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)

Advertisements

Chessie rendez vous in Paris

untitled

There she sits, our little Island , tucked up in the very far corner of the north Atlantic in Europe, snug in the knowledge that for anyone or anything  entering or leaving our little piece of greenness they are going to have to be very determined and that’s if your human. Bringing a dog or any other animal into Ireland is a whole different ball game.

A four thousand mile stretch of ocean to the west and north  and a fifty mile stretch of sea separating us from another island has meant historically that Ireland’s best method of defence in keeping out unwanted invaders  has always been her shoreline.

 

DSC_5687

Carlotta was coming to Ireland

We Irish though like a challenge. Nothing is straightforward in our eyes, and nothing grips us more than trying our best to circumnavigate, legally that is, around rules and regulations set out by those in authority. So, when an opportunity presented itself to welcome the lovely Chesapeake, Carlotta, coming all the way from Sailorsbay kennels in Argentina to stay with us here in Ireland, that favourite saying, ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’, sprung to mind.

It is the Department of Agriculture that sets the regulations and rules for the transport of all animals into Ireland. They work very, very hard at keeping all objectionable diseases and parasites, most notably rabies and tapeworm in this case, from crossing the body of water  which separates us from the continent of America on one side and the continent of Europe on the other, but, for some reason, they seem to focus all their energies on preventing these problems entering by air and are not so concerned when a dog enters Ireland by sea and nobody, not even the guy I spoke to in the Department of Agriculture could  explain why this is the case ???

In most countries, apart from Ireland, a dog may travel by air in one of two modes either by cargo or as excess baggage.

Cargo is the most tried and tested method. It involves a complicated procedure of dropping a dog off in an outlying terminal building hours before departure of the scheduled flight and being handled by people who the dog is unfamiliar with to be loaded onto the aeroplane. This process is repeated at the point of destination but, in the case of a dog landing in Dublin, it requires the extra stress to the animal of being trundled off in it’s crate, loaded into a taxi, driven five minutes down the road to a specified veterinary practice, at the expense of an extra one hundred euro to the owner, where paperwork and dog are checked and finally the dog may be handed into the care of it’s owner!!! Keeping stress to a minimum ? I think not !

DSC_5681

We were reluctant to fly her cargo.

There is another way of flying a dog and that is as ‘excess baggage’. In this instance the dog arrives to the check-in desk with its owner, is checked in, is loaded on the aircraft and collected by its owner at the point of destination….no delays, no expensive taxi journey, no fuss.

Now a dog may fly out of Ireland as excess baggage but the Irish department of Agriculture does not allow dogs to travel into Dublin in this civilized fashion, if a dog is to enter Ireland by air from anywhere other than the UK ,(  Aer Arainn will fly pets up to 38kgs including crate from Dublin to Bristol return), it must come in as ‘cargo’.  And there is one final stinging point in this mode of transport, to fly a dog into Dublin as cargo  costs  on average over ten times, yes TEN TIMES the cost of flying a dog as baggage!!!!

There was no way around it though,  Ireland is a long way from Argentina therefore any route taken was going to require time and careful planning to ensure successful negotiation of the paperwork involved in passing an animal through three countrys’ agriculture departments. And it is the paperwork that will trip you up, if every ‘t’ is not crossed, times, dates and signatures entered correctly there is the ominous threat of either quarantine or the dog being sent back to it’s country of origin.

DSC_5857

Paris was to be our meeting point.

Apart from the distance there are also  no direct flights between Argentina and Ireland so no matter what way we looked at it, flying would mean touching down in a minimum of two airports. Travelling her via cargo was just not an option….too long, too many airports and too expensive. We could fly her as baggage into continental Europe but then would either have to procure an agent for the final leg of the journey into Ireland, (again messy and very expensive), or travel overland to meet her.  Luckily for both of us Mecha’s husband was travelling into Europe on business in the time frame we had planned for and better still he could fly into Paris.

By the end of the first week in September the paperwork had been checked, double checked and triple-checked between Argentina and Ireland. Carlotta was due to arrive in Charles de Gaulle airport on a Wednesday so we had allowed a four day travel window to complete the two thousand kilometre round trip which involved crossing two stretches of water, two borders, negotiating London’s infamous M25 at rush hour and remembering to drive on the right hand side once I landed in Calais.

DSC_5676

The rendez vous was almost upon us…

My companion throughout the journey was my good friend Marianne, she has travelled to and from the continent many times over the years with her Curly-coated retrievers and more recently her well known Krisbos Jack Russell Terriers. She was my voice of reason when I got flustered with paperwork, my co-pilot when I inadvertently drifted into the wrong lane on the French motorways and my partner in crime when we spent Tuesday evening in Paris celebrating Carlotta’s impending arrival with one or two glasses of vino, (it had to be done)…

Well, what I can I say only it can be done. Twenty minutes after the Buenes Aires flight touched down in Paris, Ignacio, Mecha’s wonderful husband, came barrelling through the arrival gates pushing a large electric blue dog crate with one slightly bemused Chessie inside. We made our way together out to where my car was parked in the airport, ( again one of THE most user friendly car parks I have ever encountered even if I don’t speak French), and Ignacio opened the crate. Out she came tail wagging, a little tired but no signs of stress. We loaded the crate into the back of the car, some last hugs between Ignacio and Carlotta and in she hopped, curled herself up and we headed off.

A pee break for Carlotta at a rest stop once we cleared the airport and then an uneventful two hour journey to Calais, where we would encounter the final check on paperwork before boarding the Euro tunnel train to England.

I love the French, nothing is a hassle unless it has to be….it took less than five minutes to check through Carlotta’s paperwork before we got that little ticket with a paw on it giving us permission to travel onto Folkestone in England. We had chosen to use the train as opposed to ferry primarily because it is the quickest route across, 35minutes and you don’t have to leave your car. Another advantage of using the Eurotunnel is that there is a two hour leeway for boarding meaning if you arrive early you can take an earlier train at no extra charge. In our case we arrived in Folkestone two hours before our scheduled departure from France.

From Folkestone we negotiated the evening London traffic on the M25 with surprising ease and made it to our hotel in Birmingham by 9pm. After sharing our scampi and fries at a local pub Carlotta jumped on the bed beside Marianne and did not budge until the next morning.

On her final leg of the journey into Ireland she had the opportunity to walk along the beach in Wales at Junction 17, where we have stopped many times with our Chessies during our excursions to the UK, before taking the ferry across to Dublin. We arrived home on Thursday evening.  Her transition into our family has been seemless and stress free, I am certain that has much to do with her upbringing and breeding but I am equally sure that allowing her handover to take place in the presence of someone she loves and trusts had much to do with limiting stress and worry for her as she faces into a new life.

So from the land of a thousand welcomes we wish Carlotta a Cead Mile Failte !

DSC_6010

Some footnotes…..when using this route we followed the DEFRA guidelines as opposed to the Irish Department of Agriculture. The main documents required were current and up to date rabies certificate with microchip number ; Tapeworm treatment given not less than 24 hours or greater than 120 hours before entering the UK…this must be signed by a vet, stamped, and dated and timed and is the one document that most dogs will be prevented from travelling if not completed properly. All dogs coming in from an non-EU country do not have a pet passport so they come in on an Annex II veterinary certificate. Carlotta did not require tick treatment coming in from Argentina. We were not asked for paperwork on the journey between UK and Ireland.

My Perfect Chesapeake.

DSC_1132

I want the perfect Chesapeake….or I think I do.

From the moment he is born,( and he will be a ‘He’ so I don’t have to worry about seasons and cycles), he will know that he exists purely to please and obey me. But I also want that independent thinking type of dog that will work unaided when I need him to hunt for a bird in darkness or beyond a bank of reeds.

I want him to have the power, stamina and energy to endure the coldest hunting days in Winter, take on the toughest water and face the hardest cover. But in his off-time he will drop like a stone before the fireplace and lie quietly for hours until asked to come forward and do my bidding once more.
I want him as a protector of my home so he will be strong and confident in his masculinity. But I also want him to love and trust all people so we can sit amiably with other male Chesapeakes as we share our picnic blankets around the show rings in summer.

In the show ring he will be poetry in motion, everything which the breed standard asks for and more; all those specific breed points such as ear set and shape, tail carriage and the absence or presence of white spots that are so infuriatingly hard to get right will be perfect in my perfect dog…. He will drop his heavy winter coat on the last day of shooting season and grow in a new thick full coat in time for the start of the show season at Crufts, this he will obligingly retain all through the hot days of Summer.

He will pass every health check I subject him to, even the ones that haven’t been invented yet…he will have excellent hips and elbows, clear for PRA and clear for hereditary cataracts, have a perfect set of teeth, be DM clear, EIC clear, Cardiac clear, Long coat gene not a carrier and even though many of the bitches that come his way will have more than a blemish or two on their health sheet only his perfect set of genes will pass on to all his perfect progeny….

He will be born to the whistle, there will be no battles on the training field as to whether my eyes are better than his nose but when I take him to work on the shooting field I want his nose to work better when my eyes fail to be able to pinpoint a bird that sails over a bank of gorse or swims through a curtain of reeds.

I want him to have a high bird drive so that he will work and hunt tirelessly for birds day after day and hour after hour in Winter but he will be able to control that high level of energy in complete silence as we wait in line for a drive to end at a field trial…and then only when asked to do so he will unleash all of that power and pent up energy in a single dead straight line, ignoring wind direction and terrain and only follow the line of my hand to the fall of the specific bird I have asked him to retrieve. But I also want him to be able to cover vast tracts of ground when I need him to find numerous birds in hard to reach areas after a drive so he must know to use the wind and quarter into it without being asked.

His love for canvas dummies will equal his love for finding game so that I can carry on the fun of competing with him in working test competitions throughout the summer months. He will never show his distaste for being asked to retrieve such menial objects, in hot weather, with full coat by peeing on the dummy thrower or dropping the dummy just short of my hand….

He will be everything our society asks for in a dog, never poop on pavements, never square up to another dog that invades his bodyspace in the park but will just turn the paw  and walk away, will only chase squirrels and rabbits in designated areas, (and when they have a sporting chance), and will never ever  chase livestock. He will know only to retrieve tennis balls and training dummies and will never bring back roadkill or roll in… ahem….very mature dead seagulls or foxpoo.

And even though me and my life are often chaotic, disordered and I make very many mistakes my perfect dog never will.
….And as I run my hand over his perfect Chessie head and gaze into those perfect shaped eyes I realise that the dog gazing back at me is no longer a Chesapeake, that somewhere along the way in pursuit of perfection I will have lost much more than I will have gained  and  I will have learned too late that part of the genius and joy of owning this breed is that they are simply PERFECT in their IMPERFECTIONS.

Enjoy your dogs for who and what they are and not what you envision them to be.

Bettinsons’ beckon….a weekend training the dogs in Wales.

 

Sunrise on the Brecon becons, Wind has played a major role in sculpting the landscape.

Sunrise on the Brecon becons, Wind has played a major role in sculpting the landscape here.

 

Wind…. it’s influence was everywhere last weekend in Wales. It was a gentle breeze as we crossed the Irish sea from Rosslare to Pembroke on Thursday morning; it had sculpted the oak wood that clung steeply to the valley sides as it rose behind our rented cottage;  it made my eyes water and left my face raw and tight after a day standing exposed on the Welsh moor where we trained the dogs with Mark and Jamie.

Wind it’s effect was clearly visible all around and it is an element everyone, me included, involved in working gundogs is always aware of but until last weekend I had truly underestimated it’s value as an aid to improving my handling in gundog work…

 

DSC_4220

The knarled trunks of the oak trees shaped by wind.

The Bettinsons’ have International recognition as trainers and after spending three days out on the Welsh moors where dogs and handlers are put through their paces I can understand why.

DSC_4284

This is tough ground to work a dog over.

It is rough, tough ground to work a dog over. Wide open moorland that is cut through with  narrow winding gullies and for the three hours we spent walking slowly in line down through the shallow valley the ground changed all the time but  the wind was a constant companion. Even when it was barely there it had a bearing on how a line should be taken and how a dog worked. Every command, every ask and all conversations in relation to setting your dog up before a retrieve revolved around thinking about the fall, using the natural landscape to help your dog succeed and finally, always, always, checking the wind.

DSC_4227

Uisce in action.

Mark’s words still echo in my head and will possibly for a long time to come, “…leave him be Mary, he’s right for wind“….and when a dog is ‘right for wind‘, that, I discovered, is when the magic happens. There is no battle of wills between dog and handler then, it becomes a much more fluid and organic partnership and, because the need to use the whistle becomes less frequent, the response when it does come into play is much sharper. The result is that the more often this sequence happens the more confident the dog becomes and the more they are willing to give.

DSC_4235

Walking up the moors.

Chessies, as we’ve discussed before are independent thinkers with a highly developed sense of smell. This is something which is a great asset when trying to find a wounded duck out on the water or in the reeds after dusk has fallen, it’s a trait I would never like to see being bred out of them just to make them more manageable for trial work. However, from time to time, even a Chessie has to learn that sometimes his Master may actually be able to help him recover a bird or two and so, learning to take direction and listen to whistle commands is  a vital part of a process that will improve that working relationship for both parties.

DSC_4229

In my limited experience as a handler of Chessies  I have found that they are quite compliant companions when whistle use is short, sharp and to the point, but it is when you start to bully them with the whistle that they tend to shut down and that is when they will blow you off to find the bird on their own terms or give up and come in. Finding a way of learning to use the natural elements more and handle less would surely result in a more productive working partnership.

 

 

DSC_4261

Where you cast a dog to will be influenced by ground and wind.

So, as we made our way slowly down the shallow valley that first morning and I listened to that lilting Welsh accent in my ear, I began to get a clearer picture and learn that casting for a blind retrieve wasn’t so much about straight lines anymore and more about using the fall of the land and wind direction to allow the dog to work with more freedom to find the bird on its own initiative.

DSC_4259

It was difficult to assimilate at first, similar to when I learnt to shoot. Just as following through on a flying target and pulling through to allow for wingbeats, pellet spread and wind takes practice, equally I found, allowing for land fall, distance to retrieve, and wind is going to influence greatly where you originally cast a dog to. Sometimes,  this meant taking in an extra twenty metres or more to allow for these particular elements to come into play but, for an air-scenting breed, that dislikes being held up by too many commands from base camp, when his handler figures this out it must be like manna from heaven.

DSC_4263

By the third morning the pieces started to fall into place and, when we took our place in line, each and every aspect of his work was seamless, looked easy and was pure poetry to watch. I understood  the difference then between novice and advanced level dog work….a talented dog in novice will do well with a poor handler but to succeed at advanced level takes not only a talented dog but an instinctive handler, one that has to touch his dog with the least amount of pressure to get the job done. They, both dog and handler, make it appear easy, perhaps because rather than battling the elements they are both using  the tools that nature provides….a dog’s nose, the ground they work over and  our friend the ‘wind ‘….what do you think?

DSC_3471

That superior scenting skill is an immense asset when used in conjunction with wind.

 

 

So you want to train a Chesapeake?

DSC_4114

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.

DSC_4085

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.

DSC_6419

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.

DSC_1938

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.

DSC_0210

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….

DSC_2244

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.

DSC_0665

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.

DSC_3193

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.

DSC_4038

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.

Game Pie using Pheasant.

DSC_3161

A brace of birds is usual payment for working your dogs on a shoot.

The brace of pheasant I used for this pie were birds I received as payment for working my dogs on a shoot last Friday. They had hung too long for me as roasting birds so I decided to use the breasts and legs to make a game Pie.

After preparing the birds set them aside, turn the oven on to preheat  and make the pastry. Regular shortcrust pastry is fine. I used 12 oz self-raising flour to 6 0z full fat butter. Set aside to rest in a cool place.

Meanwhile chop an onion and at least 2 cloves of garlic. Peel and chop into fairly small pieces 2 potatoes.

Melt a generous knob of butter on a pan and add in the pheasant joints to brown. Remove from the heat to cool slightly and add in the onion and garlic to soften in the juices. Also add some chilli flakes, salt, pepper and Lea and Perrins Worchester sauce ( invaluable ingredient)…

Remove the onion and add a carton of the small bacon pieces from Lidl. These are great as they come ready chopped, have plenty of rind and are slightly smoked.

Shred the meat into smallish pieces and add it and the onion mix to the bacon pieces. Pour in a generous slug of Tawny Port and about 300mls of chicken or pheasant stock. Turn the heat down and allow the sauce to reduce slightly.

Par boil the potatoes.

Line a deep pie dish with some of the pastry and once the potatoes are ready add them to the meat mix and pour everything into the pastry lined pie dish.

Cover with a lid of pastry, glaze with some melted butter and place in the pre-heated oven at 180 degrees celcius for about an hour.

DSC_3209

The true test of a great pie is will it hold shape the next day??

Remove from the oven and serve with a suitable French Red Wine. There will be quite an excess of juices left when serving hot straight from the oven.

Of course the true  test of a good Game pie is the following day when all of those excess juices have soaked into the pastry crust and the layers hold their shape when cut through….it did 🙂 and my recommendation for today’s cold pie is a deliciously cold bottle of Jarv’s homemade Apple Cider made using some of the apples from our own trees. Bliss….

DSC_3211

Jarv’s homemade cider.

When man created the Chessie ….

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

DSC_3001

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.

DSC_2989

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.

DSC_2999

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.

DSC_2997

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.

DSC_1442 (640x426)

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.

DSC_2833

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….