The training day…

DSC_1938

our dogs will always try, we just need to show them the way..

If we ask the question when training our dogs ‘How can I help my dog now ?’ it changes our whole perspective and approach to training. Everything from the very basics of heelwork and steadiness to the very limits of teaching lines and blinds becomes more of a team effort rather than a push-me pull-me battle of wills.

DSC_1817

Mr Jason Mayhew with new friend Fred..

This question formed the core of Jason Mayhew’s training day on Saturday. He reminded us at each step and stage of training that:

1. We should look for the smallest try and work with it.

2. Ask ourselves what we can do to help our dogs ?

3. Investigate…does my dog know what I’ve asked …test it, and if it doesn’t then its okay to move back a step.

Subsequently you will find it allows both you and your dog breathing space, time to think about what we are asking of them, their understanding of that ask and perhaps most importantly realising that it is okay for our dogs to make mistakes when learning.

The training ground

The training ground.

The ground was provided for the day by Mr David Barron. David has always been generous with providing ground for clubs to run working tests during the summer and also as a venue for people to meet and train on Friday mornings. When I approached him and asked him earlier in the summer he set about building a professional level gundog training ground for the day….

DSC_1918

In my wildest dreams I couldn’t have envisaged what he was able to  create  in such a short time frame. Remarkably he had managed to procure possibly the only flat field on the top of a mountain!! Bordered by deciduous wood there was everything needed in relation to gundog training…white flat grass to start young dogs off on, then falling down into rushy cover. The field is a  wide rectangle, perfect for walk up. He had cut a winding channel through the middle and perpendicular to this runs a fence the whole width of the field, topped with timber and secured with sheep-wire. At intervals along the fence he has put slats of timber to enable the handler, when teaching a young dog to jump, to remove a level. He has left in the few willow trees scattered throughout the field which again are perfect for lining to a point and hunting an area of cover and all of this is set amongst the outstanding beauty of the Wicklow mountains.

Finding a trainer with an interest in all breeds and every level of handler is important.

Finding a trainer with an interest in all breeds and every level of handler is important.

I have known Jason for many years from when we started in Chesapeakes roughly around the same time. His main interest has always been in competitive working tests and field trials. He competed with his wonderful Chesapeake, Sage, to novice field trial level before taking the leap and buying a yellow Labrador, Georgie, to trial with…from here he has developed his training techniques and skill which is reflected in the success he is currently having with his young dog Flint on the working test circuit this summer. He has worked with most retriever breeds and spaniels. He has run breed specific training days for the UK Chesapeake club and also  training days to prepare gundogs aimed at passing their show gundog working certificate as well as tutoring individuals ambitious to field trial.

Building a relationship.

Building a relationship.

I had asked everyone attending if they had something they specifically wished Jason to focus on and problems ranged from lack of focus when in company with other dogs whether this was lunging or lack of interest in retrieving, dropping and shaking out of water, spinning when sent on a blind retrieve, running in, not listening to the whistle and from the handlers point of view they wished to know how they could improve their handling..

Helping a dog by improving handling.

Helping a dog by improving handling.

The morning was split into two novice groups where Jason was able to start at the very beginning of gundog work by reminding us that instilling strong foundations in close work such as heeling and lead control will pay dividends and is really vital in helping our dogs when progressing onto distance control.

teaching steadiness.

teaching steadiness.

The second group that morning were slightly more advanced dogs, dogs that may be running prelim/novice working tests. It was in this group he met Monty, a beautiful young yellow lab whose owner was struggling with him running in. Jason asked him to remove his lead and kneel beside his dog putting his hands lightly around the dog’s chest, just enough pressure to hold the dog still. Then a retrieve was thrown and as expected Monty tried to push through his handler’s hands. Only when his dog relaxed, just for a fraction of a second, was he allowed to let him go. When he did run in Jason asked him to simply follow his dog quietly, slip his lead back on, walk back to where they both started and begin again. He again challenged us to ask the question, ‘do I need this fight now?; when our dogs our learning should it be a battle? After three or four attempts Monty was sitting quietly with very little pressure and no lead as he watched other dogs work.

DSC_1861

The day brought together retriever breeds from all spheres.

We learnt how to use wind to our advantage by locating the channel of scent when a retrieve is thrown, we focussed on strengthening our casting and reading our dog’s body language when sent on a run out. There was a lot to take in but I felt time was given to everyone.

DSC_1895

We broke for lunch and David invited everyone, if they wished, up to his house or rather as most of the guys now lovingly refer to as ‘the Man Cave’, with its vaulted ceiling straddled with heavy timber joists, stone fireplace and a huge billiard table taking center stage surrounded by old comfortable couches it oozes masculinity…but immediately feels homely and welcoming , inviting you to sit down, stretch out your weary legs, relax and talk. It was a chance for everyone to mingle, reflect on what had been taught that morning and speak to Jason in relation to any queries they may have had in relation to what he spoke about.

Almost all the retriever breeds were represented.

Almost all the retriever breeds were represented.

The afternoon was an opportunity for everyone present to have a chance to try out the magnificent piece of ground which David had developed. I was able to hang back, watch and take in the wonderful sight of so many beautiful retriever breeds gathered and eager to learn on this single piece of ground. Goldens, a Flatcoat, a Curly coat, a Chesapeake and of course the noble Labrador were all accounted for. Each discipline was represented from the show dog, the picking up dog to the field trial contender and every level of handler from very novice to those from the trialling world.

DSC_1912

Making use of the jumping fence on the new ground.

These people and their dogs made the day and without their presence it would not have been possible. The numbers that attended showed a real need and desire among handlers in the working retriever world in Ireland to learn and progress. Gundog training is an evolving sport, constantly changing with new and better ways to get the best from both dogs and handlers. Although most gundogs will inevitably bring up the same problems in training, each individual breed needs to be handled in a different manner. This is where selecting a trainer becomes crucial. One who has a specific interest in dealing with all spectrums and levels of gundog and not just those aspiring to field trial. Perhaps just as importantly being able to engage and link in with the handler in communicating their message and in this therein lies the secret….

waterwork

waterwork

A huge thank you to my husband Des for acting as Jason’s assistant on the day as chief dummy thrower and launcher.

Five Days, Five Dogs and Fun…..

DSC_1746

This is the first time in seven years that Peader, the farmer across the road, has been able to make hay. Proper hay, the sort that is cut and left to lie before being tossed then baled and the air fills with that sweet summer smell. It has been a long time since the forecast has given such an indefinite end to a dry spell and on Thursday morning when we set out across the Irish sea bound for England with our five chessies the temperatures were set to push past the thirty mark.

Travelling with dogs in these sort of temperatures let alone competing with them is always a concern. Having the Sperrin gundog trailer with its specially designed fibre panels to keep the internal compartments cool has been worth its weight in gold over the last few years when travelling to the UK in summer heat. It was still  going to be a challenge to keep these five dogs in top form and condition to compete at the Chesapeake Championship show on Sunday as they were due to work the breed stand at the CLA game fair for the two days prior in soaring temperatures before heading northeast, so as an added precaution I packed in several sachets of electrolytes to counteract any signs of dehydration.

Arriving in Holyhead at midday under a cloudless blue sky and a shimmering mirror of heat we realised it would be better to drive straight through to the campsite at Ragley Hall rather than airing the dogs in such hot weather. It was a good decision as we passed Birmingham before the afternoon city exodus of traffic and by late afternoon we were turning into Ragley Hall estate and following the dusty path to our campsite…what a welcome sight, rising above the campsite and blowing proudly in the gentle breeze was a single English flag with Chessie motifs and below it stood the smiling face of little Dave Lowther and Lilly-Mae. As we unloaded the tent and dogs and sorted through our belongings Jackie came out with the most welcome cup of coffee ever…home from home for the next two days.

DSC_1745

Once we set up camp we took the dogs for a walk down through the fair where stalls were being set up in readiness for the opening next day. It was such a hive of activity quads scooting among the marquees and gazebos, everyone in jovial mood in anticipation of what the next few days would bring. Eighty thousand people a day were expected over the three days to the fair, a massive undertaking to organise but  it is laid out in such a way that it never feels claustrophobic.

DSC_1736

The lake that evening was filled with dogs, dogs, dogs and the odd person, the fishermen had resorted to practicing their casting skills on the lawn behind…the chessies loved it they swam and drank as they swam just with the pure enjoyment of being wet and cool after a long hot dusty journey. By the time we headed back for the campsite the sun was setting, a quick bite to eat and we were ready to crash on our slightly too soft airbed for the night….

I had forgotten that camping means rising at first light…four-thirty am to be exact the dogs started to stir when hearing fellow campers move about. The campsite was well appointed though, set beside a large enclosed field and wood it was easy to let the dogs have a long free gallop without worrying about traffic or wandering into areas they shouldn’t be in. By 7 am the cars were already starting to fill up in the public carpark across the way. We loaded up the dogs and took a slightly illegal route through the fair and myriad of marquees across to the far side of the lake where gundog parking had been allocated in the middle of a wonderfully shaded wood. It was perfect, the shade and the trailer meant that we could take the dogs in shifts to work the stand rather than having all of them there all day in the heat with hundreds of people touching and rubbing them….something that takes a lot out of the dogs. After the dogs did their morning shift of 2 hours and the parade we took them back to the lake for a swim then into the coolness of the trailer where they slept for the afternoon. The trailer, when under the shade was like stepping into a coolbox, a welcome respite from the heat of the gundog tent.

DSC_1733

We have done the breed stand on several occasions both in Ireland and the UK but this was our first time doing it at CLA. Now for anyone who has never done the breed stand I would thoroughly recommend it, particularly if you have bred a litter or are planning on breeding I feel you have a duty of care to inform members of the public about the uniqueness of our breed because there is no doubt they are different. You get to see that by talking to the people who come to the stand and have had chessies, struggled with them and perservered and loved the breed for their quirks; the people who’ve had them, couldn’t understand them and let them go and the people who know nothing about them but immediately think they are just a variation of a Labrador and everything a lab represents…There is no doubt it is hard work but also a lot of fun. We met up with some old friends, current puppy owners, fellow members of the chessie club and of course new people curious about the breed.

I had the chance to watch and listen to John Halstead Saturday afternoon. He certainly gives an impressive performance and his dogs are the epitome of control, however, something he said struck a chord in relation to not all dogs having the qualities required to make great competition dogs…’ you can’t polish plywood’…in relation to John he can pick and choose which dogs are going to make it to the top. From the thirty-three thousand Labradors registered with the Kennel club last year, ( another fact I learnt that weekend ), there’s surely bound to be a few stars, aren’t there? In comparison there were less than one hundred Chesapeakes registered so the pool to pick from is so much smaller…I guess what I’m trying to say is that  the last few years there has been pressure put on our breed to be competitive with Labradors in the field but when you compare numbers like those available above the opportunities of consistently having competition level dogs are going to be rare, perhaps we should concentrate our efforts on purely enjoying our breed for what they are and not turn them into something they’re not ?

DSC_1742

I was lucky enough to be ringside to watch two of the Irish International retriever team put in almost faultless performances at the International working test team event, they went on to win the overall competition on Sunday with Sean Diamond’s young dog finishing only 2 points behind the overall top dog in the competition.

DSC_1786

The sky clouded over on Saturday and a cool breeze rose from the lake. When we had finished our final stint on the gundog stand Des and I sat with my sister , Olivia, drinking Pimms and two of our chessies stretched out beside us. It had been a busy two days but such fun, I had blisters on my feet from the amount of mileage walked on dusty tracks but it was great to be able to enjoy an event that has so much to offer in terms of country pursuits. Tonight we were pulling up sticks and moving east to be on the road early for the club show. A warm solid mattress and working shower would be most welcome.

This year was the 6th Championship show for the UK Chesapeake Bay Retriever Club. The judge for the Championship Show was Mr Frank Whyte, a first time for me showing my dogs under him. The club also runs a Limit Show in the afternoon following the Championship show and the judge for that this year was Ms Tilly Thomas. The entry for the championship show this year was over fifty dogs/bitches and the limit show had just under thirty.

There is always such a lovely relaxed atmosphere at this show. Held in the small village hall at Bagington the weather is almost always pleasant which lends more of a summer picnic feel to the event. The catering this year was organised by Ms Jo Thorpe and her partner Rob and I hope will be a regular feature…freshly made rolls with crispy lettuce and mayo, homemade chocolate cake and reasonable prices.

Despite having been on the road for four days and coping with the heat all the dogs performed well with Mossy picking up the Reserve Dog CC and Reserve best In Show;  Chester winning Best Veteran in Show beating Winnie who won Best Veteran Bitch. However, it was little Miss Uisce at only 16 months old, still in Junior bitch and making her debut on the show scene in the UK who stole the show by winning the bitch CC and Best Opposite sex!!!

We had some fun during the lunch time interval between the Championship and Limit Show by running Uisce in the scurry. It finished in a three way tie with Uisce, Margaret Woods young dog and Sue Worrall’s Kes. A  late afternoon run off saw Uisce just clinching the top spot.

The limit show started, Uisce finished with second in her class so that was her done for the day. My final dog entry for the day was Bertie. He was entered in special working dog/bitch. It had been four years since he’d been shown in the UK but today was his moment to shine. He won his class and in the show line up was pulled out for Best In Show!!

DSC_1803

The club show is where I aimed to peak my dogs this year….trying to hold coats, which were rapidly blowing off in little brown fluffy balls everytime I ran my hand over them and keep them in condition is hard as the show season wears on. So now the routine of roadwork, sea swimming and watching weight is over for this year. Its easier, almost, to prepare them for the rest of the working test season and then when the seasons turn again its back to the woods and wilderness where the real work begins….

I’d like to dedicate this writing to the memory of Breeze, Uisce’s sister, they were big paws to fill but Uisce I feel has found her own path..xx

Finding Bertie’s ‘tipping point’.

Mary_and_Bertie

He didn’t mark the retrieve. We were first dog up in a three dog line up and I knew that even though he took a great line, running all 200 + yards until he was parallel with the thrower, he hadn’t locked onto the fall. Everything in his body language from the send off told me he was unsure. His nose was not going to help on this occasion either as  it was one of those dead-air Summer days with not even a wisp of a breeze to kick up scent. He was going to need my help now to find it and I knew with every whistle our chances of finishing near the top on this day were tumbling away.

I could have left it at that, put it down to a combination of factors that caused a mismark but I know my dog and have seen him pin many more difficult and technical marks than the one presented on that day. I allowed for the fact that I had two bitches in season and tensions among the males were particularly high in the days preceding competition, he was certainly distracted but had held it together in the line. I also allowed for lack of scent and the fact it was a green dummy thrown against high green trees but were there other factors?

The following week we met up with our small training group for a complete ‘marking’ session on the Hill of Tara. The ground here is wonderful for setting up scenarios of different marks long rolling hills with wide open grassland and a scattering of trees with ditches. Almost any combination can be worked on. We set up three dogs in line facing a thrower about 100 yards away throwing into short grass into the corner of the field. A simple seen. Bertie again was first dog up and when I sent him there was that same lack of committment I had seen the previous Sunday.He ran over the dummy had a quick sniff around and then instead of persisting he started to come back in!! Now I knew there was something going on.
I sat him out for the remainder of the session and he was content to sit and watch as I threw dummies and laid blinds for Stevie and Otto.
I left him off training for another week until the bitches were well clear of their respective seasons and reintroduced him to marking practice. Simple singles both long and short, keeping it light and fun with lots of praise his drive and confidence returned. I increased the difficulty of retrieve work again offering in the odd blind and diversion and was pleased to see he coped with these in the same way. Always returning to marking practice varying the distance and leaving off the whistle to allow him figure out that fall on his own.
Then one evening I happened to flick into a retriever forum and picked up on a post where a guy was having problems with his young lab marking. This particular dog had been a very reliable marker during his first year of competition but now he was struggling, even with simple marks…the problem sounded familiar. The solution offered to this handler made perfect sense. It would seem that often when a dog is being drilled to perfect a certain aspect of their training they may struggle with tasks that came easily before. I had spent much of the spring perfecting Bertie’s blindwork and tightening up on his response to the whistle. Was it possible that the pressure on him in training along with the other factors had spilled over and had affected his concentration to mark? Certainly the adjustments I had made to his training in the weeks following seemed to bear this out but I would not truly know until he was tested again in competition.
We entered the working test in Castlehoward primarily to support a very worthy cause. The event was organised by Mr Jim MacAul a stalwart around the shoots in Wicklow. It was run by the All Ireland Utility Gundog Club and all proceeds were being given to Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children Crumlin.
I was only looking for one aspect of success with Bertie on this day…a good confident mark.
The mark that day involved a two dog walk up. We were second dog up. Distance was about 250 yards we were set up along the lake bank. It was short grass to start with then out across a path under a fence into longer grass then under a second fence through some rushy cover then open ground to where the dummy fell.
Our turn came. When my number was called by the judge I sent my dog. This time there was no hestitation in his run out he covered the ground with the same confident stride that brings a tingle up my spine when I watch him. Coming to the rushy  cover he caught the whiff of scent where dummies had been thrown in the novice test that morning but a quick cast around and without prompting he pushed on up the slope and picked that dummy. The retrieve, although not perfect, was a long way towards the return to the standard of marking I had seen him deliver in the past and most likely helped him gain second place that afternoon.

Second place at Castlehoward flanked by two FTCH's.

Second place at Castlehoward flanked by two FTCH’s.

Encouraged to see his form returning I stuck with an easing off on training, keeping everything light again, lengthening the marks every now and then but all the while keeping blind work simple with memory blinds along known pathways.
This past Sunday we headed west to Mohill Gun club along the shores of Lough Rynn. By the time the advanced test started in the afternoon temperatures had risen to the mid-twenties. Nothing moved to bring coolness or scent to the air. It was a single long seen with two dogs in line. Distance 250 yards+. We, again, were second dog up. Our number was called and I sent my dog. I put my whistle between my lips and watched Bertie roll on up the hill. His line was good…the dog before him had cast around and needed handling…I prepared to help him but resisted the urge to blow on that whistle…he was almost at the spot,twenty feet, ten feet and then I watched with relief as I saw him dip his head and pick that dummy.
He scored a perfect 25 that day and although he didn’t finish in the top four placings only 2 points separated him from the leading dogs.
Lost points are something I can ponder on for another day, something to work on and aim towards but today’s score was simply sweet. It taught me to trust in my dog more, to watch him and listen to him when he is giving signals that something is just not quite right or that he’s simply reached his ‘tipping point’. To know that the ‘tipping point’ is not the end but an indication to cease pushing on until the dog pulls through that period of adjustment…what do you think?

Safe water

DSC_1298

 

Uisce’s water problems were not yet sorted, there were still gaps in  her training that needed to be filled in. This was especially obvious when I took her, as Bertie’s travelling companion, to the UK last month.

Strange water and moving water proved most problematic as I discovered when we took a walk along the River Avon.  Her desire to retrieve was, and is, strong but the difficulty was her pick up in water. She would reach out for the retrieve then the splashing and circling would start, the retrieve forgotten and a lot of calling and encouragement from me on the bank was required to entice her back to shore. Bertie was then dispatched to retrieve. Back to the drawing board. At the same time there was progress,  she was easier to recall and although she splashed and circled there wasn’t the frenetic water biting that had been there previously.

It was Jason Mayhew who first suggested that part of her problem might be related to a fear and lack of confidence rather than an obedience issue. This would change my entire perspective and approach to her training going forward. We  met up with him on that Saturday afternoon and had the opportunity to do some training. For the most part Uisce sat and watched as I concentrated on Bertie. The afternoon was the first hot one of the year and at the end of the session we took the dogs to a small pond for a welcome cool off. It was a perfect set up for teaching young dogs how to enter water with confidence. Small, with gently sloping sides for easy entrance and exit.

 

 

After watching the other dogs in the group carry out their respective retrieves I set Uisce up for one also. I hoped she would repeat her behaviour as I wanted to see if Jason could perhaps look on it with fresh eyes. She did not disappoint. The retrieve was not difficult, in she went and once again when within touching distance of the dummy the splashing started. We watched in silence from the bank for a few moments.  His suggestion was to walk away, say nothing and see what would happen. Alas we were saved that trouble by a very territorial cobb swan who chased her back to shore with more speed than she could muster. We moved further downstream and threw a small dummy into very shallow water at the edge, just to get her confidence back. Today was not the day to push on with any more water work. We both needed to reassess and reflect.

As many of you may have figured by now, I think about things a lot, particularly in relation to dog training. I try to figure out where the dog is coming from in relation to a given situation and then try to work out a mutual meeting point for both of us. My main emphasis is to make training interesting and even fun for my dogs, after all much of what I ask of them is for my benefit and not theirs so I feel there has to be a pay back of sorts for them.

I knew I had reached a point in Uisce’s water work training though, where I had guided her as far as I could. It was now her turn to shoulder some of the responsibility in figuring out what she would gain from retrieving efficiently from water. To do this I needed two things – safe water and an experienced older dog to mop up any retrieves that she was likely to lose on this particular learning curve. DSC_1075     DSC_1053

The Ramparts in Navan is perfectly set up for what I had in mind. It is an eight kilometre walk with a grassy bank canal on one side and the river Boyne on the other. The Boyne is separated from the path by a wide bank of rushy vegetation so most young dogs, if they are very water focussed, will gravitate towards the canal as opposed to heading straight for the river. I intended to make use of both, eventually.

I took Chester along as my assistant picking up dog and he was fairly busy to begin with. The first morning I took them out I tried a short retrieve into the canal from a shallow sloping bank. I never allow a young dog a first retrieve or even a second…she sat and watched as Chester retrieved. Then I sent her and as expected she did her usual pirouette in the clear canal water, round and round she swam every now and then bobbing the ball with her paw. The time had come to hand the baton to her, so to speak. I sent Chester into the water to pick up the tennis ball and walked away without saying a word. As he made his way through the water to pick it up something happened…..Uisce beat him to it, picked the ball perfectly and swam to shore.

 

DSC_1851

An experienced dog is often required.

And that was all it took. There were times in the coming weeks when I presented her with new and challenging situations in water that she would panic and splash but the difference was I recognised it as that….lack of confidence and instead of shouting and correcting her I would simply send the old guy in for the retrieve and recall her to shore, trying again with a simpler retrieve until the splashing became almost non existent and Chester unemployed.

Today I took her to the Boyne. I had no helper in relation to Chester, as Uisce is in season so this was to be another step forward in her responsibility. The point I chose for her to retrieve from has a bank of bullrushes so she would have the challenge of coping with current as well as an obstacle. I threw the dummy beyond the rushes so she had to swim through to find the retrieve before it was swept down river. She succeeded every time and  thoroughly enjoyed it too.

 

DSC_0644

Uisce, being able to enjoy water again.

My walks along the ramparts also reaffirmed for me Jason’s suspicion that she may have been a young dog lacking confidence as opposed to a true water- freaker, as apart from sending her to water for a retrieve she is quite happy to amble along the path without entering water for the sheer hell of it.

Looking back I know the time invested early on in establishing a good recall on land first, then progressing to water was not wasted. In fact it became key when the point came for Uisce to choose which direction she took in relation to her training. I know in our breed in particular there are many owners struggling with young cheaspeakes to gain control in water. I hope by following our tale it may help you to look at a different approach to moving on past this sticking point in training.

 

DSC_1070

Galvins on the Ramparts….not the worst place in the world to train…

Lessons learnt through experience.

The venue for Breffni Gun club cold game test.

The venue for Breffni Gun club cold game test.

Competing, as anyone who does so knows, is a double-edged sword which inevitably falls on the side of tried and failed more often than tried and succeeded. The successes, when they come, are to be treasured. The failures are remembered for longer simply because they teach us more, making us strive to do better the next time.

The working test season, for my dogs, kicked off mid April in Cavan. A charity event, organised by Breffni gun club, it is always very well run, with plenty of help and a lovely relaxed atmosphere. The test was run using cold game which takes the dogs up a gear.

Bertie and me at Breffni

Bertie and I at Breffni

During the Winter season my dogs run pretty much off the whistle, indeed my main use for it as we work our way through the cover at Shelton, is as a location device for my dogs to find me. So although we have been training throughout spring they will never be as tight on the whistle through the first couple of working tests in comparison to dogs that have spent a season trialling.

…And it showed with Mossy when he ran novice that day. His marking was precise but he was slack to the whistle on blindwork. Bertie had a better run in Open. He was only just 3 when he won out of novice. It was probably a season too soon, we underestimate sometimes the level of mental pressure involved for the dog when competing at Open level. They need time to mature  and watching him training over the recent weeks I can say that only now he is  ready to take on what an Open test has to offer…..well hopefully most of the time.

Two out of three tests were 25/25 and 23/25. His marking was tight and clean. The water test was something he hadn’t encountered before. A teal thrown into the middle of six decoys and the dog had to retrieve the teal and leave the decoys. Simple work for a dog that is used to decoying but it’s something I’ve not done with Bertie before. It was one of those tests where a split second decision is going to mean the difference between success or failure. He had marked the fall beautifully and took a direct line into the water, on encountering the first decoy I gave the command ‘leave’ and that was it….wrong command…the dog turned off the decoys and swam to shore. I took him down to the water’s edge and recast, when he reached the decoys this time I gave the command ‘back’ he pushed on , winded the bird and brought it back to hand. Lesson learnt.

Bertie on a run out at broadmeadows. Picture courtesy of Tony.

Bertie on a run out at broadmeadows. Picture courtesy of Tony.

The second working test of the season was in Mullingar, run by the Broadmeadows gundog club it is practically an institution in retriever circles in Ireland. Traditionally it was the test that marked the start of the working test season. It is also a qualifier to pick the Irish team for the two International retriever events held at Shanes Castle and Birr Castle during the Summer. I took Bertie on his own for this test primarily because I wanted  a chance to see how he would be in a line up prior to the Minority breeds test in the UK the following week. I truly had no expectations as the field was large with 26 dogs running and many of the top field trial dogs in the country in attendance.

Listening to the judges direction before a retrieve.

Listening to the judges direction before a retrieve.

His weakest test was the first which was a diversion straight ahead and a blind 45 degrees to his left about 100 meters away over reedy grass. He took a wonderful line but I failed to use the wind to his advantage, peeping him two strides too early meaning I had to work him harder to the pick up. Still bird to hand, we were still in the running. Second test was a single long mark across typical boggy ground with high rushes. It was a three dog line up with a walk to heel, this was the main reason I had wanted to enter this competiton and I couldn’t have asked for better. He was last dog up and sat impeccably until asked to go. He took a line straight to the fall and straight back. The final retrieve of the day was the water and it was proving to be the undoing of many…

The diversion at the water test after drifting.

The diversion at the water test after drifting.

The water test was set on a lake. The wind was blowing hard now in from the north east to the dog’s right. A single diversion was thrown out into the middle of the lake to the dog’s left. The dog was then being sent for a blind across on the far bank of the lake. The temptation was, of course, that the dog would pull for that diversion in open water and all would be over. We were near the end of the field by the time it came to our turn and I had watched many dogs fail. I set my dog up and faced him directly towards the diversion. He marked it well. I turned him and cast him well away from the direction of the seen retrieve. He entered the water, started to pull left, I peeped and cast him right back…he got the message and swam on. The next challenge was to get him onto the blind which was laid at the water’s edge among reeds. If he banked it would be a harder job as the scent would be below him. As he approached the far shore I peeped again, he turned right, winded the dummy and locked on. First half complete….I called him back and at the same time looked around to see where the diversion had drifted to as the wind was carrying it down the lake at pace…thankfully it was still in open water. I handed the dummy to the judge and set up my dog. I let him hit the water at the point where he expected that diversion to be and swim out, peeping and casting left when he hit the point of first fall. He saw the dummy and again locked on. That will most likely be my retrieve of the season for him….the buzz of completing such a technical retrieve is hard to describe.

420695_4702646727364_1681913209_n

His final score that day was 92/100. He finished overall 7th , just one place outside qualifying for the team event.

A flatcoat clears the jump in the Minor breeds team test.

A flatcoat clears the jump in the Minor breeds team test.

A week later we were on the ferry and heading east to Evesham in Gloustershire. Bertie was competing as part of a team in the Minority breeds working test. Four teams of 3 dogs all different breeds of retriever – There was a team of Curly coated retrievers, Flatcoated retrievers, Irish Water Spaniels and of course the Chesapeakes. I was excited and nervous.This was to be our first time competing as part of a team. It’s one thing competing as a single dog/handler with no responsiblity but to yourself but to be part of a team carried extra responsibilty.

Sitting out a simulated drive. Photo courtesy of Ms Sue Worrall.

Sitting out a simulated drive. Photo courtesy of Ms Sue Worrall.

The competiton that day was broken down into a series of 6 tests. Four of those six tests involved line-ups or walk up. This is an excercise that can be difficult for chesapeakes, particularly dogs that spend their winter working on their own and retrieving everything that falls but our dogs did very well. The last test of the morning was a double seen, each dog was to be taken on their own. We all breathed a sigh of relief, the hard stuff seemed to be over….the judge gave a description of the test to the entire group. It was to be a double mark retrieve. The first thrown dummy to be retrieved first, dog was not to be sent until the judge instructed. I was second up with Bertie. The judge asked if I understood the test and I assumed I did. I took the lead off and set my dog facing the left hand thrower. He marked both dummies. I waited for the judge’s command and sent Bertie on his way. He took a direct line to the fall and returned with perfect hand delivery. I took him round to my left, settled him and sent him for his second retrieve. Again there was no hesitation to the pick up and delivery was perfect. I came away from the line absolutely thrilled to bits. Then the second judge approached me…

Echo aged almost 10 our most experienced team member.

Echo aged almost 10 our most experienced team member.

It appeared that in her group instruction the judge required that the handler was to wait for her instruction before sending for the second retrieve, this was something unusual and I hadn’t encountered before. There was the possibility that although Bertie had been foot perfect he could potentially zero on that one, small, technicality and that was my fault.

Bertie at the water. Photo courtesy of Ms Sue Worrall.

Bertie at the water. Photo courtesy of Ms Sue Worrall.

….and he did, she zeroed his retrieve. I was gutted, i had let the team down and I had let my dog down. Our team finished second, 19 points behind the winners…it is an error I will never forget again. I will most likely always insist on an individual explanation if the judge gives a group description. Did the judge mark harshly? who knows? it is her perogative and I’ve got to accept it, learn from it and move on.

Our team...we fought the brave fight. Photo courtesy of Ms Sue Worrall.

Our team…we fought the brave fight. Photo courtesy of Ms Sue Worrall.

Dogs and desserted beaches….

DSC_0098

The Footpath

For most of the year the beaches around Ireland are desserted by the general public and this morning was no exception. A strong east wind that has been persistantly hitting our coastline for more than a week now has scared off all but the hardiest of souls.

Dogwalker's heaven.

Dogwalker’s heaven.

As I headed down the path that leads to the beach that strong seabreeze bit into my face clearing away all thoughts of morning weariness. It was fighting with the sea as the tide pulled it away from shore, kicking the water into high foamy peaks.

Full gallop to water

Full gallop to water

Uisce and Mossy were at heel  they could smell the sea. They lifted their heads into the wind and snorted as the cold air was drawn into their nostrils.  We stood on the strand just for a moment to gather our bearings and take in the view. The tide was well out leaving that endless expanse of flat empty strand to roll away in the distance. On and on it goes until it hits the cliffs of Gormanstown some three miles away and no body, not a single being, except me and my two dogs to share it with. This has to be dogwalker’s heaven.

DSC_0113

I released the dogs, there was no hesitation, off they went pulling in the ground as they galloped at full pace towards the water in the distance. Eager to dive headlong into the surf and shake the water from their coats.

DSC_0106

Tomorrow is a showday but today, for my chesapeakes, is preparation day….

Fixing a bleeding ear tip….

The evidence was on the patio, big fat splashes of bright red blood. Chester had gotten too close to my mum’s back door and her collie, Vam, in typical collie fashion  had nipped the end of his ear. In itself not a serious injury but with less than two weeks before we travel to Crufts it could be problematic. Everyone knows just how difficult ear tip injuries can be to heal up….for something so small and superficial they take forever to stop bleeding. And it bled for hours…..

I tried everything from vaseline, deodarant, cotton wool, applying direct pressure and of course plain and simple bandaging but nothing stemmed that steady bright red trickle. Each time a new dressing was applied it  took one head shake, the dressing would fall to the floor and my walls, windows and doors were resprayed with blood….

I needed to find something that would prevent his ear from moving and allow the ear tip to clot over. As a last resort I put in 2 small stitches in an aid to narrow the opening. I didn’t want to close it fully and create a haematoma but if I could slow the flow down it might clot off better. I then needed to think of a way to prevent his ears from moving.

I had a light-bulb moment. Unfortunatley it involved hacking up one of my favourite sweatshirts. I cut off the sleeve and pulled it over Chester’s head. A perfect fit. The cuff was tight enough to prevent it slipping either forward or back and the sleeve was loose enough to allow air circulate around the ear but prevent movement when he head shook.

It’s been on 24 hours now and I’m pleased to report that the ear tip is well on the road to healing. Another 24 hours and I hope to be able to remove his headpiece as I don’t think it will take off as a fashion statement in the gamekeepers classes at crufts just yet.

DSC_0410

Chester’s fashion statement…

Season’s End.

...final forays with the gun...

…final forays with the gun…

Friday 25th January.

I set out, once again, across the fields with Mossy and my Gun. The wind was blowing hard from the west and would no doubt soon bring in rain if the clouds that loomed on the horizon were anything to go by. Down through the rabbit field where I let Mossy have a course  to settle him before we reached the banks of the river Blackwater.

We approached the bank of the river and a snipe got up from under my feet. I’m almost sure it winked at me as I stood watching instead of firing on it as it zig-zagged away. I shook my head in frustration and was just taking a step forward when a pair of teal rose from below me on the river, peeled off to the right and headed south, again I stood watching, thinking, “‘were they too far? …..dam ! dam ! dam !”, again I cursed my hesitancy…..”‘why was I thinking and not shooting?????”

We turned north following the course of the river bank. The wind was more in my favour now but it had brought the rain which those clouds promised and it hit the side of my face in cold sleety splashes. Mossy walked beside me, lifting his head in the wind every now and then in search of scent but all was quiet. This season has been the making of him as a working dog. He has become a pleasant companion to take on these forays and is filling his father’s shoes by taking his place with Des on the shoot in Shelton.

The fields that run along the river here are narrow and divided by deep water channels. It means plenty of time is spent breaking the gun, unloading and guaging distance as to whether I can jump  the ditch or wade across without filling my wellies. We were heading for the maize field at Mullens. The river swings right here, in a big lazy arc and is slower and wider. Earlier in the season I had seen a flock of twenty teal on this part of the water so I was hoping, that if left undisturbed, they would still be there. I got my gun ready….

Something rose from the ditch in front of us then disappeared, it looked like a bird of prey. Mossy ran in to investigate,it was a bird of prey all right, as Mossy returned carrying it carefully, the bird’s talons wrapped around his muzzle and its beak making valiant attempts to remove his eye! With a gloved hand I took it by the wings and removed it from Mossy’s care. No damage done to dog or bird.

It was a young male buzzard, in poor condition. It’s breastbone was very prominent and its mouth was very pale indicating it was cold and weak. I don’t know why I didn’t put an end to its misery there and then, maybe  its brave attempt to fight off the dog with the last bit of energy it had or the knowledge that all birds of prey are protected and should be reported. So I took off my coat and  wrapped the bird in it to hide its head and keep it calm. I unloaded my gun, put the cartridges back in my belt, looked longingly down river and headed for home. Mossy was happy, he had his retrieve with or without gunfire.

Back at the house, I found a cardboard box, lined it with newspaper and put the bird inside. I left him with a chicken carcass, carefully covered the top with a light piece of basket and added a weight just to be sure. It reminded me of all the times we rescued wild animals as kids. Everything from crows, pigeons , robins and even baby hares found their way to our hotpress…they never survived but it never stopped us trying. This bird’s best chance would be with an experienced falconer, I would check on it later to see if still survived.

the little male buzzard

The little male buzzard

Later that day I was in my local shooting shop on other business and was telling the story to the guy behind the counter. He immediately rang a friend of his, a falconer called Sam, who lived locally and  has a special interest in taking wild raptors and looking after them until they are ready for release. He works in conjunction with local vet Dr Carolan.

It was late evening by the time Sam called to collect the bird. He confirmed it was a young male buzzard, probably this year’s bird and most likely had been mobbed by crows and got tangled in branches which may have injured him. Regardless, I felt that if he had survived this long it looked hopeful that he may make a full recovery.I rang Sam on Monday and he had sad news. The buzzard seemed to have been making progress, he had started eating and the vet had xrayed him and found no fractures or other injuries. When Sam checked on him on Sunday morning he was dead. The vet’s conclusion was either poison or shock.

Saturday 26th January…

Today was a good day. Very early this morning I said goodbye to Des and Mossy as they headed North to Drumbanagher to attend an Open stake field trial. Our hope was that Mossy would pass his field trial qualifier and like his parents, Winnie and Chester, become our third full champion in Ireland, the UK and under FCI rules.

Dog and Master

Dog and Master

I was destined for Dublin with Uisce to attend an Open show, her first since the incident with the doberman last December. Uisce did well, she went BOB stood for examination and moved out well. She is showing that her confidence is returning but is still wary of other dogs at times. I will continue taking her along to Tuesday night classes for the foreseeable future until a more balanced attitude returns. She finished the day by going BIG4, far exceeeding expectations for the day!

Mossy has developed into a lovely working companion

Mossy has developed into a lovely working companion

A phonecall from Des just after 4pm to confirm Mossy had indeed passed his qualifier really was the news to cap our season off. He is a dog that has presented me with many challenges in training. It took time for us to figure him out. He was a very laid back puppy with masses of potential, then when adolesence hit he lost focus for a while, we eased off the pressure of training and took him along at a much slower pace. Although he  loves me to bits he works best for Des and that really has been the key to unlocking his full potential this year.

DSC_0129

celebrating Mossy’s achievement

Sunday 27th January…

Lining up on the Oaks at Shelton

Lining up on the Oaks at Shelton

Our last day picking up at Shelton, next week is beater’s day when I plan to be on the gun line. There’s always a feeling winter slides by too quickly and too soon I’ll be putting away my game-carrier until next year. It encompasses every single part of our lives during those months and although I look forward to spring with longer evenings and warmer days, ( hopefully), I will be sad to leave this season behind.

DSC_0201

Coming in from the last drive at Shelton.

Monday 28th January…

The teal that have sat on the pond in Foley’s wood have, up until now, got the better of me. The high water around the wood has left it pretty much inaccessible throughout the Winter. This morning, though, I had a plan. I pulled on my waders and for the final time this season headed out across the potato field, down through the narrow strip of woodland with the blackbirds calling out ahead of us and turned left to the back of the wood. There was only one point in the woods from which the birds, if they were there, could break cleanly from. I pulled out wide into the field and turned towards the wood. The wind was at my back, not ideal but…then up from the edge of the wood rose a flock of 7 mallard. They rose to the north then swung back in front of me. I lifted my gun and fired, they were too far and I possibly didn’t give enough lead. I was just reloading when a flock of 14 teal rose from the same spot in the woods and pulled off over the trees. My chance was gone, I walked slowly forward with Chester at heel. At the edge of the wood I stopped and sent him on. He had just cleared the ditch when a female teal rose up through the trees in my direction. I fired once, she folded and fell in the field and was brought to hand by the old guy, Chester.

Tuesday 29th January….

DSC_1743

Solo and Holly.

We gathered in the yard at Mountainstown for one last time this season. The drives today were some of my favourites – the fish pond, Keepers pen, the decoy, Romwood and the garden paddock. Bertie was still nursing an infected paw after picking up a prod here a couple of weeks ago and Mossy needs to start building condition in readiness for Crufts in March, he has dropped 6kgs in weight despite being fed double rations during the season. So it was Winnie and Uisce that accompanied me around the fields this morning. The retrieves were not many nor unusual but just solid gamefinding work, Uisce following her mother, learning her craft, making sense of where birds lie in cover, watching her reaction to the gun, soaking it all up and filing it away for next season.

heading to the beating line at Mountainstown.

Heading to the decoy…

My dogs that have shadowed me throughout these days, all have had a role to play. Bertie was my anchor dog at Mountainstown but a bad injury after christmas has left him out of action since then. Mossy was the one  we started slowly with, easing him into Shelton but he settled to the job incredibly well and by season’s end he has been my mainstream working companion filling in for Bertie at both shoots as well as accompanying me out roughshooting.. Chester who we took  out of semi-retirement  soon showed us he wasn’t quite ready to hang up his boots at Shelton just yet…his gamesense and gamefinding ability will be difficult to match in the future. Winnie, like Mossy, this year has been my all-rounder… always there, always reliable I can take her anywhere and she will adapt to the situation at hand. And finally my two young ones, Zoe my little gun shy springer, who I used for dogging in early in the season, suddenly decided guns no longer bothered her and has had a ball covering the back of the Oaks drive at Shelton with the chessies. Uisce, also only taken out since christmas and only sweeping with the adult dogs. I have not put pressure on her to sit in line on or off lead. This season, for her, was all about soaking up the atmosphere following the older dogs as they hunt before formal gundog training begins in earnest in the spring.

DSC_1745

Our dogs give everything …

….and so to show…

DSC_1509

We are coming in from the fields now, my brown dogs and me. Our steps are not as light as they were when we disappeared into the woods last November . I have dirt embedded deep under my fingernails and my hair has a wildness about it which the hairdresser may raise an eyebrow or two. My dogs have lost weight, show condition replaced by hard fit muscle, the hair around their face and eyes is gone and when I run my hands along their backs it is rippled with scabs from working through gorse and brambles but our eyes tell a different story…we have shared something together in those dark days of Winter and as we glance back over our shoulders one last time we know we will have that time again..

Are breeding decisions being based too much on health checks?

Every responsible breeder wants the best for their breed. By  taking the time to ensure that dogs are selected on the basis of compatibility and of course clear health checks we believe that we are doing everything in our power to protect our breed’s future.

Now, I’m kind of old fashioned when it comes to choosing a stud dog. I like to see the ‘look’ of the dog first. Do his physical attributes fit with what my bitch can offer? His temperament must also be sound and he has to have working ability….if these three attributes tick all the boxes then I will look at pedigrees to confirm that the breeding is not too close. Finally, I will look at the health checks. Clear health checks are good and so far in my breeding decisions I have been lucky that the dogs’ I have wanted to use have fallen into this net.

A recent event, though, has left me wondering….Is the balance of choosing a mate for your dog being tipped in favour of clear health checks above everything else ? and if so, is this necessarily a good thing?

The following extract may go some way to explaining what could happen if we continue to focus on one aspect of breeding and forget to look at the whole picture. It’s taken from a book I read called ‘Dogs In Motion’ by  Fischer and Lilje:

The silver fox as an example of domestication.

“The study was carried out by a Russian geneticist Dmitry Konstantinovich Belyaev. He worked out the principle by which selective breeding brings about anatomical changes and identified the speed at which traits can change. He assumed that the key criterion in the selection of dogs for breeding was not an anatomical trait but a behavioural one: tameability. In 1959 he began to tame and domesticate silver foxes. After his death, his research was carried on by Lyudmila Trut.

In a breeding programme spanning 50 years, the team selected those individuals whose behaviour around humans was the most companiable and sociable. Selection began when the foxes were cubs and carried on until sexual maturity was reached. Only those animals which actively sought human company and which greeted humans in a similar way to dogs were selected to breed.

Within just four generations, cubs were produced which greeted humans by wagging their tails. In the sixth generation, just under 2% of the cubs displayed this behaviour. By the tenth generation, 18% of the cubs were tail waggers, after 20 generations 35%, after 30 generations 49% and by 2005/2006 almost all the foxes at the breeding station wagged their tails in greeting. This proved clearly that predisposition to the behavioural trait ‘tamability’ is inherited.”

What I found most interesting was the following:

” Over the course of the domestication project, changes in various anatomical traits were also observed in the foxes. Firstly, coats became dappled, then floppy ears and curly tails developed. Skulls became flatter and snouts shorter. After 20 generations, shorter tails and shorter limbs were observed, as was the appearance of overbites and underbites.”

I think it is imporatant for all involved in  dog breeding to remember that, if only one aspect of the dog is focussed on, it is to the detriment of something else. This holds through if the emphasis falls on anatomy and temperament as much as it does on health. It is important that the final decision to go forward with a mating should be left in the hands of the breeders who have the best interests of their breed at heart and not (as I have recently experienced) to an outside body that is looking only at paper results without seeing the entire picture.

I will always strive to breed healthy dogs but my first priority will be to breed a Chesapeake that fills the requirements of the job it was bred and developed to do. I think the above extract demonstrates how quickly traits are lost and gained in breeding. In a numerically small breed like chesapeakes it can be particularly detrimental to favour one aspect and neglect the  whole dog.

The little black collie.

The little black collie

The little black collie

None of us know where she came from. Her story starts the morning she arrived in Tim’s yard about twelve weeks ago.

Hunger and a desperate need to survive drove her to seek out the company of humans, we think. She stood on the edge of the yard wary, extremely thin but brave enough to accept food that was left for her by Caroline. She was free to go, if she wished, but something kept her there. After two weeks of cautious coaxing she allowed Tim to rub her gently while she ate but that was all. As soon as her meal was finished she turned her back on him and disappeared, yet again, into the darkness.

Then, one day she was gone and for a full six nights and days there was no sign of her. After a week she appeared in the yard again and, if it was possible, she was even thinner and in worse condition than before. She devoured the plate of food Tim put down for her and then hurriedly disappeared back behind one of the sheds. Curious, Tim followed her and found, to his surprise, six tiny puppies no more than a few days old.

The den where the puppies spent the first ten days

The den where the puppies spent the first ten days

Winter was starting, it was cold, windy and wet but the little collie had, against all the odds, done what she needed to survive to give these tiny beings a chance to live. Her nest was the bare earth, sheltered only by a rusty sheet of galvanised tin. It was just enough to keep out the rain and wind. We were afraid to move her to a more secure location in the early days. Her mistrust of people could have made her abandon the puppies or worse move them to a location where we would never find them. So for the first ten days, until their eyes opened,  Tim did his best to re-enforce the den with plastic sheeting and he anxiously observed from a distance.

Ten days in and against all the odds she had successfully brought her little family to a point where their eyes opened and they had passed the neonate stage and into puppyhood. Tim moved them then into a very sheltered corner of the hayshed. It was quiet, secluded but most importantly, for the little black collie, it offered her still the freedom to come and go.

Little boy blue..

Little boy blue..

I have to commend Caroline and Tim, at this point. It was not in their immediate plans to adopt one dog let alone a whole family but they rose to the challenge, took on the responsibilty and discovered that although it was hard work, it is impossible not to become attached and responsible when an animal desperately needs your help.

They wormed the little collie, coped with weaning and cleaning up after six healthy, active and inquisitve puppies. They gave names to each and every one, including the mother whom they’ve called Pria and like her namesake in Emmerdale she is pretty, vulnerable but has a will of iron when it comes to surviving. They have worked on teaching her to trust, allowing her to come to them , putting no pressure on her just patiently waiting.

Dove...

Dove…

Whatever happened in Pria’s past in relation to her nervousness around people has not transferred to her puppies. So we can only assume that the timidity is as a result of social factors as opposed to something inherent in her personality. As such we are hopeful that with time, love and attention she will find a loving and loyal home.

We have found homes for four of the puppies but Pria and two of her little beauties are still waiting. We will wait until the right one comes to us as we feel after everything she did to ensure the safe passage for her babies the very least she deserves is a chance to experience some love and kindness in return. Don’t you?

DSC_1583