Becoming a Field Trial Groupie….

 

From the outside looking in I never had much time for field trials. As a sport it never gripped me in a way that shooting and hunting with a dog in the conventional way did.

I mean I owned a breed anyway that I believed didn’t naturally submit to a lot of the pressure that handling, control and rigourous field trial training required. The Chessies performed and worked better when left to their own devices in the shooting field.

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But then last year, while researching a piece on how to make up a Field trial champion, a Dual champion and a Full champion in Ireland, I was forced to take a closer look at a sport that in truth I had little faith or belief in; a sport that I felt had digressed away from what was required of a dog in the working field and become an elitist sport for a very tiny percentage of the Retriever world. Trials, I believed, had gone above and beyond the call of duty in relation to the level of obedience and control required to win an Open stake….. And I wondered that if trials had been developed as a template from which all working stock should be gauged, how was it that they seemed to favour one breed and more so only a certain ‘type’ within that breed ?

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What would it mean if someone were to concentrate soley on developing a Chesapeake for trialling as has happened in Labradors? Is it possible to continue to hold the middle ground and have dogs competing at high levels in both the show and field trial worlds? Or would the necessity to specialise in trials force a  breed split as has happened to many other of the retriever, spaniel and setter breeds ? And then if that happened which ‘type’ within that breed split  is a better representative of what defines that breed ? Is it the dog that adapts to work in the ever changing world of shooting and fieldsports ? Or is it the dog that remains true to a breed standard that was laid down over a hundred years ago and modified only slightly even though everything around that standard has moved on and changed?

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In the beginning I really wanted to see where the limitations of field trials lay so that I could justify reasons, I guess, as to why my own beloved breed and many of the other retriever breeds  failed so miserably to compete in them with much success.

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The fatigue of a long summer season of dog shows , gundog working tests and training days was settling on my  shoulders when Bertie and I began our Winter journey as Field Trial groupies….  I was more than  ready to pick up the game carrier, put away my whistle and follow my dogs where their noses told them go in the hunt to find pheasant.

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Instead we found ourselves following Jed, Roxy, Paddy and Ripple, all dogs I had come to respect and admire from competing against them through the summer months of working tests. We travelled to the most obscure parts of the country, in all sorts of weather and always with a middle of the night alarm call that would put the most hardened wildfowler to shame.

We only managed to follow three trials but these dogs and handlers run the circuit from September to the end of January. In the run up to the Championships in December they may compete up to three times a week…many, many times they fail in their quest to succeed but they simply move on to the next trial and try again…..that’s a lot of pressure, a lot of time and a lot of money…

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Every trial was different. The grounds and formats varied greatly. Walk up on partridge in Bracken Hill required good  marking skills and the ability to hold a postage stamp tight area and hunt. If I ever had doubts about whether a field trial dog could face cover, they were put to rest in Connolly when in the middle of the dense Coillte plantations these dogs  never hesitated when asked to produce birds from the thick mess of brambles in boggy ground. And finally the Broadmeadows trial at Slane showed that they could take on the River Boyne in full winter flow and win.

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These dogs could deal with the pressure of sitting under the guns as three hundred birds flew, fell and fluttered over their heads. They picked wounded runners mid-drive without the temptation of switching game, or haring off after another bird in flight

It seemed as if this ‘Elite’ squad of highly trained dogs could do everything but rather than being disappointed that Field trials weren’t as limiting as I had hoped; I found instead that I was drawn to the possibility that perhaps aiming towards this level of controlled precision could be an asset rather than an incumberence to my breed.

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There is such a thing as a dog having too much game sense.

Bertie was all that I had to give it a go and get a feel for this sport that I still didn’t fully understand.  I knew too well that starting a trialling career with a dog that has had six working seasons under his belt was asking a lot, maybe too much, from the outset.
There is such a thing as a dog having too much game-sense and knowing their job too well. All those winters watching birds, learning which one flew on without shot and which ones were possibly wounded, being let run in on birds that hit the ground injured before they disappeared into heavy cover or down river on a strong current. Now I was asking this dog to hold himself back, go against every single instinct he had learned to trust in pursuit of game and to hand over control completely and utterly to me.

Our first trial in November was a four hour drive to Kerry and all I was aiming for was for him to sit steady through a drive. He did,  he  sat through a drive quietly and without running in. He wrong-birded on his first retrieve but we had achieved our aim and that is all I could or would ask of him for now.

Our second trial was held on ground he has worked on over the last six years, since he was eight months old. It was a novice trial at Shelton. I entered this trial as a courtesy to the shoot captain but fully expected to be relieved of my armband before the horn blew at the end of the drive. The temptation to run in would be just too great as he knew which birds he would have been traditionally ‘allowed’ go for without being asked.

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From the deepest pit of my being I prayed that luck would come our way, that the drive would not be too long and that the birds would somehow fall everywhere else except around where we stood. They came, they flew, they fell ….everywhere…..they fluttered into the gorse in front of us and wheeled at head height crashing into the brambles behind. Somehow, by some miracle, Bertie stayed put and finally when every ounce of adrenalin had drained from my body our judge uttered those immortal words, ” you may put your leads on now and relax”. We had done it and I don’t think anyone could quite understand why, when Bertie wrong-birded on his first retrieve again I came away from the line with the biggest grin on my face.

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Mental strength and tractability, two traits I will value in future.

So in the end was I swayed? Did I find the answers to my questions?  I think I did. I discovered that only if you want it to be is Field trialling an elitist sport. I discovered a group of intensely committed hardworking people completely dedicated to producing the best dog for the ever evolving realm of field sports. Yes, field trials may have their limitations, perhaps over handling can compensate for a dog with lesser scenting ability and perhaps the retriever breeds more apt for air-scenting and those bred to work unaided will never feature in huge numbers at the top level of field trials. However, I think trials succeed best in finding dogs that have mental strength, that are tractable and that can bend rather than break to pressure.

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Trials are only elitist if you want them to be.

I found that even with our limited time preparing for trials this season Bertie’s level of competence in the field was not hindered but rather added to my pleasure of bringing him to the working field…..to have a dog capable of sitting out a drive without fear of him running after every bird that falls, to be able to call him off a bird if needed and to follow a walking gun behind the beating line without the heart stopping fear of him running through the drive is something that makes me very proud both of my dog and the breed he represents.

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Preparing for trials enhanced our enjoyment in the working field.

I can see us continuing in our field trial groupie role. We have much to learn and enjoy. My plans now include field trials in the future development and training of my dogs as even working towards a novice level will allow me to see how they deal with pressure. I will always keep their roots firmly in what they were bred for as I think, ( but I could be proven wrong again ), the luxury of having a breed that straddles both show and working worlds has kept this breed, for the most part, unchanged since the inception of its standard.

“It is not the critic who counts. Not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause. Who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.”

Theodore Roosevelt (1858 – 1919)

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” 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.

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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 🙂

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

Carrowbawn working test.

 

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Summer in all her luscious lovlieness had arrived and as my car wound its way up through the hills behind Ashford county Wicklow, I rolled down the window and inhaled that wonderful coconut scent of wild gorse in bloom. The wind scorched fields and bare trees of a very long cold Spring had gone. Now it was as if nature had opened her box of paints and spilled them in delightful disarray all over the countryside.

I turned the car off the road, shifted down gears again and climbed on up a narrow track which took me into the farmyard of Mr David Barron’s home, Carrowbawn. This was the venue for today’s working test. Organised by the All Ireland Retriever Club under the capable guidance of Mrs Jean Johnston and the Judges were Mr J Perry and Mr E Lennon.

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If everything went pear-shaped in regards to dog work, disappointment would soon be forgotten when I gazed out past the flowering gorse to the expanse of Irish sea below. It has got to be one of the most breath-taking venues to hold a working test.

The first test that afternoon saw us sitting in an eight dog line up for a simulated drive. This type of test is becoming increasingly common and it is an aspect of Bertie’s training which I have worked hard on throughout the past year. So far this Summer we have sat through 3 such tests and  he has coped well. He used to have a habit of counting dogs and creeping in anticipation when he knew it was his turn but so far this year his line manners have been impeccable, no moving and quiet. Today’s test would take  him to the edge though.

The dogs faced a plantation of conifers separated by a low stone wall. Once the drive was in progress beaters came through the woods toward us, shots were fired and dummies thrown over the wall in front of us. As if that wasn’t enough two bolting rabbits were then released in front of the dogs. One dog, sitting next to Bertie, was caught off guard with this development and ran in. Bertie lifted his rear but moved no further and remained in suspended animation for the remainder of the drive. This was purely a test in steadiness with no retrieve required.

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The second test was a blind and diversion….with a twist. The dogs were taken one at a time. We stood on top of a hill. The field below was bordered by a stone wall, with banks of gorse. There were spots in the wall which were possible for the dogs to get through BUT the test was set in such a way that the only realistic route was through a gate directly in front of your dog, the blind was laid in the top left hand corner of the second field about a hundred meters on from the gate. The complication was the extremely tight angle between the gate and where the diversion was thrown among a cluster of decoys, just feet from the gateway. There was not the option of casting your dog left  to avoid this temptation as there was a second blind to be retrieved up a track behind gorse and along the wall after the first had been retrieved.

This was going to be tricky. I inhaled deeply and cast Bertie directly to the gate. As I anticipated, he did what I would expect him to do in the shooting field and clear game as he came upon it. He was taking a line directly for those decoys. I let him have his head until he was within ten feet or so then blew him up and cast him left. He wasn’t convinced at first and took another few strides towards the decoys. I stepped on the whistle again and with a very definite cast left he  went through the gate. I pushed him straight back up the hill, then stopped him and cast him left again. He caught the scent on the wind and found the dummy. That retrieve alone was sooo worth it. The second part was easier, casting him well clear of the decoys he took the line well left of the gate disappeared behind the gorse amd emerged with the dummy.

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Third retrieve again consisted of a double blind but straightforward and no problems. There’s always one though, isn’t there? The fourth retrieve that afternoon was the one that saw the undoing of many…..

Again we found ourselves on top of that hill. This time the blind was laid across the wall and up to the right of the second field. Directly in front of us was a lovely gap in the wall, perfect for sending your dog through then cast right and he would use the wall to push on up the hill. However, on this occasion three dummies had been placed in clear view just beyond that gap and they were not to be touched ( I also found out later that there were dummies laid behind the wall which were not to be touched). I knew this time the momentum  carrying him downhill and straight through that gap would be too much to stop him in time so I opted for the alternative. It wasn’t possible to send him straight to the corner as the field was bordered with a thick bank of gorse. I sent him to the edge of the gorse and then cast him right up a track that ran along the wall. At this point it was impossible to see my dog, I hoped he would appear at the top of the field where there was a low section in the wall and I could send him over. He reappeared at the bottom of the gorse, I cast him again and urged him with a verbal ‘get-on’ to re-enforce what was needed. It worked. When he appeared at the top of the field I sent him over the wall, a little hunt up and he found the dummy. I exhaled and laughed in relief and disbelief…I truly love what this dog does sometimes….

Fifth retrieve was a long single seen and finally after a long hot day our final retrieve was a water mark…a really lovely way for all the dogs to finish on a good note.

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

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

 

 

We got lucky that day, Bertie finished second but my satisfaction came more from succeeding in two very technical retrieves. Chesapeakes are a breed that like to use their own initive. They don’t like to be told too many times which direction to go in relation to gamefinding, once is generally enough. Indeed it is certainly where they excel when wildfowling and that ability to figure things out for themselves is often a handicap when applied to working tests. What I love about this dog is that he still manages to retain that chessie attitude as you saw  in relation to going forward for that diversion because he believed that was the right thing to do at the time BUT he is willing to forgo that urge to do what I wish without caving if over-handled and that is what makes him different.

Safe water

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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An experienced dog is often required.

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

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

 

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Uisce, being able to enjoy water again.

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

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

 

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

Uisce….when she is good she is very, very good but…..

Starting formal gundog training.

Starting formal gundog training.

I wanted to wait until shooting season finished before applying a little pressure on Uisce and starting her on the road with regards to formal gundog training.

She spent the Winter being slowly introduced to everything that revolves around gundog work. She was  allowed a certain freedom by just following and watching the older dogs. I stayed away from exposing her to the gunline. It was too early in her education, I felt, for her to make the connection between gunshot and birds falling. Instead we kept to the back of the drives where she could hear gunshot in the distance and follow the older dogs as they swept the area after each drive.

Every dog is different in how they learn and educate themselves about the way things work and Uisce is no different. Watching her around the shoot at Shelton I could see she had no inhibitions in relation to gunshot. She was eager to enter cover and follow scent but has been slower to pick feather. Now if this was my first gundog I would probably worry  but hindsight is a luxury and one of the best working dogs I’ll ever own is Chester who only started retrieving at 18 months and another well known Chesapeake in the UK  refused to pick birds for her  first 2 years as a working dog. Both these dogs went on to win open level CBRC working tests in the UK.

For Uisce I was keener to get the basics such as heelwork and steadiness instilled first. This is a part of training I feel I have glossed over in the past with my other chessies. They are a breed that flattens easily if exposed to too much drill work. So getting the balance right between maintaining momentum but retaining control was going to be my challenge this time round.

We are now into our second week of basic training. Uisce will now loose lead walk and has just started walking to heel off-lead. I can set her on a memory land mark retrieve up to 150 meters and she is taking a perfect line. This morning I laid her first unseen and when I set her up she took the line without hestitation. Hand delivery is improving, again this is something I prefer to reel in slowly. I like them to run back quickly and parade it rather than insisting immediately on a clean hand delivery. I teach the hold command seperately which tightens up the hand delivery either way.

Of course she wouldn’t be a Chesapeake unless there was some kink to iron through in her training and with Uisce, ( as her name implies ), its water……following on from her experiences last summer at the lake I spent the Winter taking her to a small river, allowing her in for a swim and then insisting on a recall before she became too absorbed in her swimming. She has improved but before I take her to open water again I need to know I have one hundred per cent success on her recall if required. To do this I have had to take her water training back a step from where I would normally start a young dog.

The unnatural levels of rainwater have left almost every field in our area with their own small ponds. In most cases the water is no more than knee deep but this has been perfect as a training tool to teaching Uisce that the same focus is required in water as on land. We have started by simply walking to heel through the pond. She is rewarded with a treat if she walks quietly without trying to splash or water bite. I intend to work this up to a level where she can do walking hold and from there retrieving fluidly.

So far I like what I see, there are some dogs that you walk away from a training session feeling like its been a battle. Every now and then, though, you get a dog that brings the right attitude to their work and immediately you feel that both of you are reading from the same page and each training session you walk away with a feeling of elation…I had this feeling with Bertie and now perhaps my little Miss Naughty may be quite nice…..

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Little Miss Naughty

Lough Sheelan..the trials of a wildfowler.

Dawn was just peeping from under the covers of darkness when we left the slipway and headed out across the lake. All around us the lake was stirring. I could hear drake mallard calling and the steady slap, slap, slap of swans wings as they lifted off the water in front of us.

I had left  home at 5am and headed north to Cavan where I met my friend Malcolm. He had very kindly offered to take me out in his boat to hunt duck. It was the coldest morning of the year. The car temperature refused to rise above zero degrees as I followed his van along the winding and incredibly icy back roads to where we would be able to launch the boat from.

Sunrise

All reports this year were that Sheelan had been shooting well and as we moved out across the water it looked promising. The sky was getting lighter now and in the distance we could start to make out the silhouettes of small clusters of duck as they flew along the top of the water. There was plenty of movement about. Cormorants and swans joined the traffic in the sky, then off to our right rose a flock of geese, twenty to thirty in number. A rare sight on this particular lake. Malcolm had only ever seen them once before and he’s been working these waters for over twenty years. They are protected here in southern Ireland so off the menu today.

The cold air whipped around my face, I pulled Winnie close to me and dug my fingers into her deep, deep fur in an effort to warm them. We turned south, then ahead of us Malcolm saw what he had been watching for. He pointed in the direction of a bay about half a mile ahead. I peered into the distance and in the half light could just make out the water breaking..movement…then the sky ahead filled as three to four hundred duck, (black and whites), rose off the water and wheeled away. This is where we would decoy from, in the hope that the birds would return in an hour or so to where they had been feeding. At least that was the theory….

Malcolm pulled the boat in and dropped Winnie and I off with our guns,chairs, camera and cartridges. He then set about spreading his decoys, a cold and time consuming task but necessary if we were to have any chance of luring birds back in.

Winnie studies Malcolm closely as he sets out the decoys.

Once the decoys were out and the boat was tied in among some trees we settled down and waited. Wildfowling over decoys is, I think, like a winter version of fishing. The odds are all in favour of the duck. It requires tremendous patience and stamina both on the part of the hunter and the dog but if the result is good it is most definitely worth every minute spent almost always in harsh weather conditions. It is  the cold that is one of the primary reasons why duck would move around a lake this morning, we hoped. These conditions should have been near perfect and then to cap it all a fog moved in across the water. This would keep the birds low and  they would be less likely to see us behind the decoys when they came within range.

My favourite picture of the morning.

The silence of these places is one of my favourite things about going to such lengths to get here. Looking out across the lake this morning was enchanting. As the fog rolled out, covering the shorelines and masking the islands all that was left within view were a family of swans sleepily going about their morning chores. All around us the world was going about its business but here, at this moment, wrapped in a blanket of fog we could forget all our wordly worries for a while.

Our family of swans that kept us company for the morning.

About five hundred metres out, coming low across the lake was a flock of six black and whites. They were heading straight for our decoys. We crouched down behind the netting and waited. Closer and closer they came. When they came just over the decoys we rose and fired. One hit the water hard about two hundred meters out and dived, never to resurface. Not a retrieve to send the dog for.

Another hour passed, nothing came. Our swan family had tucked their heads beneath their wings and slept. Kingfishers darted past and Winnie sat longingly looking at the decoys in the hope that something would come. We saw mallard in the distance and some goldeneye that half thought of joining our decoy group but at the last second thought better of it. Then, all of a sudden there was a whir of wings to our left and two teal made to drop down on the decoys. I couldn’t get a clear shot but Malcolm took one cleanly, knocking it about one hundred metres out beyond the decoys. Winnie, watched and waited to be sent. I gave the command and she slipped silently into the water. A nice retrieve after a long, cold morning of patiently waiting.

A well desreved retrieve after much patient waiting.

After four hours we quit, our toes were suitably numb and family committments beckoned. Our plan hadn’t worked as well as we’d thought. As Malcolm pulled the boat out into the water I spotted four black and whites coming in from the north. They were headed straight for the decoys, I loaded my gun again and crouched down, alas it was not to be my morning as they peeled off at the last minute when the boat emerged from under the trees….ah well thats fowling and they’ll live to fight another day.

I am incredibly grateful to Malcolm and indeed to Lawrence, Emmet and Pat without all of whom I would never have the  opportunity to shoot these lakeshores. An indepth knowledge of the waters they hunt is needed, not only from a safety point of view but also knowing the habits and movements of the birds that use these huge expanses of water and knowing which winds suit which lakes is learnt only through years of observation and intimate knowledge of the lakes in question. I witnessed first hand this morning how quickly a fog can come over the water and that in itself presents its own perils.So thank you again for giving me the chance to witness Winter at her best!