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.

 

 

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When man created the Chessie ….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday November 1st.

River Duck on the Avoca river.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Quintessential England.

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

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

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The cottage at Ockly, dog heaven.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Help is always close by at chessie working tests.

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

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

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Was Uisce ready for competition?

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

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

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

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

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Positives and negatives to be taken away…

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

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

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

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Bertie.

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

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

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

Copyright Mary Murray 2013.

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The legend which is Echo.

” Uisce ” meaning water….irony in a name…

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Uisce Madra gaelic for Water Dog.

 

All through the summer I worked on Uisce’s confidence in water. I took her to the lake to practise long water entries, the river to deal with currents and the canal to practise retrieves from across water and through cover. We sat in line with other dogs to work on steadiness and honouring. She learned and gained confidence at the lake and on the river very quickly. It was the canal, the narrowest of the water channels and where I would have considered the easiest of the three venues, that she hit a wall in regards to making progress.

Uisce meaning 'water'

Water entries became more confident with practise.

The problems which the canal presented had nothing to do with her inability to figure out about retrieves from the far side of the water as I had tested her on clean river banks and water ditches without any issue many times. It was so much simpler than that….it was reeds and/or elephant grass!!!!

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Her entry through the reeds and into water on my side of the canal never caused any hesitation, in fact her water entries have become increasingly spectacular and more chessie-like the more confident that she’s become. Then, however, she would swim to the far bank and just as she hit the reeds she would back off and inevitably her frustration would come through with water circling, splashing and biting. I spent a lot of my time this summer standing on banks and thinking, “okay, how am I going to get round this one? “.
Well I tried everything from sending an older dog across, namely poor Chester again, to make a path through the reeds before her, I brought cold game along to see if the scent of game would draw her through the reeds, I threw dummies just short of the reeds and then further up the bank. And with all these I did succeed in getting her to a point where she would push through on a single seen to just beyond the reeds but no way could I get her up through the reeds to the top on the other side and the more frustrated she became the more she backed off, she was losing confidence. Perhaps it was just this particular set up? Maybe she had developed a mental block about this particular stretch of water? To find out I needed to challenge her on strange water….
So last Sunday I took her up to a small lake near Slane. It was perfectly set up for what I had in mind. Clear water surrounded by elephant grass, the lake is small enough to be accessible from all sides but big enough not to offer temptation for the dog to run the bank. There was a  clean bank on a headland from where I placed the thrower, Des, to give Uisce a confidence boost to begin with.
As usual I brought along an older experienced dog, this time it was her mother Winnie who would show her the way. Des called the ‘mark’ and I sent Winnie across. Uisce sat patiently by my side, watching her mother and, I hoped, taking notes!!

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Once Winnie returned Des threw a second ‘mark’. I cast Uisce and she launched herself into the lake, she swam with confidence to the far shore but just as she came to the reeds her ears went back, she engaged the water brakes and threaded water, looking anxiously past the line of reeds but not daring to go through. I urged her on but this only served to increase her worry and she started circling. Des threw another mark into the reed edge which she swam forward for and retrieved with no problems. What to do?

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On her return she delivered the dummy perfectly and in spite of her anxiety she set herself up to go again, and this has been the pattern. The eagerness and keenness have been my indicators to try and push her past, as I see it, this small problem and execute a solid retrieve. Shouldn’t it simply be a matter of trying to find a way of getting her past her ‘block’ on grasses? Or am I perhaps reading her and the situation incorrectly? Maybe I’m expecting too much from her, she’s not yet eighteen months old, because the rest of her training is so advanced? Maybe too far too soon?

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Des’ conclusion after watching her on Sunday was simply to accept that this is her level at the moment, that with so much progress gained in the last few months that she has plateaued for now. This is quite possible and something I am more than willing to take on board.
We finished her training that day with a simple seen into clear water, something she accomplished with finesse.
As we walked back up through the woods reflecting on what we had seen I still had a niggle that I really wanted to find a way for her to learn to get past this sticking point. I didn’t want it to become an ingrained pattern.
So we’ve come up with a plan…today I will leave the dummy bag at home and again head to the lake with just my trusty thrower, Des. This time he will hold onto Uisce while I take up position on the far bank. What will she do when I call her to me? Wait and see 🙂

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Sunday September 15th 7pm.
The plan worked…we set up the recall from two separate points on the lake. The first one I stood on a familiar bank from where she’d retrieved previously but in view of the adjacent bank from where Des sent Uisce when I called her. Once she arrived on shore and sat in front of me she got loads of praise and her favourite treat. The second recall which we set up was one where I stood beyond a fresh bank of reeds and called her to me. This time there was slight hesitancy as she approached the bank where I stood but encouragement from me was enough to convince her that everything was okay.

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There is of course lots more practise needed before fluidity in this task is obtained but I’m glad we took the time to take a step back and figure out an alternative to either just giving up or worse pushing her through when she wasn’t ready. The pressure of not having to retrieve today meant that Uisce only had to focus on one thing and that was getting to me and perhaps the treats in my pocket….either way when I walk away from a training session with a happy dog I’ve got to believe we’re moving in the right direction 🙂

Hope Valley Team Test

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

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The view from the showgrounds – Peveril Castle.

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

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Showing horses.

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

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

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Irish Water Spaniel in action at Hope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The eight teams line up for presentation.

The eight teams line up for presentation.

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

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

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

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

Our Chessie team.

Our Chessie team.

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

The view from the top of Mam Tor.

The view from the top of Mam Tor.

The training day…

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

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

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Mr Jason Mayhew with new friend Fred..

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

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

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

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

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

The training ground

The training ground.

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

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

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

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

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

Building a relationship.

Building a relationship.

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

Helping a dog by improving handling.

Helping a dog by improving handling.

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

teaching steadiness.

teaching steadiness.

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

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The day brought together retriever breeds from all spheres.

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

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

Almost all the retriever breeds were represented.

Almost all the retriever breeds were represented.

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

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Making use of the jumping fence on the new ground.

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

waterwork

waterwork

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

Five Days, Five Dogs and Fun…..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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