Chesapeake : “I think therefore I am” …..more tricky to train, maybe?

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Your eyes meet across the small pond, both minds set on the challenge ahead, both thinking exactly the same thing but wanting very different outcomes …..Is the Chessie going to come back with his retrieve through the water on this warm summer day as his handler wishes? Or Is he going to mentally assess a more energy saving option and take the land bridge home???

Which would you choose??

I have found myself, as a handler in this predicament on many occasions.Watched as Labrador after Labrador diligently took the same line back as they took going out without a flicker of questioning but knowing that even before I cast my dog across the water he is already reading the landscape with his eyes and doing mental calculus on how to get home better.

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The Chesapeake is a thinking dog. Their survival as a breed often working in life threatening weather conditions out of sight of their handler meant that the ability to read a situation was imperative to getting both them and their quarry home safely. They needed to know they had options, however, it is this very ability to think through every life scenario that often mistakenly lands them with clichés and stereotypical labels such as, “difficult to train”, “hardheaded” and “not good enough to Field trial”….

In most cases, if you’re lucky, you will get fair warning of  this ability of the Chesapeake to think ahead and weigh up His options. It will be evident from the moment He opens his  eyes and totters about the whelping box checking out the perimeter. He will lift his tiny muzzle above the lowest point in the box where Mum skips in and out. Rather than wait patiently for her return he learns very quickly that there is another option….He  can simply follow that wonderful smell of milk and fill his belly quicker. These are the Chessie babies that, because their need to figure things out comes early in their development, will train you as a handler and an owner to walk slowly and take your time through training.

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….oh but then there is the other type of Chessie puppy….

So there you are all fuzzy and warm, basking in the glow of the newness and excitement of having your new Chessie puppy.

He or she  no doubt is smart,( smart as in human terms,learning things quickly that please you ), and pretty soon you are proudly able to list off all their accomplishments of how they have mastered sit, wait, stay, heel and come all  within a week of ownership. You will talk about how friendly and sociable they are around other dogs, how they love all dogs large and small. In fact I can pretty much guarantee that doubts will even cross into your mind about whether the warnings and cautions your puppy’s breeder gave you about taking your time in training, about the importance of socialising your Chesapeake puppy properly are really true at all….

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Time passes, and buoyed with the confidence of how easily and eagerly your young dog took to basic training you decide to increase the pressure and you again are pleasantly surprised how easily he starts to  run lines, obey some whistle work, maybe taking a left and right  cast AND still only 9 months old !!!.

Then, just when you think you have trained the beast, when you can sit back and give yourself a giant pat on the back for a job well done everything starts to unravel …..he starts to push ahead when he should be doing impeccable heelwork, he ignores all direction and acts like he has never heard a whistle before let alone the sit command, a scent trail is more fun to follow than coming back to you when you call him, he squares up to other young males when out walking despite your admonishments to ‘play nicely’…

What happened ?? Where did it all go wrong you may wonder ?? Where in god’s name has that wonderful puppy that you worked so hard to mould and train gone to and how do you get him back?

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And the answer is simply your Chessie just realised he has options other than what you ask him to do. His maturing mind, the one needed to help him survive the brutal foreshore currents in times past, has kicked into gear in readiness for his future role as a working widldfowling dog.

This is the hardest stage, I think, in Chesapeake development for both Dog and Owner. It is the stage that I ,as a breeder, am prepared to get the most calls about and hope that in the long conversations that follow I can offer some insight into what can seem like a neverending episode of ‘ dog behaving badly’.

So, as a breeder I will tell you that this is the time your young dog needs your guidance most,( even though He thinks He doesn’t). Tease out the strands of his training, allow him to think through each small aspect of what you ask him to do by shortening your sessions and breaking them down more. Allow him to question and think things through so he can understand. And when that doesn’t work guide him some more.

You will always have a thinking Dog, it is in their DNA but I believe when a Chesapeake fully understands what is being asked of Him or Her they give their very best performances.

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Sometimes though all  the cajoling in the world will not win out over a Chessie mind that knows the shortest and safest route home with a retrieve is by land when your eyes lock across a small pond in Summer…..but that’s another story.

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The training day…

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

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

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Mr Jason Mayhew with new friend Fred..

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

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

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

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

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

The training ground

The training ground.

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

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

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

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

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

Building a relationship.

Building a relationship.

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

Helping a dog by improving handling.

Helping a dog by improving handling.

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

teaching steadiness.

teaching steadiness.

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

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The day brought together retriever breeds from all spheres.

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

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

Almost all the retriever breeds were represented.

Almost all the retriever breeds were represented.

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

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Making use of the jumping fence on the new ground.

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

waterwork

waterwork

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

‘Look for the smallest try and build on that…’ Jason Mayhew.

She was a natural swimmer from an early age.

She was a natural swimmer from an early age.

Let me take you back now to an evening last Summer when I watched with mounting panic on the lakeshore as my four month old puppy swam further and further into the lake. I was not on my own that evening, two of my friends watched also. She swam in circles, splashed, bit at the water and swam on and on. No amount of coaxing, cajoling or threats from the shoreline made a blind bit of difference….Uisce had discovered the delights of water and learnt to waterfreak… And I knew it was not simply a matter of letting her grow out of it. I had read all about waterfreaking in chesapeakes, something that’s more prevalant in our beloved brown dogs than in the other retriever breeds, it does not make for optimistic reading. Many of the very experienced trainers in the US have theories on whether it follows certain lines or whether it’s an obedience issue but one thing they absolutely all agree on is that it’s notoriously difficult to correct. Up until this point Uisce was swimming very well she was comfortable and confident in water. I hoped that she was young enough and that the pattern was not deeply ingrained to be able to do something about it.. In the immediate aftermath it made me very nervous having her around water. I knew that until her land recall was one hundred per cent it was just not worth taking the risk of letting her swim at the lake. So over the winter I worked on her land recall, taking her out more on her own so her focus was on me and not the other dogs. Getting basic obedience well ingrained like heelwork and her hand delivery of retreives. It would be the latter that was to be key in gaining control in water but until it was near perfect I would not take her near open water. I must add at this point that I sought advice from all quarters and am extremely grateful to everyone who offered their opinions as a combination of many suggestions inspired me to push on and work through this problem but it was that one single sentence of Jason’s which helped me most. If I had looked at the bigger picture, at that point, I would have got frustrated with her and possibly given up. By changing my immediate goals with her and looking no further than searching for small improvements in her attitude helped us both in working through a problem that I really had no confidence was going to ever have a positive conclusion. During the winter I curtailed her access to swimming water greatly. I used a small river, she was only allowed swim upstream and never for a retrieve. Her reward for swimming correctly was simply to be allowed to swim and if she came out of water when asked I let her back into the water. In a very short while I could see a shift in her response, she could break away from swimming if I asked her and a small vocal correction of ‘ah, ah,’ was enough to stop any splashing if it started. If she didn’t listen then I called her out and we walked away. I never rerimanded her as I felt that in doing so it may bring its own problems with perhaps reluctance to enter water in the future. I worked consistantly on her land work in conjunction with this. Lots and lots of heelwork, recall work and perfecting a good hand delivery.  She has proven to be a very compliant pupil. She is the first of my chessies that I have successfully worked with treats as a motivator. Once I was confident with her land work and she was walking to heel with a dummy I started reintroducing her to water. Starting with walking hold in the many, many flood ponds around the farm at home. If she managed this without trying to splash the water she was praised verbally and with treats. The next stage was retrieve and it was at this point that we had the most speed wobbles. I tried her initially on retrieves up river. Her run out was impeccable but once she dipped her head to take hold of the retrieve it all became a game of bob and splash, she would forget the dummy and launch herself off into the water again. This really was the most frustrating part and very difficult not to lose my temper with her. However, there were positives even at this stage and many’s a time on the walk home on reflection I could see improvements. Her recall was much better and I could snap her out of that hypnotic trance much more quickly than before. It was Jason that suggested, at this point, to try teaching a retrieve from across water rather than in water. This is where I really started to see some light at the end of the tunnel. The first morning I tried this I was with my friend Mariann. We had done some nice walk ups and land retrieves. I had found a narrow channel that was perfect to try out my plan for retrieving across water. I stood one side with Uisce and Mariann threw the dummy on nice open ground on the far side. It worked perfectly. I was so delighted that I made the fatal error of repeating the retrieve, I sent Uisce again and she brought the dummy to the edge of the bank on the opposite side, dropped it so it rolled down the side and took great delight in sliding down after it, into the water and started splashing. My heart sank but I knew it was my fault. I called her up and we headed for home but again on reflection I could see small progress. Over the next few days I mulled it over, there had to be a solution. I was missing something in the chain, it’s another great thing about chessies in training if you skip a step in anything you’re teaching they’ll find it and fill in the gap for you, with their own twist. I was convinced the answer lay in solving her issue of picking and carrying a retrieve in water..how to figure out getting past this stage was the clincher. I took her to the estuary, the same point where she swam off out to sea last summer. Using a very light,long cord and collar I put the dummy in her mouth and walked her in until she was out of her depth…I had waders on. Once she swam normally and with no problems, I removed the dummy and she was praised as she would be on land. This was repeated several times in one session. The next session I did the same excercise and once I felt she was comfortable with this  I threw the dummy to shore and sent her giving the command to hold when she started swimming back to me. When she could do this fluidly I then started throwing the dummy to the water’s edge so she was picking it up in very shallow water, then I worked on her retrieving parallel to shore and finally sending her from the shore into the water. Once she grasped the concept of picking up in water everything else fell into place and because I had worked so consistantly on recall and hand delivery her overall finish on a water retrieve is really very nice. I never made the mistake of overloading her again with several retrieves. If she does one correctly she gets plenty of praise, treats and a fun retrieve from land and thats it. So far we are making progress, the video clip below was taken at the lake last week. Her first trip back since last summer and I was happy with the result.  There are still moments when she loses concentration, typically it’s on the first send but the need to correct this is becoming less frequent. http://youtu.be/ce022yo0Kbk My aim for this summer would be to get a good consistent seen retrieve to novice level without any hitches. Then it will be water blinds but small steps and small tries will hopefully move us forward.