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.

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

Season’s End.

...final forays with the gun...

…final forays with the gun…

Friday 25th January.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the little male buzzard

The little male buzzard

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

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

Saturday 26th January…

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

Dog and Master

Dog and Master

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

Mossy has developed into a lovely working companion

Mossy has developed into a lovely working companion

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

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celebrating Mossy’s achievement

Sunday 27th January…

Lining up on the Oaks at Shelton

Lining up on the Oaks at Shelton

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

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Coming in from the last drive at Shelton.

Monday 28th January…

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

Tuesday 29th January….

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Solo and Holly.

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

heading to the beating line at Mountainstown.

Heading to the decoy…

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

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Our dogs give everything …

….and so to show…

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

Scents and sensibility..

An experienced gamefinding dog is invaluable.

An experienced gamefinding dog is invaluable.

Scent and a dog’s ability to use it in relation to hunting has long fascinated me.  When I watch dogs’ work and figure out the story which a scent trail reveals I can appreciate that this sense, more than any other, in relation to dogs is perhaps their most valuable hunting asset. Dogs trust their noses more than their eyes. Sight will bring them to the area of a fall but it will be their nose that will finish the trail and find their quarry.

Of course, the role a dog handler plays in helping track a bird should not be underestimated either. We have the advantage of height, sight and logic. It is this combination of skills between dog and handler which leads me to the following tale.

It is a story  about scent and the  combination of factors that fall into the mix when a wily cock pheasant decides to play chase. It tells the tale of how scent can be elusive and  frustrating. Even with the assistance of the handler, who often has the advantage of height and sight, sometimes a bird can lay a trail which only the cunning and experience of an older dog can untangle.

So let us go back to mid- November on a cold bright morning at Shelton Abbey. Staffords was the first drive of the morning and the birds were flying well. This drive is a mixture of tall conifers, sitting down in a valley with open areas of low, heavy undergrowth. The birds break from the top  of the bank behind the trees, clearing the tree- tops and offer quick, high challenging shooting to the guns standing on the  narrow path below.

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Staffords offers a narrow window for challenging shooting.

Des was working Mossy further up the gunline but I had hung back for this one as the ground is too difficult for Elly to walk through. We had taken a stroll, instead, back along the path  looking for pine cones and Elly was having fun cracking the ice from some puddles.

Elly enjoying the outdoors.

Elly enjoying the outdoors.

As the drive wound down I wandered back towards the game cart. A bird had come down behind the end gun with a wing down and was on the run. The spaniel directly behind the gun had marked the cock bird well and her handler sent her to retrieve him.  It should have been as straightforward as that, but the cock pheasant had other ideas. The young dog took a line directly on the bird  through the pine needles but lost him when she hit some marshy ground. She quartered the ground well covering the area of the fall and retracing where the pheasant had last been seen. Her owner  helped her by pushing her back further into the swamp in the hope of picking up the trail again.

At the game cart Michelle and Coral could see  the bird as it ran on deeper into the woods towards the roots of a fallen conifer. Coral took her young cocker to hunt the area  in the hope of either picking up the trail, or as sometimes happens,  finding the bird had hunkered down into the cover which surrounded the tree. Both young dogs worked well covering the ground asked of them but for some unknown reason the trail kept going cold; almost as if there were gaps in the scent and where the bird had run.

High birds and open sky.

High birds and open sky.

The drive was over so I took Winnie and Chester out to see if they could help figure out this riddle. I checked with Michelle that the area  behind Staffords was not going to be used that morning so, if necessary, I could allow the dogs range a good distance if they picked up a trail.

I took them to the fallen conifer where the bird had last been seen and set them to hunt. Just like the spaniels did before them, they covered the ground well. There was plenty of scent as many birds had landed in this area throughout the drive. The dogs would have to differentiate scent given off by the uninjured birds that landed  and the one bird running through this area which was injured. Nothing was pulling them away from the area to indicate that the bird may have moved on through the woods. He had to be here somewhere.

Then Chester skipped across a small stream and picked up a trail heading back into the woods towards the gunline, after a few minutes out of sight I could hear the lusty call of a cock bird as he rose and flew into the distance. That was not the bird we were seeking. Winnie continued to work the area but wasn’t showing any signs of hot fresh scent. Chester returned and again picked up a trail on the far bank of the stream, this time heading back up hill towards the area of the sweep drive. He was soon out of sight and was gone for much longer this time. There was no point in calling him, he would not hear me but I knew the ground well enough that he could follow a bird a good distance without difficulty and without endangering himself by crossing roads or fences. He is doggedly persistant and will trail an injured bird until he finds it.

Cover in Staffords .

Cover in Staffords .

We were just heading back to the gamecart when down through the woods comes Chester, carrying the wounded cock bird. He had sought and found the right trail. The pheasant had not made it easy he had outwitted three dogs and three handlers all of whom had worked hard to untangle the scent trail he left or didn’t leave behind as he made good his escape!

It is a retrieve which stuck with me in the weeks following and one which I am still perplexed by. Why did the trail go cold so quickly after the bird hit the ground? One old timer’s theory, when I told him about it, was the pine needles. He reckons they disrupt scent and recounted an incident where he almost lost a young dog in a pine forest some years back. There may be some truth in this as when Chester crossed the stream the woodland becaome more mixed with decidious leaf litter as opposed to pine needles but I will never truly know.

I also wondered about the retrieve from a trialling perspective. It was through no fault of any of the dogs that they lost the trail of the pheasant but what would have happened in a trial? Would each subsequent handler be allowed to move further into the woodland in order to pick up a trail? The line which Chester initially took flushed a bird, possibly lightly pricked, would that have been taken as the initial bird or could Chester be allowed try again? Sometimes the confines of trialling may limit gamefinding skills rather than enhancing them perhaps?

The indominitable Chester.

The indominitable Chester.

Close encounters with canines…

Uisce aged eight months

Uisce aged eight months

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The story behind ‘ The Long Retrieve’

The short film below was first published just over a year ago. In itself it is a wonderful protrayal of a chesapeake working in the environment it was designed for. Echo has long been a competitor at the CBRC working tests and inter club team events and without doubt is one of the most exciting dogs to watch in competition. The story behind the making of this film demonstrates exactly why strength, inititive and persistance are two qualities that are invaluable in a good wildfowling dog.The following piece was written by Mark and he has kindly allowed me to reproduce it here :

“The task of capturing footage for this film presented several practical challenges for our cameraman who, as a non-shooting man, had never been near a marsh in his life. Thes included:
– walking long dostances carrying tons of expensive and heavy camera equipment, bags, tripods and so forth
– walking through tidal channels ensuring said equipment remained dry
– wading through knee deep mud making sure camera lenses remained mud-free
-generally stumbling around in near darkness desperately trying to keep hidden, so as not to put birds off to capture good quality footage of me wildfowling.
This was all a whole new area of filming and took, as you can imagine, several attempts to get something that we were both happy with.
During one of our visits to the Dee Estuary, I shot a Mallard whilst shooting a tide flight, and had occasion to perform the long retrieve. The bird landed 200 yards to my right, on the opposite side of a very wide tidal gutter, on an area of vegetated marsh. It was a blind for the dog as well as a very long swim against a tide which was flooding fast, towards the camera. Tides on the Dee flood very, very quickly and with huge force. i have in the past tried to stand in the same gutter to collect decoys when the tide is flooding and it is just impossible.
The distance, combined with the tide and that the fact that this was a blind, I can confidently say that Echo had never done anything quite so testing. I remember being aware of this before sending him into the water. But I knew that even in such demanding conditions, if there was one dog in the entire world I could choose to do this, I would have absolutely no hesitation in choosing Echo, with his characteristic, ‘I am going to get that bird, even if it means swimming back to Iceland,’ sort of attitude.
I got level with where I had marked the bird and sent Echo and as you can see from the film. he took a little encouragemnet to get across the tide. He looks back once or twice as if to say, ‘What across here?’ Yes please Echo, keep going. An additional difficulty was that because of the strength of the tide, when he did eventually get out the other side, he had been pushed 50 yards to the left where the bird had been marked.
I handled him into the area where I thought the bird was, then it was over to him, to use his scenting ability and persistence to find the bird. Because of the topography of the marsh, I simply could not see him when he was hunting for the Mallard and I did not know for certain where it was. So, as is so often the case when wildfowling, when shooting in difficult conditions or in darkness or half light, I have to trust Echo’s ability.What I love about this part of the film, is that once he is hunting for the duck he never looks back to me once. After eight and a half years of training and 7 seasons of regular wildfowling, it is safe to say that Echo is fully up to speed with the job description. A true gundog, he knows exactly what is required of him and is able to use his ability and initiative to hunt for and to bring the bird back to hand.
It seemed to take ages for him to cover the ground, but after a while he stopped. I cannot tell you what it felt like to be watching him when he suddenly stopped, his head went down, his tail started wagging that little bit quicker and he raised his head and I saw that he was holding a big drake Mallard in his mouth. I was elated! I knew then that it was a superb effort. I do not remember feeling too worried about the prospect of him swimming back. I suppose that he had made it across so he could make it back. As he swam back he was again pushed sideways by the tide, hence why I am walking towards the camera to meet him at the point where I thought he would exit the water. I love the fact that I give him a big stroke when he delivers the bird. Also, considering the physical effort that this must have taken, when he was walking along after all this he still looks like he is ready to do it all again!!
I was so focussed on handling Echo, that I had totally forgotten that the camera was running, and anyway, I thought that the distance we were away from the camera would be too far for a decent film. Until, that is, as walking back back I do a little wave to camera by way of acknowledgment. Inside I was doing cartwheels I was so delighted.
It is a pleasure to have this to enjoy now and to have in years to come. I think that it shows the breed in a very positive light and I am just so pleased as an owner, a handler and a wildfowler to have this film.”
Mark Greenhough( BASC Wildfowling Officer)
First published in Chessie Chat no. 92

Riverrun Caution to the Wind, Uisce, aged six months.

Uisce is now six months old. In many repects she has now reached a major milestone in her life. She is now at the age when she can officially compete.

Although it will be a while yet before she will be ready for gundog competitions, her career as a showdog is already underway. Over the summer, once she reached the age of four months, she was eligible to compete at baby puppy level at some championship shows.

These baby puppy classes are an excellent opportunity to allow a young puppy enter and experience the hustle and bustle of a championship show without any pressure.

I am hyper critical of my own dogs , throughout their development, and only when they enter the show ring or compete at a working test  can I really justify any glimmer of hope that they may be something special or not as the case may be.

The judges have been positive and given good feedback so her future in the show ring looks promising.

I am happy that, like her sister before her, she has been blessed with a fantastic personality. Uisce is every beings friend whether it’s animal or human. She is easy to have around other dogs whether she knows them or not and we have had plenty through our doors in the last few months.

I have been consistant with her basic obedience and now have an almost perfect recall. Heel work on lead is good and she will sit and wait for short periods. I have remained cautious around water and until I have a perfect land recall I will remain so. This is something I will be working on throughout the Winter months.

From a working gundog perspective she shows potential and that is all I believe you can really tell at this age. Until the pressures of formal gundog training are applied in the future it’s impossible to know otherwise at this age..I have taken her along with Zoe while dogging- in and have been happy with her reaction . She is not overly ‘birdy’ so does not get over excited when a bird rises in front of her.