good she is very, very good but…..

Starting formal gundog training.

Starting formal gundog training.

I wanted to wait until shooting season finished before applying a little pressure on Uisce and starting her on the road with regards to formal gundog training.

She spent the Winter being slowly introduced to everything that revolves around gundog work. She was  allowed a certain freedom by just following and watching the older dogs. I stayed away from exposing her to the gunline. It was too early in her education, I felt, for her to make the connection between gunshot and birds falling. Instead we kept to the back of the drives where she could hear gunshot in the distance and follow the older dogs as they swept the area after each drive.

Every dog is different in how they learn and educate themselves about the way things work and Uisce is no different. Watching her around the shoot at Shelton I could see she had no inhibitions in relation to gunshot. She was eager to enter cover and follow scent but has been slower to pick feather. Now if this was my first gundog I would probably worry  but hindsight is a luxury and one of the best working dogs I’ll ever own is Chester who only started retrieving at 18 months and another well known Chesapeake in the UK  refused to pick birds for her  first 2 years as a working dog. Both these dogs went on to win open level CBRC working tests in the UK.

For Uisce I was keener to get the basics such as heelwork and steadiness instilled first. This is a part of training I feel I have glossed over in the past with my other chessies. They are a breed that flattens easily if exposed to too much drill work. So getting the balance right between maintaining momentum but retaining control was going to be my challenge this time round.

We are now into our second week of basic training. Uisce will now loose lead walk and has just started walking to heel off-lead. I can set her on a memory land mark retrieve up to 150 meters and she is taking a perfect line. This morning I laid her first unseen and when I set her up she took the line without hestitation. Hand delivery is improving, again this is something I prefer to reel in slowly. I like them to run back quickly and parade it rather than insisting immediately on a clean hand delivery. I teach the hold command seperately which tightens up the hand delivery either way.

Of course she wouldn’t be a Chesapeake unless there was some kink to iron through in her training and with Uisce, ( as her name implies ), its water……following on from her experiences last summer at the lake I spent the Winter taking her to a small river, allowing her in for a swim and then insisting on a recall before she became too absorbed in her swimming. She has improved but before I take her to open water again I need to know I have one hundred per cent success on her recall if required. To do this I have had to take her water training back a step from where I would normally start a young dog.

The unnatural levels of rainwater have left almost every field in our area with their own small ponds. In most cases the water is no more than knee deep but this has been perfect as a training tool to teaching Uisce that the same focus is required in water as on land. We have started by simply walking to heel through the pond. She is rewarded with a treat if she walks quietly without trying to splash or water bite. I intend to work this up to a level where she can do walking hold and from there retrieving fluidly.

So far I like what I see, there are some dogs that you walk away from a training session feeling like its been a battle. Every now and then, though, you get a dog that brings the right attitude to their work and immediately you feel that both of you are reading from the same page and each training session you walk away with a feeling of elation…I had this feeling with Bertie and now perhaps my little Miss Naughty may be quite nice…..

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Little Miss Naughty

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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