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

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

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

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

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

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

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Quintessential England.

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

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

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The cottage at Ockly, dog heaven.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Help is always close by at chessie working tests.

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

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

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Was Uisce ready for competition?

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

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

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

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

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Positives and negatives to be taken away…

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

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

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

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Bertie.

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

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

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

Copyright Mary Murray 2013.

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The legend which is Echo.

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Close encounters with canines…

Uisce aged eight months

Uisce aged eight months

It is inevitable that at some stage in every young dog’s life they will encounter and have to deal with an altercation with another member of the canine species. Whether your dog is the agressor or the recipient of such, an event will ultimatley affect how you deal with the incident going forward.

Two weeks ago I took Uisce along to what was to be her last show of the year. Although only an open show it is one which attracts a big entry and this year was no different, with an entry of over five hundred dogs. She was entered in her breed class and also puppy stakes, it was her final chance to qualify for the Pup of the Year, an exciting prospect.

Uisce had already been seen by the breed judge and been awarded best of breed, she had shown well and was enjoying being out and about. I was standing ringside, chatting with some friends, when a dobermann  lunged forward and attacked her full on the face. Taken aback Uisce jumped away, something which prevented the doberman from maintaining a grip and causing further damage. As it was Uisce was left with a toothmark above and below her eye but worse still she quickly decided that this showing lark was no longer any fun and shut down. She pulled in beside my friend Katherina and refused to move.

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The reasons behind the attack make little difference, it happened and I have to deal with the effect it has and will have on her going forward. How the doberman owner deals with her dog’s behaviour is not my concern. Uisce was unfortunate that day to have encountered this particular dog, which I subsequently learnt had earlier attempted attacks on other dogs and the owner had refused to acknowledge the problem.

I washed the wound out well with saline solution, thankfully it wasn’t deep and would not require veterinary treatment. Convincing Uisce to move through the narrow passageways between rings was an entirely different matter. She bucked and pulled against the lead, treats were no consolation prize on this day. She just did not want to know. I understood her fear but at the same time I also knew interaction with other dogs, outside of her aquaintance, were going to be a huge part of her life going forward. She was going to have to figure out a way to deal with this, today however was not the day for that.

I did not leave the show immediately as I felt it was important that the one bad experience that day should be counterbalanced with plenty of good ones.  I took her into the puppy stakes ring not putting any pressure on her to perform but I wanted her to be left with a positve impression of the judge. It is much more difficult to regain a young dog’s confidence in people than it is with other dogs. I explained to the judge what had happened and like all good judges she treated Uisce with patience and kindness, talking to her while all the time going over her. I felt heartened to see that Uisce’s trust in people had not flinched as she calmly stood for the judge under examination. However, when asked to move, everything about her body language screamed ‘I do not want to be here’. After her examination I gave my apologies and withdrew her from competition. We took a walk outside and she relaxed a little but when we re-entered the show center she clammed up again. One more cuddle with my friends ringside and I decided nothing further could be gained from staying.

Chesapeakes, in my experience, have a long memory. It works well from a working perspective but the downside of it is when they happen upon a bad experience it generally means going back to the beginning and working from scratch. They are a breed that can quickly turn off showing and it is very, very difficult to motivate a chesapeake if they do not want to do something. This is why I believe in putting very little emphasis on minor details, like stacking, at an early age in the show ring. I prefer to use the ring as a place of fun for my young chessies. I knew after the encounter at the show it could be a long slow climb if she decided the show ring was not for her.

We are extremely lucky here in Ireland, in that the show centre which hosts many of our dog shows,  is also the venue for training classes during the week. It is a huge building. Noise carries far, but at training classes the space is there to allow a dog that might be feeling slightly intimidated to dip in and out as they need to. This is where I will be spending most Tuesday evenings for the foreseeable future.

I could never have anticipated Uisce’s reaction that first Tuesday evening after the show when we entered the centre. I would have expected some hesitancy on her part but she had obviously thought long and hard about her experience the previous weekend and decided that shying away from encounters like that were not for her. She entered the center, pulled herself up to full height, flagged her tail and let out the most enormous bark as much as to say ‘ I’m back’. This was a better reaction than what I’d hoped for but  ultimately I want the pendulum to swing back just a little. What I’m aiming for is a reaction of indifference to what other dogs do and don’t do. This is something she is going to have to learn, with my guidance I hope.

We by-passed the ringcraft classes that evening and headed straight for puppy socialisation with Mary Kennedy. I want to continue her education in the environment of a dog show scene but offering something with a little more focus on me and perhaps even a little bit of fun. There is plenty of time to get serious about dog showing. Right now it’s just a pleasure to see my young girl has bounce-back…

Her first week back went well and last week I took her to a second class. On this occasion I was fortunate to be introduced, by our class instructer, to a giant schnauzer called ‘Harper’. Mary felt it would be good for Uisce to experience a large dark coloured dog. She knows Harper and her owner. Uisce’s reaction was interesting. On their initial introduction Uisce dropped her head and tail but raised her hackles, clearly not sure what kind of reception she was going to receive. I felt this was an appropriate reaction as it showed a healthy respect for a dog she didn’t know and was unsure of.

There were many who felt that day at the show that I should have taken the issue further. My feelings on this, I hope, I’ve outlined above. I believe all dogs are capable of aggression and, in the world of dog showing where often dogs are passing and standing in extremely close and unnatural circumstances, incidences such as the one my young dog encountered will happen. It is my responsibility to protect my dog as best I can, be it by means of crating or benching at ringside or, if possible, standing away from crowded areas. I do not believe dogs should have to tolerate another dog invading their space, however, I do think all dog owners should teach their dogs to be able to tolerate such confined conditions without reacting.

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Winnie’s water retrieve.

Duck rising off the Tailings at Shelton

Duck rising off the Tailings at Shelton

It is a thought, universally acknowledged in the gundog world, that the most brilliant retrieves and work your dog does is for your eyes only. They prefer a gallery of viewers if they’re really going to mess up a retrieve, run in at the wrong time or run over a bird in plain view!!

Most of the work which our dogs undertake during the winter months consists of good ol’ solid, ploughing through muck and brambles in pursuit of birds type of work. Once in a while, however,  your dog does an amazing piece of work; it may not be the most stylish or polished performance ever seen but it is brilliant purely because it involves either gritty determination or ingenious gamefinding on the part of the dog and we, the handlers, can  stand back and exclaim aloud to each other,’ Wow! How did they do that?’ It’s what makes working our dogs such a pleasure.

Last sunday was one such moment. I had taken Winnie and Mossy to our spot along the river bank, behind the prison at Shelton Abbey. It was the final drive of the day, river duck. We had a good view of birds falling and dogs working up river as we watched the water flow on beneath us keeping an eye for any duck that had dropped past the dogs further up. It was a great oppurtunity to practice steadiness with Mossy.

The river Avoca looking towards the gunline.

The river Avoca looking towards the gunline.

Plenty fell but nothing came our way except one drake mallard. I saw him drop down behind the gravel bank just where the river sweeps round in an ‘S’ and gathers itself to a slower,deeper flow. He drifted in under some deadwood on the far bank and stayed put. I sent Winnie across, it’s about fifty metres wide here and although the current is strong the deeper water makes for a slightly easier swim than further up river where it rushes over the granite bed. She was able to take a straight line across without being dragged down stream. Just as she came in on the drake he found enough momentum in his wings and lifted off and up towards the pond at the tailings. I always feel disappointment for my dog when this happens, after putting in such an effort on the swim only to have a duck dive, or fly and the retrieve is lost. Winnie returned to her spot on the rocks beside myself and Mossy and we watched and waited but nothing else came our way.

The drive ended and, as I usually do , I worked the dogs along the bank back up towards the gun line searching for birds that may have fallen in the cover or drifted in under the bank while all the time watching for birds in the water. We found nothing.

Then we arrived out onto the gravel island where a group of my fellow picker’s up were standing. Across the river, tucked in under an overhanging bank was a drake mallard. It was an easy mark for the handlers but a blind for the dogs. Four dogs had tried and failed to swim the river at this point. It’s at it’s widest here, about seventy metres across, and although the water looks very manageable it is deceptively difficult. Most of the way  the dogs had to deal with a fairly manageable current, then about fifty metres out there was a channel of deeper faster water caused by the shifting gravel bed, a deep fast channel that was grabbing the dogs and no matter how hard they tried they were being swept sideways and carried down river. Young and inexperienced dogs will lose confidence easily if repeatedly pushed through water like this, particularly if they have not seen the bird fall.

I cast Winnie back, she took a good line initially then the further she swam out the stronger current took hold of her. I coaxed her on with my voice, letting her know that she was doing fine, giving her the confidence to take on the cold, hard, fast water. The current was carrying her further and further left but still she swam on, pumping those powerful front shoulders through the water. She reached the far bank and looked to me for direction. I cast her right. The current had pulled her about one hundred metres down river of where the drake lay tucked well under the bank overhang. All the way along the top of the bank she ran, using her nose for any clues as she went. She reached the point above where the drake was hidden from  her view. I stopped her and asked her to hunt. She worked the area well. Covering the ground around the area above where the duck lay. I steadied her at the edge of the bank, not wanting her to make the error of re-entering the water and missing the bird after all that effort. If she jumped the bank here she would have been carried back down river to where she’d started from. Thankfully that wonderful nose of hers, that’s found many a difficult duck, caught his scent. She leaned over, reached down and pulled him into her hold.

I think we often underestimate the difference a bird in a dog’s mouth can make to their balance. Winnie was about to re-enter the water where she had initially banked without any problems. The fast flow, however, left her uncertain and she changed her mind a couple of times and tried different points. None were suitable and she knew it. All this time she held that bird firmly in her grasp. I coaxed and called, she entered once and was pulled under. Duck in mouth, she resurfaced and returned to the bank to try again. I moved down river then, towards the end of the gravel island, calling her as I walked. This gave her the confidence she needed as she knew that the current would carry her down towards me.

Winnie returns with the drake after an epic swim.

Winnie returns with the drake after an epic swim.

So with one final leap of faith she launched herself from the bank and entered the water, disappeared under then bobbed with the current until she found leverage and reached the edge of the gravel island.

It took my breath away as I watched her long swim back. What a brave little brown dog. She trusted me to send her across the water and would not give up until the bird was brought back.

As a footnote, this type of retrieve is not one I would have expected a young dog to accomplish. Winnie knows this river well enough, having worked it for four years. Even so, I would not have thought less of her if she too had decided that the current was just too much. I have to trust my dog’s judgement just as much as she trusted mine. I had intended to allow her one attempt then quit. Her success was due as much to experience as it was to gritty determination.

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That was one retrieve to be cherished, a day when a gallery of lab men watched one brown strong-willed dog succeed where their black dogs failed.