The Hunt….

Our Breed standard calls for a Chesapeake to be .. ‘equally proficient in land and water’…. and although their reputation as a strong tenacious swimmer may be legendary their skills as a competent upland game dog are often underestimated…..the following tale might sway your opinion….

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Through the old stone wall piers and onto the lane, the dogs wandering just ahead of me , we were just short of where my friend Joe and his lab Solo were seated, when Uisce dived into the ditch on the right and up the other side of the sheep wire fence rose a  wounded cock pheasant.

His wing beats were laboured, going too fast for the speed and level of flight he was at, and very quickly the effort was too much and I watched him drop down and run the fence line towards the gate into the field beside the rushy bottoms. The banked hedge meant that his path was not visible to either dog.

Uisce was still buried in the cover, so I took Bertie to the corner of the field where a stile made the stock fence  safer to cross and sent him back along the fence line where I had seen the bird drop and run. He took a good line and when he hit the point where I had seen the bird drop  his lowered head and quickening pace told me he had found the trail.And so the hunt was on….

Half way down the field , just past the gate that turns into Foley’s field he pulled up abruptly and a frustrated bark told me this was most likely the point  where the bird could  have stalled but stock fence topped with barbed wire pulled tight along a hawthorn hedge was preventing my dog from  progressing any further. I caught up with him quickly, and brought him back fifty meters to where the fence was not so tight to the ground, guided him under and  then from there he retracked back to where he left the point of scent inside the fence….

Again the bird broke cover and into flight, this time though Bertie was determined no hedge or fence was going to hold him back either and he busted through the hawthorn keeping pace underneath the bird as they headed off across the field  towards the maize crop that bordered the narrow wood. Uisce had caught up with me by this time and we both watched from the gateway as the drama  continued to unfold across the field.

Just short of the crop the bird dropped to the ground but continued to run with Bertie closing in  on every stride. One last quick dip to the right by that wily bird threw Bertie off balance and he tumbled head over heels across the boggy bottom  ground and the bird was away again.

If the bird made cover now , it would be a much more difficult task to find him as the dog would have to sift through the combination of scents coming from the several birds that no doubt had begun to gather in the crop at the end of the drive.

Uisce had him marked and I sent her in pursuit…off across the field she went at full gallop. The bird reached the crop and disappeared but the Chessies were literally on his tailfeathers as the crop swallowed all three.The chase continued through the crop as maize  was thrashed by two forty kilogram Chessies intent on keeping pace with the agile bird.

Then everything stopped and within a few seconds the crop parted and Uisce emerged with the wounded pheasant held securely in her mouth and a very tired Bertie in her wake. Head up she saw me and picked up her pace where the bird was delivered safely to hand.

We made our way back to where Joe and Solo waited…Joe rose from his seated position took the bird from me and with no words spoken shook my hand and acknowledged both dogs with a quiet salute. We gathered up our game carriers, called to our dogs and as the winter sun dipped below the level of the treeline we headed for home.

 

 

To retrieve a Duck….

Duck rising off the Tailings at Shelton

Duck rising off the Tailings at Shelton

We came to the river again for the Duck Drive, just as the late winter sun dipped below the tree line at the top of the valley.

October 2015 will not be remembered for crisp clear mornings bright with frost , it will be remembered instead for record rainfall and temperatures more akin to late summer than early winter. When November 1st arrived at Shelton, although it stayed dry, the unseasonably mild weather had left all gamekeepers with the unwanted headache of trying to keep birds within boundaries when the hedgerows were still laden with natural feeding.

The first frosts hadn’t come,  leaving the brambles still green and difficult for both us and the dogs to push through. So by the time we took up our spot on the gravel island at the fork in the river most of the dogs were tired from three heavy pheasant drives and the river was not in a gentle kind of mood.

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Full from the heavy rains that fell earlier in the week it would be foolhardy to treat the Avoca, that day, with anything but the utmost respect.

I am always cautious with the dogs I work on the river drive. Young dogs come along only when steady and are kept on lead to watch the older dogs work. I learned my lesson many years ago when I foolishly sent Chester in to this very river on a very lightly wounded duck and watched in horror as the current took both him and the duck round the bend and out of sight. Thankfully, it ended well when he got the duck, found the bank down by the prison and made his way back; but I know it could have ended equally as badly.

Today I had Winnie and Bertie, both experienced dogs in relation to waterwork . We watched as the duck came over the tailings and flew up and across the river. Some were caught by the guns at this stage and from that moment until the end of the drive, thirty  minutes later, the dogs were in constant motion.

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They  worked well with the current , swimming out and turning into it as the birds came downstream to them and then going with the current until it carried them back into their own depth where they brought the birds back to me. They also pushed through the current and retrieved birds that fell on the far bank; occasionally they had an easy run up the gravel island to pick a bird from the stones.

The horn blew, to signal the end of the drive. We had filled two game carriers in that short period of time but there was one final retrieve I needed and as Bertie was the younger and fitter of the pair the task fell to him.

 

Halfway across the widest and fastest flowing part of the river a piece of deadwood rose from the water, strung with all sorts of debris that had got caught up in its branches now it held a drake mallard captive. The bird had been carried downriver during the drive while the dogs were working on other retrieves so they had no idea it was there and the bits of debris flapping like flags in the current masked any sign of the bird from the island where we stood.

 

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I cast Bertie on a line above the deadwood, aiming him for the far bank, anticipating the current would pull him in line with the branches by the time he reached mid-river. He entered the water and felt that familiar pull of the river as it gripped him determinedly and pulled him downstream; with each powerful stroke, though, he was moving nearer the branches but also being pulled sideways by the current. Every stroke was  a battle to simply stay on course. Mid river and the current had carried him to where I expected him to be, Bertie was now below the deadwood . I blew hard on my whistle hoping  to get his attention above the roar of the water and asked him to hunt. It worked, he lifted his head clear of the water and searched using both nose and eyes, he caught the scent and  locked onto the flapping debris, pumped those shoulders harder than before to drive into the current and slowly, slowly work his way towards those branches. With one final drive he reached his head forward and pulled the duck from where the branches held it tightly, then he let go of all effort and allowed the current to carry him downriver to where it sweeps past the shallow end of the island. There he found his footing, pulled himself clear of the water and  with bird in mouth he gave  one final shake and made his way back to  where Winnie and I waited…

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There are plenty of times my dogs and I mess up during the season and I value these as lessons to be  learned and move on from . But every once in a while it all comes together, like the day on the river,and because  these moments come along so infrequently I choose, instead to hold onto them…they are the days to be treasured for times when I can reach my hand down in search of a brown head and rub a pair of soft brown ears as I retell the story of Bertie’s blind duck retrieve again and again and again..

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Hope you had a great season everyone from Me and the Brown Bunch.xx

 

 

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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)

Two men went to the marsh…..

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Two men went to a marsh, they were looking for a wildfowling dog and had been told this was the place they might find one.
Both were experienced hunters of upland game and had spent many a winters day following their spaniels across the midland bogs and thick gorse ditches in search of snipe and pheasant. They had enjoyed the high challenging birds of the driven shoot and watched with admiration the dogs that waited patiently and worked silently and almost unnoticed as they gently and tenderly retrieved the birds that fell around their pegs.
Times changed the bogs were lost to the building boom where midland villages became commuting towns. Work brought the men to the southern coast and wildfowling became their sport of choice.
The life of a wildfowler is not an easy one. Only the most dogged and determined hunter , ( some might say marginally insane ), will rise before dawn in winter, look out their window and pump their fists in celebration that a force 8 gale is blowing outside.  Bring on high tides, heavy swell, dark cloudy skies , lots of wind and the wildfowler is in his element.. Yes, the life of a wildfowler is not an easy one and the dog that accompanies him or her must be as resolute and determined to hunt and retrieve those birds as his master is.
For that first year along the foreshores in the south their plucky little spaniels coped well. On the mornings when the birds came in on a low calm tide ,and there were a good many of those mornings, the dogs rarely lost a bird in the heavy reeds that surrounded the marsh edges. It was when the full moon tides coupled with winter storms and freezing winds came that, although the little dogs worked hard, birds were lost and on one or two occasions dogs were dragged away with  strong currents and almost lost in the process.
The men  had grown to love the wildness and unpredictability of this type of hunting but realised that if they were to continue they needed a  dog with more strength and substance to deal with the high tide waters and the excruciating cold as they waited out those long hours along the marsh edges for birds to come in…..
On that morning, in late November, winter was in one of her worst moods. A north-east wind bellowed down the shoreline, rain mixed with sleet pelted hard against the windshield where they pulled in to meet their fellow wildfowling companions intent on sufferance for the hours to come.

Dogs weaved in and out among cars and humans, tails wagging, caught up in the anticipation and excitement of what was going to come. Their silhouettes and body language instantly recognisable as Spaniels and labs. Both were breeds they were familiar with and respected and admired.

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The dogs they had been told about, though, sat alone in the back of their owners open pick up truck.  Chief, the male,  and his sister Kuma were Chesapeakes. They showed little interest in the business that involved the spaniel meet and greet. Their amber eyed gaze shifted instead, between what their master was doing and out past the parked cars  into the inky distance towards the sea, noses testing the wind for any signs of what the morning’s hunt might bring. There was an aloofness and indifference about their bearing, not unfriendly, just a sense that  being here was not a social visit but a duty to their Master. With their size, broad muscular chests and thick wavy oily coats their stature and physique left no doubt that no matter how long it took or  how hard the task this pair had every confidence in accomplishing what was to be asked of them..

A call from their master and  the dogs leaped from the back of the truck with surprising athleticism for such big dogs and with tails wagging and a houndy ‘roo, roo’ they joined the procession into the marsh.

Four guns spread out below the seawall that ran in a C- shape around the marsh, breaking only at one point where the wall had long ago collapsed and allowed the tide to fill the salt marsh twice daily.

Tucked in on the southside base of the seawall there was relative protection from the relentless wind although no such respite was given from that cold driving rain. The group settled down, dug their hands deep into their pockets and waited.  The dogs sat alert facing into the wind and rain,never wavering from their posts as sentinals;  staring instead through half closed eyes off into that middle distance again, noses raised to the wind as if challenging it to blow harder.

Nothing changed that was apparent, except a slight shift in the body language of Chief and an almost imperceptible sound like a licking of the lips. It was enough ,though, to make their Master cast aside all conversation, gather his gun and peer into that band of purple half light that promised dawn was coming.

Over the seawall, silent, swift and flying low into the wind came a flock of teal. As the first shots rang out across the marsh there was just enough light to make out the silhouettes of two as they faltered, peeled away from the retreating flock and dived into the marsh in front.

A single command to Chief and he was off , over the wall and disappeared into the darkness.  Whether a bird would remain lost or be found depended on him, his nose, and his desire to use it. Darkness and the impenetrable sea wall precluded any help offered by his master. The bird was found and as he brought it to hand Kuma was sent to seek out the second bird that fell. Their master never rushed them, he had no idea how far they needed to range to find that bird but as long as they stayed out there in the dark hunting they were left to figure it out for themselves. Kuma seemed to have had a harder job finding the second bird, they could hear her splashing through the channels as she worked, snuffling as her nose figured out the myriad of scents that lay within the mesh of marsh grasses, but eventually this bird was also brought back to the bag. Both dogs again settled into their role of sentinals and watched the ever lightening skies for movement.

Sunrise never came that morning it was swallowed instead by an angry mix of grey and purple clouds and as the storm strengthened and the tide rose higher the birds moved from the mudflats in the center of the estuary to the shelter of the inland channels and streams for feeding.  His companions on either side filled their bags but alas apart from the early teal nothing came our man’s way.

The measure of a good wildfowling dog is not in the volume of birds they retrieve, ( most serious wildfowlers will only shoot what they can bring home to the pot ), but in their persistence and game finding skills of working wounded birds on difficult water.  An experienced wildfowling dog will work the current to their advantage, not waste energy fighting it  and steadily follow that bird. They know that once a shot is fired and bird down the place to look for a bird is not the sky but the water and the reeds around the water. They will doggedly pursue a diving duck until called off or the duck gives up but mostly they have to learn to be patient, to endure the harshest weather that winter can throw at them and still wait.

When the tide was at it’s highest that morning, the Chessie owner and his dogs were called to the end of the seawall by one of the spaniel men. The channel here was at it’s widest and the tide was rushing in at a bracing 4-5 knots /min. The plucky little spaniel had made several brave attempts to negotiate the increasingly strong current in an attempt to cross  the water where a pair of teal had been shot and landed on the island. A high bank at the narrowest part of the channel prevented any dog from taking the shortest route across so the only option was to face them into the current and aim for the stoney point at the end of the island.

Kuma was to be sent first, her master aimed her for the point of the island. She slid into the water and faced the current and the wind that whipped the water high into frothy peaks around her. It took her a minute to gauge the water but she settled into the current, lifted her head to peer above the waves, aimed for the island and engaged her powerful shoulders to push through that heavy current. Once she banked on the far side the north wind that worked so hard against her on her swim across now became her ally in helping her find that lost bird. As she returned Chief was sent to retrieve the second teal.

He took a similar line to his sister, pushing against the incoming tide as he made his way to the island point. The wind again guided him to the point where Kuma had found her bird but a quick search told him there was nothing there. Without guidance he hunted on, lifting his head intermittantly to test the wind for any hint of scent, retracing his steps to recheck where that bird may be or may have moved from. Then, as before, the men could see his body language change with an increased waving of the tail and nose to the ground he took off through the reeds  towards the back of the island and out of sight. The men waited, they could hear him splashing through the deep channels that cut through the marsh bed, the bird was a ‘diver’ it would take time and perserverence to bring this one to hand.

The Chessie owner had learned to trust his dogs, he knew they were serious about the role they played when hunting wildfowl with him. They had long deciphered the difference between a wounded bird down that was worth hunting for and a bird that will live to flight another day. He watched and  waited, with the same patience that his dogs had waited out the morning with him he gave his dog time to do his job.

Then the reeds on the far bank parted and Chief was there with his hard won teal in his mouth. He slipped into the water,  allowed the current to carry him across and made his way to the end of the sea-wall. He shook the icy sea waters from his thick brown coat and hesitated as he scanned the line of  fowlers and their dogs waiting on the shoreline. None, in his eyes, deserved to receive this bird save one. His eyes searched again beyond them to the top of the seawall and with one final bound and a slight wag of his tail he made his way through the waiting crowd to where his master waited.

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The long blind retrieve….

Close your eyes and cast your mind back…..it is a dark, damp wet day in late January.  The Pheasants are fewer but they fly higher, better and further making shooting more challenging and the dog work more difficult.

You and your dog are covering the end Gun in a field on his own.  The birds are flying well, breaking in small clusters and coming nicely over the guns. A strong north-west wind gives added momentum to their flight pushing them higher into the air as they lift off from the Oak wood in front. Your gun has had few opportunities as the break in cover is spread mainly along the middle guns but then sometime late in the drive his patience is rewarded. A cock bird breaks and swoops right into the wind, gliding over the tree tops he is lazy with his wing beats as he allows the wind to carry him high across the valley at an angle towards the pen and the safety of home.

Your gun, an experienced shot, watches the bird’s approach with a seasoned eye, he keeps his gun down as he gauges it’s speed and height but just as he lifts the gun to his shoulder a hen bird breaks late in front of him. Instinctively the Gun swings onto her and she drops cleanly at his feet. Your dog has her marked. Then in one fluid movement the Gun brings the second barrel  onto the rogue cockbird just as he passes to his left and with another practised shot the bird drops both legs. With wings fixed straight out the wind keeps him  high as he glides to the cover three hundred meters away.

You watch him land clumsily, out of sight in the deep cover that surrounds the pen and know his injuries are fatal and as such a priority retrieve. With  your dog’s attention still focussed on the hen-bird that lies close by you turn him away to face the cover where the wounded cock bird landed in…..

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The small white dot in the center of the picture is the dog…photo by Phil o Sullivan

Now, open your eyes and look at the scene in front of you. It is Summer and you stand on the line at a working test. It is the last retrieve of the day and your dog has run well. But everyone is talking about this one final retrieve that has been the undoing of many dogs. It is the long blind retrieve and although the season is different and the distraction of bird scent and gunshot are absent the lesson you and your dog will hopefully learn today will carry you both through the season ahead when the skills required to find a bird at distance will be called into play.

Dog and handler were set up in a narrow channel of woodland. About twenty meters in front an orange fence had been stretched across the path  at a slight angle, and just before the dog was sent a bolting rabbit was pulled across the line in front from right to left as a diversion not to be touched. Once clear of the fence the woodland opened out to a wide area of meadow grass. The run was uphill all the way with the dummy placed under a large overhanging beech tree just off the left of centre. The terrain, lack of wind and obstacles offered many challenges that needed to be considered before sending your dog.

The jump at an angle would push the dog slightly left and if let run on went quickly out of sight and difficult to get a line going in the long push back up hill. If the jump was negotiated well and the run uphill taken, then a large dip, tipping slightly right pushed the dog right and on into the meadow that ran past the beech tree and again out of sight. Distance now was a big problem as the dog had limited view of its handler in the shade of the wood channel below.

The dogs that succeeded well were those that held the middle line and where the handler stopped their dog about fifty meters out from the beech before casting forty-five degrees left and back to hunt under the beech tree.

Bertie and I succeeded but I made the mistake of allowing him continue the line to the meadow that ran to the right of the beech tree so then when I needed to pull him back to handle he struggled to see me. We lost 8 marks from 30 but to complete such a technically difficult retrieve  was better than winning any rosette that day.

Admittedly, during the winter months much of my dogs’ work involves them using their own initiative and game sense to find birds in places neither of us have seen fall and I am simply the bird carrier that follows in their wake. However, every once in a while a scenario like the one described above will occur that requires a dog to put aside his self-employed status and work with his handler as a team.

Although played out on the shooting field in winter it is through the summer months of training and working test competitions that lay the foundations of building that unique partnership of belief and trust.

Autumn is coming and we are ready, it has been a long busy summer of competition and travel. Now we are ready to put down roots, turn into the north-west wind and face the winter. The quiet and solitude of standing alone with my dog while we listen for the call of a mallard on the Shannon or the shriek of a snipe when it rises from the rushes is nearly upon us….close your eyes and cast your mind forward…..

Many thanks to Midland retriever club for setting this wonderful test.

 

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.

I showed my Chesapeakes without coat…..

I showed my Chesapeakes without any coat!! I put my hand up and am guilty as charged.

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Even though it is written in the New Complete Chesapeake Bay Retriever ( 1994), Chapter 5 by Dr Daniel Horn :

“Coat has been the most important type feature in the description of the Chesapeake Bay Retriever” and furthermore he goes onto say :

“if exhibitors would keep their dogs out of the show ring when dogs are out of coat, it would be easier for judges to become familiar with these important Chesapeake type features.”

Soon whispers trickled down to me from those higher echelons that the doyens within our breed that sit ringside were not happy. That they were shaking their heads in despair that a Chesapeake shown out of coat would bring a disservice to the breed.

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So is it worth taking the chance that perhaps a Chesapeake possibly can be defined by more than just coat? Is there a possibility that this breed, primarily still seen as a working gundog might be evaluated equally on soundness and movement? Perhaps the overall outline and profile too separates this breed from any other? and what of attitude and expression? I had hoped that the Chesapeake could be seen more as a combination of unique breed traits rather than simply seen as a specimen with or without coat?

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I had thought long and hard about this as I pored over the show schedules earlier in the year. The window of opportunity to show Chesapeakes at Championship Shows where CC’s are on offer in the UK is very small. There is just over 6 months between the first set at Crufts in March and the final single CC available at Driffield in September.

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Time and timing are of the essence and preparing these dogs for the show season goes way beyond a quick dip in the sea the day before a show, (that’s not to say I don’t do it.. 😉 ). Diet, condition and level of  fitness are assessed on a daily basis… long before we set foot inside the show ring I will have walked and run many kilometres, doing road work and swimming, to maintain the hard core fitness that was laid down during the shooting season and build back up any condition lost. These are the things I can control to some degree but the one thing I have very little control over is the seasonal variations in coat.

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Ironically their coats were at their best this year when they needed them most but also when they weren’t been judged by them. All through the shooting season both Mossy and Uisce retained the thick impenetrable coats that this breed is known for. Their coats offered protection throughout the weeks as they worked the river duck on the Avoca and also as an extra barrier when hunting for birds beneath the gorse and brambles.

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During this period I never needed to treat for broken skin, bleeding tails, or damp, cold dogs sitting for long periods as their coats fulfilled every aspect of what their were designed for just fine.

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Then Spring came, shooting season ended and as we turned our attention towards preparing for a long season of dog shows nature decided their coats had served their purpose and it was time for them to go…

Three weeks before Crufts Mossy left all of his undercoat in a neat pile on the floor of the National Show Centre in Cloghran. I had expected it to happen but still I watched in dismay as the small brown tufts of candyfloss blew gently across the floor. There was nothing to lose at this point by giving him a bath and stripping what remained of his coat out completely in the hope that some new coat may have filled in by the time we headed for Crufts.

The next morning after a bath he was down to a very thin layer of guard hairs and skin!!! The next few weeks were a cycle of sea swimming and rubbing with a chamois. By the time we hit the green carpet on the first week in March his coat had filled in well, not at it’s full depth but enough to be rewarded with a 1st in the BASC Gamekeepers classes  under judge Ms Di Stevens and winner of the Shooting Gazette Trophy for Best AV Working Retriever Dog.

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Uisce at this stage was still holding coat nicely. She was in a post season bloom and it showed in her results. Still not 2 years old when she competed in Crufts this year, she held her own in the Open bitch class among bitches 4- 6 years her senior finishing a very credible 3rd. Then entering BASC Gamekeepers and winning  the Marsh Trophy for Best AV Working Retriever Bitch  under judge Mr Terry Bailey.

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Our dogs made breed history that day never before has a Chesapeake won either of these trophies let alone be won on the same day by half siblings.

Back in Ireland a week later Uisce won Green Star bitch, graded excellent and Mossy won Best of Breed under Gundog Specialist Ms S Taggart and Mossy followed up with a Group 4 under Mr A Mc Kiernan at the Celtic winners Championship show on St. Patricks day..

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The show season was now in full swing juggling shows in Ireland and campaigning in the UK is difficult but balancing this alongside competing and training in working tests, certainly keeps things interesting. So far, we have been over and back the Irish sea on average every fortnight since March. The weekends in between have been filled with shows and working tests on home ground, oh and a family wedding!

Along with the mileage clocked up we have brought home 2 reserve CC’s for Mossy. At home in Ireland from 2 shows he has 2 Best of  Breeds, a Group 4 and a Group 1.

Bertie, as part of the UK Chesapeake team competing in the Minor breeds in April finished with a team 2nd and he was awarded top scoring individual dog. At his first AV working test of the year he won Open class and has spent 3 days training along with Uisce at the the Bettinsons in Wales.

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As Mossy’s coat returned to full bloom Uisce’s disappeared. She is due in season in the next few weeks and her seasonal blow came just as we prepared to travel for Birmingham National in the second week of May. It was a much more difficult decision as to whether to show her without coat. Loss of coat showed her immaturity of body in comparison to her more mature competitors in the open bitch class. However, because of breeding plans her opportunity to compete could be shortened later in the summer. So a year would be lost before she could compete in the UK again.

My decision to show her and give her the chance came because as a bitch on the move she is one of the best I have had. With or without coat she is foot perfect on the move whether coming, going or side on she never breaks stride or misses a beat..Her worst result in  Birmingham, when she really had no coat she finished 3rd of 3 in Open bitch and at Bath two weeks later with coat on the return out of a class of 6  she  finished 3rd behind the CC and RCC winners.

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Now two weeks on and just in from our latest Championship show yesterday Uisce took Green Star Bitch and beating her litter brother, Ceann Comhairle, for Best of Breed at Cork and District Championship show under gundog specialist Ms K Savage.

So was I right to take the chance to show a Chesapeake without coat? Did I do a disservice to the breed? Is the Chesapeake to be seen as just a clothes horse on which to hang a beautiful coat? Or is it a breed that can be recognised as much for it’s profile, strong confident movement, head expression, strong tail and character?

Next week Uisce and Bertie are set to compete in a retriever working test…this time they will be judged on many other things but it is unlikely they will lose or gain any marks for the appearance of their coat.

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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.

Does too much control impede Gamesense?

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Trusting Bertie to develop gamesense.

There are no Field trial running dogs on the picking-up team at Shelton and when I took Bertie out on the Shannon for the first time this season I remembered why this might be.

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His Summer spent running advanced level retriever working tests both in Ireland and the UK had brought  a level of control in his work that I have never before achieved with my dogs. He had learned to shut out all distraction when taking a line, to respond promptly to my whistle when I asked him to stop and to hunt a specific area, to take a back cast, a right or a left cast and to sit quietly and steady in line. Yes,all those hours of training had taught him to trust me implicitly when it came to finding a retrieve but now that gameplay was about to change.

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The back of the Oaks.

If I wanted to continue the winter season with this level of control I knew, quite simply, he would be unable to participate fully in all that is required by a picking up dog at Shelton. The cover here is just too dense and a dog in pursuit of game is quickly out of sight. Lines are lost  as the most efficient way to cover ground and hunt game is to quarter freely, working the nose for the slightest whiff of scent.

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Holding just enough control.

As I’ve said I had asked Bertie to trust me in everything through every aspect of his training during the summer but now I was going to have to take a step back, drop the reins and trust him . A dog now has to pull together every ounce of his natural hunting ability to trace and track game. He must also develop a skill that will save him much time and energy when it comes to differentiating between birds that are wounded and birds that are not as the cover behind the gunline will hold both types of bird. This skill is called ‘gamesense’ and a truly effective working dog will have developed this skill over many seasons.

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Winnie, an accomplished gamefinder

So as we approached our season for picking up at Shelton I knew the balance of free hunting  versus control was going to be tipped heavily in favour of the former. Steadiness I wanted to hold on to but straight lines and response to whistle once committed to a bird would slide in favour of allowing my dog to figure out how and where wounded birds fall amongst the mess of brambles and gorse which makes up the bulk of Shelton cover.  And so this is where working dogs at Shelton and field trial dogs must part company for the winter months.

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Cover here is tough.

The area behind the Oaks drive, known as the tailings equates, roughly to the size of three football pitches. That’s three pitches covered with a mix of heavy gorse and bramble . The birds are coming off the Oaks at approximately the height of the top of a football stand and taking wind, rain and sunlight into account are likely to glide in anywhere among that mass of undergrowth. Once they hit the gorse, if wounded, they know the area well  having spent the previous summer roaming freely through that vast expanse of wilderness. They can navigate quickly through a of maze of tracks and runs which they’ve created beneath the cover during those months and a wounded bird can be lost quickly if a dog does not have the knowledge, drive and desire to find it.

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The desire to retrieve at all costs must override almost everything else as this type of cover will take its toll on a dog when time and time again they face the onslaught of thorns beneath the brambles.  The fairest way to ask a dog to work this type of ground is to allow them the freedom to figure out the nuances of gamefinding on their own. By allowing them to run in on the flight path of a winged bird once it’s passed the gunline but before it hits the ground they learn to follow its flight path and figure out how to run round the banks of bramble rather than having to work straight through them. Or following a bird directly into the gorse is easier on a dog than asking him to hunt blindly after a drive has finished. They learn then that this is where birds go and when asked to hunt and clear the area after a drive heading deep into cover on just the mere scent of a wounded bird becomes second nature to them.

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I found losing control difficult at first but as the season progressed and I allowed Bertie that freedom all that wonderful promise of instinct and natural gamefinding ability coupled with a certain level of control began to emerge. I wanted a dog that had all of his father Chester’s uncanny game sense and desire to find birds at all costs but enough control to sit steady and focussed when under the pressure of a drive. And I don’t think I would have been able to achieve this without that deep grounding of steadiness throughout the summer months. In the course of allowing this loosening of control he did go through a stage of running in and completely ignoring my commands  but I was able to pull that control back , just a notch, to keep him just on the edge when all it took was a quick call of his name and he was off in pursuit of the bird he had marked.

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Chesapeakes are not a breed that naturally has the same level of self-control as the Field-trial bred Labrador. However, their natural inclination to figure things out for themselves and that gritty determination to retrieve game at all costs no matter what obstacle is thrown in their path be it heavy open water, estuarine currents or dense bramble makes them an invaluable asset when the name of the game is birds in the bag.

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Trust each other.

A dear old wildfowling friend of mine, John Battle, has a favourite saying in relation to working dogs, ‘we train our dogs to untrain them’, and perhaps that is true. What I learned, however, as we passed through the season is that  tight control over a working dog may impede  natural ability and instinct  and as a result the complete potential of that dog may never  really be uncovered. By allowing some loss of control and trusting my dog more I feel I got a better deal, a working partnership that I hope will endure for many more seasons to come.