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.

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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 ?

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

Chessie rendez vous in Paris

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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.

 

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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 !

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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.

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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.

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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 !

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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.

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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…

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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?

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

 

 

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.

Game Pie using Pheasant.

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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.

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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….

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Jarv’s homemade cider.

When man created the Chessie ….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday November 1st.

River Duck on the Avoca river.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Training days and working test…..the end of a season of competition.

Three days after Bertie won his final Green star to gain his Irish Show Champion title we were on the road again and heading to England for our final trip of the year. Formal education has finally caught up with us, so on this occasion Des and Elly remained home.

Bertie won his final Green star at Carlow and district All breed Champ show for his Irish Show champion title.

Bertie won his final Green star for his Irish Show Champion title at Carlow and District Champ Show.

This was going to be a long one both in time away from home and distance travelled. My destination was all the way to the south of England. All across North Wales then down through the midlands where I would be sharing a cottage with my good friend and fellow chessie owner Gerlinde. She had travelled all the way from Austria the previous Sunday, with her five dogs Nico, Bella, Lilu, Vivian and Cashew, to meet up with Jason Mayhew for some training. This was also my main reason for extending the length of my trip. The opportunity to work with the dogs under the guidance of somebody else would make a pleasant change from pounding the fields alone.

I was taking two dogs, Bertie and Uisce. My time training with Jason and Gerlinde would be mostly for Uisce’s benefit. She now needed experience watching other dogs work and learning to focus in strange surroundings with multiple distractions. The working test on Sunday then, would give me some idea as to where exactly she is in training.

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Quintessential England.

The south of England is as different from Derbyshire, where we travelled to in August, as any part of the same country can be. Derbyshire is more Emily Bronte, wild and windswept whereas Sussex and its neighbouring counties are more Jane Austin. It is softer, more sophisticated in ways and utterly English; I could almost hear the clink of china cups as I drove through the myriad of  villages where old oak framed cottages clustered around cricket greens and the narrow winding streets draw you in, making you curious as to what delightful little shop lies around the next corner.

After thirteen hours of travelling we arrived weary but welcomed by Gerlinde and her gang to the cottage in Ockley village. Finding a house to accept and accommodate seven dogs in an area accessible to the training grounds was a challenge but I was pleased to find Vann Cottage pretty much  ticked all the boxes in relation to a holiday with dogs. Set at the end of a long single track the cottage stood on its own grounds with a secure back garden. A public footpath ran by the side of the house which brought us immediately to open pastureland, with no livestock to worry about and acres of wonderful old oak woodland. We could literally open the back door and step into the fields it was dog heaven.

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The cottage at Ockly, dog heaven.

There was just enough light left in the sky to take Bertie and Uisce for a much needed gallop across the paddock then once I had  fed them and settled them in the living room it was time to sit down and enjoy a steaming bowl of Gerlinde’s homemade pumpkin soup, fresh bread and a glass of wine while I caught up with her exploits in the preceding days and how she was enjoying the training.

In the three days she had been working with Jason they had changed ground each day, working on the very basics with her young puppies to more technical work with her advanced level dogs. Our plans for training were to work on aspects which we both have been struggling with our dogs. Attending the working test at the end of the week would be a lovely way to finish but it was for the training and chance to work with Jason that were our primary reasons for travelling so far.

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Gerlinde’s baby Cashew loved her week’s training.

Thursday and Friday were long, full, busy days. I was up and out of the house with the two dogs each morning at first light. Off across the fields where the tawny owl was hooting sleepily in the woods to the right and the roe deer were dancing across the chickpea crop in front of us. Back for a quick breakfast where Gerlinde had my coffee ready and by 9am both days we were on the road and joining the morning traffic on our way to the appointed training grounds.

Every trainer has a different way about how they work with dogs and inevitably each dog handler will find a person that ‘clicks’ with them to get the best from their individual dogs. In the past year I have had the opportunity to work with many trainers, some top of their field in competition but maybe not always the best teacher. Jason’s approach works for me. It is built around a simple premise of breaking down each aspect of retriever training to its most basic level and working forward from there…once each individual lesson is learnt it is simply a matter of joining the dots.

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England offers wonderful places to walk….the New Forest.

After two days of intense training much had been worked on and accomplished. There were lots of ideas to bring home and plenty of information for Uisce to digest and chew on. By Saturday it was time to take a break and have some fun with the dogs so we headed further south and west to the New Forest where I met up with my good friend Jo and her wonderful chessie boys Teague and Rana. Our paths had not crossed much this year in our travels to the UK but the New Forest was a half way point between where I was staying and where she lived so I thought it well worth investigating.

Driving rain hit the windshield as I headed southwest that morning. Too late I realised I had left my jacket at the cottage but by the time I had pulled into the carpark of The Dragon pub in Brook village it was like entering a different world, the clouds cleared, the sun broke through and there were horses everywhere and I mean everywhere. They were grazing on the village green, wandering through the local golf course and walking lazily across the main roads that cut through the national park. Every turn in the path on our walk they were there lifting their heads without concern as we passed them by with our four brown dogs. After almost two hours of walking and meeting these beautiful beasts  I can safely say that both Uisce and Bertie are  socialised to horses!

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Meeting up with Jo, Rana and Teague for a walk.

It was such a wonderful way to spend the afternoon, walking through the most beautiful countryside, catching up with a friend (one that I don’t see enough of) as our four brown dogs meandered through the woods in front of us. Then, to finish off a long leisurely lunch back at our starting point, The Dragon pub. Crufts, hopefully, will be our next meet up.

The days had gone too quickly and Sunday came round too soon. Time spent with friends and in good company always feels so. Gerlinde and I bade a fond farewell to our little cottage and once more headed south with our pack of brown dogs.
We were headed to a place near Petworth, the venue for the working test. It was a perfect location for a gathering of water-loving dogs. Set in well off the road the venue was part of a shoot where some of our club members are lucky enough to work and train their dogs. This was a managed carp farm so a series of interlinking ponds provided the perfect setting to run a test with an emphasis on water work.

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Help is always close by at chessie working tests.

One of the lovely things about the Chesapeake working tests and one of the reasons we have supported these events over the years is that there is never the same pressure to perform as there is at any variety retriever working tests. It is a friendly relaxed competition, (even though I still get nervous…), built around an understanding and love of our beautiful breed. That being said it is judged and marked as any AV retriever test would be the difference is if you struggle more leeway is allowed by the judge to offer guidance and support. Everyone that comes along is generous and open with help and advice. If your dog doesn’t do well there is always the camaraderie among fellow competitors on the day reminding you that they’ve all stood in your shoes before

The working test this year had drawn a record entry of 34. Nine dogs were from overseas. Our Judge was Mr Chris Rose who I found to be fair with both the tests set and his scoring. He made the best use of the ground available by including water work in over fifty per cent of all tests set. Uisce was a week too old to enter the Puppy class so I had entered her Not For Competition in the Novice Dog/ Novice handler class to see how she’s cope.

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Was Uisce ready for competition?

It’s been a few years now since I’ve stood on the line with a young dog at the very start of their working competition career. It’s easy to get comfortable running a dog that knows fairly well what they’re about, if mistakes are made whether they take a wrong line initially or misread what I as the handler has asked of them, they still have the knowledge and I have the ability to steer them back on course.

Although I knew exactly where I was in Uisce’s training, what her capabilities were and are and was more than prepared  to help and  to guide her through the day I underestimated the effect of factors which were beyond my control….my nerves, being around a lot of other equally young dogs who were also as excited and bemused as she was by the event, gun shot being used on retrieves etc.

She coped well, her first two retrieves were exactly what I’d hoped for; she was quiet and steady on the line for her mark, she went straight out with drive and style, found her mark without help and straight back with delivery to hand. Her first water mark, again was nice and clean just a small readjustment of the dummy on the bank but immediately picked it up and another nice hand delivery. The third retrieve caused her problems simply because it was a scenario that she’s been struggling with in training which was crossing a body of water and banking on foliage the far side; so again no surprise just an aspect of training we’ll have to build on through the winter with the help of the odd freshly shot duck or two!!

We continued on into the Beginner working test. This is quite often the trickiest level to do well in. There is generally significant age variation among the dogs entered so levels of experience can come into play. I intended to use this class again as a training experience for Uisce and if she messed up it didn’t matter. Today, for her, was all about learning.

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Positives and negatives to be taken away…

The first retrieve was a double, something we hadn’t worked on much. She did a lovely retrieve from water, struggled a bit on the land but with the judge’s permission I walked her closer to the thrower and with another dummy thrown she was off with her usual drive and enthusiasm.

In hindsight, I should have stopped there with her. When I stood on top of the bank for the next retrieve as the judge explained the test. I looked out across the pond to where the thrower was set up and thought, ‘holy cow!!! that’s long but….’ and there’s always a ‘but’, isn’t there? The retrieve was a seen into open water, something I knew she could do and the wind was in her favour, the only doubt was the distance. A ten metre run down the bank then into the water and at least a sixty metre swim. My gut told me that maybe today was not the day but when you’re on the line it’s difficult to walk away without trying. The shot was fired and she marked it well.  I was asked to send my dog and without any hestitation she took a spectacular chessie leap into the water and swam in the direction she had seen that dummy fall. In my head I urged her on, hoping that confidence and belief in knowing she had seen that dummy come down would pull her on. She got to within ten feet of where her target was and her body language changed. Her ears went back, she hesitated and turned left to the bank where the dummy thrower was. I have not yet taught her to push on back in water so with no ability to steer her I had no option but to pull her in. I set her on the bank and Jason, our working test secretary asked the judge if it was okay to throw a short retrieve in front into the water just to keep her confidence levels up. And again this is another reason I believe these working tests within our club are so vitally important, it’s at those times when a dog and handler are struggling that there is somebody there to step in, put the rulebook aside and do whatever it takes to make the experience a positive one for both the dog and the handler. Uisce finished her day by successfully completing a lovely blind retrieve and listening to the ‘hunt up’ whistle when I asked. Her failures on the day were my fault for putting her into situations that I knew she was not ready for, however, she seems to be the type of dog that can deal with mistakes, shake them off and move onto the next retrieve so I think I’m going to have a lot of fun with her in the future.

The competition at Open level was without doubt the highest standard I have ever seen at a Chesapeake working test. Not only had it the biggest entry I have ever seen, ten dogs, but the winning dog scored a perfect one hundred per cent on all of his retrieves. His name is Mattaponi’s Fabulous Niyol and he is still not even four years old!  Finishing just two points behind the winner was Niyol’s mother Mattaponis Matoanka. Both dogs are owned by Ms Ursula Moilliet and her husband who travelled from France to compete and boy did they mount a challenge. Lovely to watch, her dogs work with drive and style and are truly polished performers. It was  an honour to be able to run my dog alongside them.

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Bertie.

Bertie dropped too many points to finish in the top four on this day but I was still really pleased that he was awarded a certificate of merit. The overseas challenge also brought success in the other classes with my friend Gerlinde’s baby puppy, Cashew, at just 7 months winning the puppy class and Gerlinde’s beautiful girl Lilu finishing second out of a huge entry of 12 dogs in the beginner.

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And as we gathered in the fading light for the presentation of awards a skein of Canada geese flew over. They were a timely reminder that my dog’s summer of working test competition was finished for this year. Now we would turn with welcome to the mud, wet, wind and cold. Our ears listening for the call of a pheasant or on the water perhaps the whirr of wigeon wings. The winter is long…thank god, Happy Hunting everyone!!

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As a final note I wanted to say a few words about one very special dog who competed that day. His name is Echo also known as Penrose Quick As A Flash. He is nine years old and Mark, his owner, says this is his last competition. Most good dogs will have one or two seasons where they are at the top of their game in competition but Echo has seen challengers come and go and always remained at the top and even on Sunday he was still challenging for the top spot finally finishing fourth. What I think is most amazing about this dog, though, is that he is a true wildfowling dog. He has never been trained to the top level of polish that many believe is needed to succeed in modern retriever competition yet he always gets there. I hope he will have many more years working his beloved Dee estuary but truly he has left big paws to fill. In my eyes he is the greatest Chesapeake I have seen competing.

Copyright Mary Murray 2013.

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The legend which is Echo.

” 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.

Uisce meaning 'water'

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 🙂

Hope Valley Team Test

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

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The view from the showgrounds – Peveril Castle.

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

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Showing horses.

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

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

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Irish Water Spaniel in action at Hope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The eight teams line up for presentation.

The eight teams line up for presentation.

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

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

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

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

Our Chessie team.

Our Chessie team.

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

The view from the top of Mam Tor.

The view from the top of Mam Tor.