Lessons learnt through experience.

The venue for Breffni Gun club cold game test.

The venue for Breffni Gun club cold game test.

Competing, as anyone who does so knows, is a double-edged sword which inevitably falls on the side of tried and failed more often than tried and succeeded. The successes, when they come, are to be treasured. The failures are remembered for longer simply because they teach us more, making us strive to do better the next time.

The working test season, for my dogs, kicked off mid April in Cavan. A charity event, organised by Breffni gun club, it is always very well run, with plenty of help and a lovely relaxed atmosphere. The test was run using cold game which takes the dogs up a gear.

Bertie and me at Breffni

Bertie and I at Breffni

During the Winter season my dogs run pretty much off the whistle, indeed my main use for it as we work our way through the cover at Shelton, is as a location device for my dogs to find me. So although we have been training throughout spring they will never be as tight on the whistle through the first couple of working tests in comparison to dogs that have spent a season trialling.

…And it showed with Mossy when he ran novice that day. His marking was precise but he was slack to the whistle on blindwork. Bertie had a better run in Open. He was only just 3 when he won out of novice. It was probably a season too soon, we underestimate sometimes the level of mental pressure involved for the dog when competing at Open level. They need time to mature  and watching him training over the recent weeks I can say that only now he is  ready to take on what an Open test has to offer…..well hopefully most of the time.

Two out of three tests were 25/25 and 23/25. His marking was tight and clean. The water test was something he hadn’t encountered before. A teal thrown into the middle of six decoys and the dog had to retrieve the teal and leave the decoys. Simple work for a dog that is used to decoying but it’s something I’ve not done with Bertie before. It was one of those tests where a split second decision is going to mean the difference between success or failure. He had marked the fall beautifully and took a direct line into the water, on encountering the first decoy I gave the command ‘leave’ and that was it….wrong command…the dog turned off the decoys and swam to shore. I took him down to the water’s edge and recast, when he reached the decoys this time I gave the command ‘back’ he pushed on , winded the bird and brought it back to hand. Lesson learnt.

Bertie on a run out at broadmeadows. Picture courtesy of Tony.

Bertie on a run out at broadmeadows. Picture courtesy of Tony.

The second working test of the season was in Mullingar, run by the Broadmeadows gundog club it is practically an institution in retriever circles in Ireland. Traditionally it was the test that marked the start of the working test season. It is also a qualifier to pick the Irish team for the two International retriever events held at Shanes Castle and Birr Castle during the Summer. I took Bertie on his own for this test primarily because I wanted  a chance to see how he would be in a line up prior to the Minority breeds test in the UK the following week. I truly had no expectations as the field was large with 26 dogs running and many of the top field trial dogs in the country in attendance.

Listening to the judges direction before a retrieve.

Listening to the judges direction before a retrieve.

His weakest test was the first which was a diversion straight ahead and a blind 45 degrees to his left about 100 meters away over reedy grass. He took a wonderful line but I failed to use the wind to his advantage, peeping him two strides too early meaning I had to work him harder to the pick up. Still bird to hand, we were still in the running. Second test was a single long mark across typical boggy ground with high rushes. It was a three dog line up with a walk to heel, this was the main reason I had wanted to enter this competiton and I couldn’t have asked for better. He was last dog up and sat impeccably until asked to go. He took a line straight to the fall and straight back. The final retrieve of the day was the water and it was proving to be the undoing of many…

The diversion at the water test after drifting.

The diversion at the water test after drifting.

The water test was set on a lake. The wind was blowing hard now in from the north east to the dog’s right. A single diversion was thrown out into the middle of the lake to the dog’s left. The dog was then being sent for a blind across on the far bank of the lake. The temptation was, of course, that the dog would pull for that diversion in open water and all would be over. We were near the end of the field by the time it came to our turn and I had watched many dogs fail. I set my dog up and faced him directly towards the diversion. He marked it well. I turned him and cast him well away from the direction of the seen retrieve. He entered the water, started to pull left, I peeped and cast him right back…he got the message and swam on. The next challenge was to get him onto the blind which was laid at the water’s edge among reeds. If he banked it would be a harder job as the scent would be below him. As he approached the far shore I peeped again, he turned right, winded the dummy and locked on. First half complete….I called him back and at the same time looked around to see where the diversion had drifted to as the wind was carrying it down the lake at pace…thankfully it was still in open water. I handed the dummy to the judge and set up my dog. I let him hit the water at the point where he expected that diversion to be and swim out, peeping and casting left when he hit the point of first fall. He saw the dummy and again locked on. That will most likely be my retrieve of the season for him….the buzz of completing such a technical retrieve is hard to describe.

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His final score that day was 92/100. He finished overall 7th , just one place outside qualifying for the team event.

A flatcoat clears the jump in the Minor breeds team test.

A flatcoat clears the jump in the Minor breeds team test.

A week later we were on the ferry and heading east to Evesham in Gloustershire. Bertie was competing as part of a team in the Minority breeds working test. Four teams of 3 dogs all different breeds of retriever – There was a team of Curly coated retrievers, Flatcoated retrievers, Irish Water Spaniels and of course the Chesapeakes. I was excited and nervous.This was to be our first time competing as part of a team. It’s one thing competing as a single dog/handler with no responsiblity but to yourself but to be part of a team carried extra responsibilty.

Sitting out a simulated drive. Photo courtesy of Ms Sue Worrall.

Sitting out a simulated drive. Photo courtesy of Ms Sue Worrall.

The competiton that day was broken down into a series of 6 tests. Four of those six tests involved line-ups or walk up. This is an excercise that can be difficult for chesapeakes, particularly dogs that spend their winter working on their own and retrieving everything that falls but our dogs did very well. The last test of the morning was a double seen, each dog was to be taken on their own. We all breathed a sigh of relief, the hard stuff seemed to be over….the judge gave a description of the test to the entire group. It was to be a double mark retrieve. The first thrown dummy to be retrieved first, dog was not to be sent until the judge instructed. I was second up with Bertie. The judge asked if I understood the test and I assumed I did. I took the lead off and set my dog facing the left hand thrower. He marked both dummies. I waited for the judge’s command and sent Bertie on his way. He took a direct line to the fall and returned with perfect hand delivery. I took him round to my left, settled him and sent him for his second retrieve. Again there was no hesitation to the pick up and delivery was perfect. I came away from the line absolutely thrilled to bits. Then the second judge approached me…

Echo aged almost 10 our most experienced team member.

Echo aged almost 10 our most experienced team member.

It appeared that in her group instruction the judge required that the handler was to wait for her instruction before sending for the second retrieve, this was something unusual and I hadn’t encountered before. There was the possibility that although Bertie had been foot perfect he could potentially zero on that one, small, technicality and that was my fault.

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

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

….and he did, she zeroed his retrieve. I was gutted, i had let the team down and I had let my dog down. Our team finished second, 19 points behind the winners…it is an error I will never forget again. I will most likely always insist on an individual explanation if the judge gives a group description. Did the judge mark harshly? who knows? it is her perogative and I’ve got to accept it, learn from it and move on.

Our team...we fought the brave fight. Photo courtesy of Ms Sue Worrall.

Our team…we fought the brave fight. Photo courtesy of Ms Sue Worrall.

Dogs and desserted beaches….

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The Footpath

For most of the year the beaches around Ireland are desserted by the general public and this morning was no exception. A strong east wind that has been persistantly hitting our coastline for more than a week now has scared off all but the hardiest of souls.

Dogwalker's heaven.

Dogwalker’s heaven.

As I headed down the path that leads to the beach that strong seabreeze bit into my face clearing away all thoughts of morning weariness. It was fighting with the sea as the tide pulled it away from shore, kicking the water into high foamy peaks.

Full gallop to water

Full gallop to water

Uisce and Mossy were at heel  they could smell the sea. They lifted their heads into the wind and snorted as the cold air was drawn into their nostrils.  We stood on the strand just for a moment to gather our bearings and take in the view. The tide was well out leaving that endless expanse of flat empty strand to roll away in the distance. On and on it goes until it hits the cliffs of Gormanstown some three miles away and no body, not a single being, except me and my two dogs to share it with. This has to be dogwalker’s heaven.

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I released the dogs, there was no hesitation, off they went pulling in the ground as they galloped at full pace towards the water in the distance. Eager to dive headlong into the surf and shake the water from their coats.

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Tomorrow is a showday but today, for my chesapeakes, is preparation day….

Early gundog training.

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Uisce aged 1 year

For a long time I was stubbornly resistant to the idea of needing a gundog to be trained to the highest level it could be and perhaps there’s still a tiny part of me that will always remain so, rather like my chessies which is why I love them so much. However, I have found I enjoy the challenge of learning to train them in a way that they find fun and exciting and in doing so fulfilling their potential as working dogs in the future.

I have concentrated on getting a nice clean hand delivery with Uisce more so than I did with my previous dogs. It was always an aspect I let slide, preferring instead to concentrate on a nice prompt return. I have also found that by separating out the different aspects of a retrieve and working on each one to it’s conclusion Uisce has been able to maintain focus and momentum without flattening out. This can be a  problem sometimes with chessies as they get bored easily with long repetitive training sessions. The sessions therefore have been shorter but more frequent something which I think has also helped in keeping her enthusiasm levels up.

Keeping an enthusiastic chessie in training is key.

Keeping an enthusiastic chessie in training is key.

After battling for the last few years with two pushy young male chessies it has been interesting to again work with the softer attitude of a female. Again something that I need to be conscious of when I move her forward to more challenges in training.

Everything in her training so far has been geared towards building her confidence even the colour of the dummy which makes it easier for her to see when sent for a memory retrieve.

I have learnt much in the year since she was born thanks to the help and guidance from some wonderful gundog trainers, from watching competition work and from assessing my own dogs work and their attitude to it.

I suppose the most valuable lesson I have learnt is that there is and never should be a time limit on how long it takes to train a dog, each will learn in their own way and in their own time. There are no mistakes just different ways of doing things.

Enjoy your brown dogs everyone and make training fun!

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Work AND Show can co-exist.

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…he hides behind no mass of coat….

Today the dog that stands before you  on the green carpet  is a showdog. He hides behind no mass of coat or flashy eyecatching movement. He is a functional no nonsense breed of dog and He has come as a representative of everything that is great about the breed from which he developed.

All those noble dogs that spend their winters working hard along a frozen foreshore watching and waiting in the fading light for the geese and duck to come. A loyal hunting companion whose superior scenting abilities and tenacious spirit make him equally proficient in pursuit of upland game and perhaps most important of all a valued and trusted family member.

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All those noble dogs that spend their Winter waiting….

Stand back for a moment and take the time to fully appreciate perfection in simplicity. As you let your eye follow down along his body the story behind the dog may start to reveal itself. His demeanour , as he stands before you, is one of power and confidence. He does not feel the need to greet with the eager exuberance of a puppy. This is a working dog and although his face may still bear the scars of a Winter spent hunting heavy cover, the tools of his trade, the very reasons this breed has been made the way he has, are immediately evident….that nose that will hunt a diving duck through the thick swathes of elephant grass has wide clean nostrils,the length in his muzzle and sculpted bones of his jawline give a clue to his ability to carry his quarry with a gentle mouth. His body is fit and lean, he was not built for speed but power and stamina.  The confidence that saw him through a season of taking on the heavy winter waters, tidal estuaries or following on the tail of a wounded cock pheasant no matter how deep the cover is borne out in his easy, fluid movement around the ring,  in the way he carries his head and watches his master with an alert and happy attitude.

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His confidence is seen in the way he carries himself.

There are many who fail to see the relevance of showing dogs in relation to what is required in the working field. It is all too easy to look at the finished picture of the dog before them standing on the carpet at Crufts and see only a groomed dog presented to perfection and forget the story behind how they and their breed come to be there……perhaps then the BASC gamekeepers classes go some way to reminding us that working AND Showing gundogs can sit in the same sentence.

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Work AND Show can co-exist.

For the last three years, along with entering the breed classes at Crufts we have also competed in the BASC gamekeepers classes. It is a separate competition which runs concurrently with the breed classes. Every dog entered has to have written confirmation from the gamekeeper that they have worked with during the shooting season. The classes are big, over 20 in most cases , and they cover all the subgroups in gundogs. The vast majority of these gundogs also compete in their respective breed classes.

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Chester, competed in gamekeepers aged 11.

Mossy and Chester were the only two representatives of our breed that stood in the  BASC Gamekeepers classes at Crufts in 2013. That year out of a class of 27 dogs made up of Flatcoats, Goldens, a Curlycoat and Nova- scotias it was a proud moment when Mossy was pulled 2nd behind the eventual overall winner. It was an even prouder moment that his father Chester, at the age of 11 years, was there also and testament to the fact that age does not limit fit for function.

In 2014 Mossy and his half sister Uisce pushed the boundaries one step further in the BASC Gamekeepers classes. For the first time in the history of the breed Mossy won The Shooting Gazette trophy for Best Any Variety Retriever Dog and Uisce won the Marsh Trophy for Best AnyVariety Retriever Bitch.

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Uisce and Mossy in BASC gamekeepers Crufts 2014.

To be associated with a breed where form and function remain so inextricably intertwined is something I feel passionately about and proud that when we hand back the trophies this year the names of the two Chesapeakes also carry the titles of Show Champion and Champion.

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

Keeper’s day at Mountainstown 2013

The complete Mountainstown team

The complete Mountainstown team

The fog came again for beaters day at Mountainstown. Winter was not quite ready to relinquish her grip and she threw her veil across the countryside holding everything immobile in her grasp. As everyone gathered in the courtyard the weather, possibly, reflected how many of us felt. Beaters day, although exciting, also reminds us that shooting season is coming to an end. It is bittersweet… and so today the fog that wrapped itself around the old house was welcome. We could forget the promise of spring for a while and focus on enjoying the camaraderie that makes this shoot such an enjoyable place to spend the Winter.

I had decided not to shoot on this day. My plan was to work my dog and take plenty of photos as the action unfolded throughout the day. Alas, the weather put paid to much of my  photography as my lens struggled to make contact with the Guns on pegs through the fog, besides something else rather unexpected caught my attention. I had been given the  radio for the day in case James needed to contact the picking up team at any stage. As we loaded ourselves onto the picking up cart and followed the Guns’ wagon out of the yard the radio chattered away as it hung around my neck. Conversations between James (the keeper) and Rupert (the shoot manager) interspersed with reports from Demise, Gavin and Donal as each of them took their teams to various points from where they would start moving birds towards the allocated drive.

One of the beating teams on their way to the first drive

One of the beating teams on their way to the first drive

The names of the drives are engrained in my memory after so many seasons – Cowfield Wood, Arthurs Hill, The Fish Pond, Romwood and the Garden Paddock-  each one means something different in relation to picking up, knowing which way the birds will come, where the heaviest shooting will be, where the birds are likely to fall and how near or far the Picker needs to stand from the Gun. As I took up my spot at the Keepers pen that morning, the radio was giving me an insight to what happens on the beating line. Rather than being a nuisance I was transfixed with the dynamics that were unfolding across the airwaves.

Each team will have taken their birds in from a different direction, sometimes a long way out from where they will eventually flush from. As the teams converge pressure is applied on the birds in different directions, slowly at first by just the tapping of a stick or the cracking of a flag birds may move and flush with very little prompting. This will give the guns time to prepare, a chance to take an early shot and settle the nerves.

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Everything was coming together across the airwaves, birds were breaking nicely in a variety of directions and despite the fog were flying very well. The teams had merged now working forward slowly and steadily..stop…flush…tap…forward…flush…stop….tap…more pressure applied on the right to spread the shooting evenly and all the time the flow of conversation continued between James, Demise, Gavin, Donal and Rupert, all the time the control rested with James…nothing or nobody moved unless on his say so. Fifty birds in the bag at the end of the first drive and smiling faces as Rupert passed around the port. Once again, James and his team had delivered. They had not failed all season and I looked forward to listening in as the plot was revealed for the next drive.

The moment when that first flush of pheasants fly out over the guns is the end result of a lot of long, long hours of preparation, planning and teamwork. There are several key players that help bring this about but what makes a shoot succeed or fail undoubtedly falls on one person’s shoulders, the Gamekeeper. Everything starts and stops with him. It is a universal thing, it’s why Alex ferguson has held the reigns at Man U for so long, for example. There can be only one leader but a good leader  recognises that he alone cannot bring about success. His loyalty and respect for his team are unquestionable and perhaps this is the secret to a shoot’s success.

The end result, to an enjoyable day...birds in the bag.

The end result, to an enjoyable day…birds in the bag.

Close encounters with canines…

Uisce aged eight months

Uisce aged eight months

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Winnie’s water retrieve.

Duck rising off the Tailings at Shelton

Duck rising off the Tailings at Shelton

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

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

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

The river Avoca looking towards the gunline.

The river Avoca looking towards the gunline.

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

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

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

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

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

Winnie returns with the drake after an epic swim.

Winnie returns with the drake after an epic swim.

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

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

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

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

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!

Shelton Abbey Shoot

The Sweep drive on the road to the prison.

The second shoot I work my dogs on is more than an hour’s drive south to County Wicklow. Set along the banks of the River Avoca and just west of Arklow town is Shelton Abbey. The Abbey itself is an open prison but the grounds and land that surround it are currently owned and managed by the state. Some of the ground has been leased for a number of years by a small syndicate to develop a driven shoot. The gamekeeper responsible for the care and management of the shoot is a very talented young man by the name of  Mr Philip Gregory.

There are many  challenges, however, which the keeper has to deal with that are unique to this shoot. The land is bordered on one side by the river which acts as a natural boundary but also as a  place of no return once birds cross over it after a drive. Running up against the shoot’s western boundary is the Ballyarthur estate and although both shoots enjoy good relations there is also the inevitable crossing over of some birds. Perhaps the biggest obstacle Phil has to contend with is the fact that the ground which the shoot has leased is public ground and therefore subject to the many vageries of walkers and dogs, of all shapes and makes, running through the very ground on which he is trying to get birds to settle. Pheasants do not like disturbance. Losses could be significant without diligent dogging in, feeding and settling the birds. Once the poults are released it is a round the clock operation with little time off in the hope the end result will be worth all the worry…

The drive known as the Oaks is, without doubt, the signature drive at the Shelton shoot. It stretches for almost a mile along the length of the Avoca and is divided into three separate sections. The landscape alone lends itself to the development of a naturally brilliant drive. Up behind the prison the land rises sharply away from the river. It then flattens out to what is known as the tailings, a legacy to its former life as a copper mine, then rises steeply again. The sides of this valley are densely cloaked with a mixture of larch and oak trees while the floor of the valley, known as the tailings, has been allowed to return to a wilderness of birch, gorse and coarse grasses,perfect cover for pheasant and boy do they make every use of it!

Mossy and Des emerging from the cover on the tailings.

The deciduous trees offer ample flushing  points for the birds, spreading them along the entire length of the gunline. The trees along with the added gradient enable the birds to break at such dizzying heights that test even the most proficient shot. As a picker, on this drive, I stand way back as the birds are quite capable of flying on for three hundred meters or more even after being hit due to the height and speed at which they are travelling.

My dogs have been tested to the extreme on this shoot. The ground cover is extremely challenging and this is not just as a result of the gradient of the terrain. The bramble undergrowth is dense, particularly on Staffords. The result of many years of growth and many of the drives are cut into this undergrowth, so there is no way of avoiding sending your dog to cover. This is ground that requires dogs with a strong prey drive and dogs that will overcome any reluctance to enter vicious cover. It will make or break a dog, they can learn tremendous game sense or be turned off completely. I have seen Chester crawl on his belly beneath the bramble here in pursuit of a wounded bird as it is the only accessibe route through.

A good nose is also an asset here. Time and energy can be saved if a dog can scent a bird from outside the bramble clusters and also track and pursue a bird underneath.It was and still is the waterwork on the Avoca, however, for which the chesapeakes really come into their own here.

A view of the Oaks with some of the tailings in the foreground.

In previous years the shoot began their season in October with three drives on each shoot day of river duck. Early in the season the river was still fairly tame. The current was fast but dogs and handlers could cross without difficulty hopping between the gravel beds that rose above the streams. It was at this time of year that the dogs had a chance to learn the river, to get a feel for the water, where the current could pull them and also most importantly where they could find a safe entry and exit point.

The chesapeakes loved it. This was their comfort zone. They learnt to sit in the current, thread water and wait for a bird coming from upstream, then once the bird was retrieved they let the current carry them, down past me until they rode into the shore further downstream. Some dogs just ‘get’ this idea and work the water so well , it takes experience though and I have seen many dogs, particularly young ones, waste valuable energy trying to fight their way back upstream to their owner against a strong unyielding current.The end result being a young dog that makes it to shore eventually but may be truly sickened about entering again.

My favourite spot to stand with the chessies was on a cluster of rocks at the prison boundary about eighty meters below the last gun. Here they could sweep up any birds missed by dogs further up the line and mark birds that might fall on the far bank to retrieve when the drive finished. The water here was deeper and wider but also slower allowing for a slighter easier swim without the dangerous undercurrents that occured in the river at its shallower points.

It was not unusual for them to enter the water up to twenty times during a drive in October. I never had to push them, if anything it was more of a challenge to hold them back. They would finish the drive and continue to sweep the banks on both sides back up through the gun line in search of wounded birds. Swimming seemed to expend less energy for them than land work.

Each of them learnt to read a wounded duck on water in a different way. Chester will thread water and wait for the duck to rise and then pursue it whereas Winnie will follow the bird under water as it dives. Winnie, in her time here, also developed a particular skill for tracking duck that hid underwater in the faster flowing mountain streams of Ballycoog. I have never really understood how she does it but I have seen her take up the trail of a duck that neither of us have seen fall. She might be hunting the bank then all of a sudden something will catch her attention and she will track the water downstream until a point where the duck is retrievable either from shallow water or under a bank overhang.

Bertie, Winnie and Chester after the last drive a couple of years ago.

My greatest responsiblity when working on waters like the Avoca is the safety of my dogs and myself. I refuse to put them in imminent danger. As such I have also had to learn to read the water well and to know when a duck is retreivable or when it is lost and guide my dogs accordingly. My dogs in turn must listen to me and trust that I know when it is safe to send them. Duck will land on the water in front of them with no injuries and the last thing I want is for my dogs to expend valuable energy on a drake mallard that is not wounded. They will give their heart and soul to this work and we have had many, many memorble retrieves, some of which I will share with you in the coming months.

Staffords…the cover on both sides of the path is dense bramble.