Carrowbawn working test.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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Retriever training…the less said the better.

Something had been bothering me since attending Mr Onen’s training day in August. It stuck in my head for days afterward. One simple sentence that morning when he said, ‘all dogs were stupid’. I could almost feel the mental resistance among my fellow handlers. He was on the verge of losing our attention in that single moment…..

It didn’t make sense. His complete respect and handling of the dogs throughout the day was in direct contradiction to what he stated that morning. I saw how some simple techniques applied to my own dog on the day could improve him and that alone was just enough to spur me on.

Then the penny dropped. About a week or so after attending his training day I think I figured it out. Norman’s speech that morning was aimed at making us believe our dogs were of a lesser intellignce. What naturally follows when any of us attempt to communicate with a person or animal of lower intelligemce is that we speak less and communicate more through use of body language and other cue’s.

Of course, in our minds, we all know that dogs do not understand the English language. Yet, on any given day at a training class or working test we repeatedly see handlers have full conversations with their dogs  and get frustrated when their dog does not respond. In reality what  happens is that the dog gets so caught up in the endless nagging voice, rather like a dog barking in their face,  that they switch off. They shut down or simply give the two fingers and run off…

The irony is we’re also acutely aware of the fact that dogs are experts at reading non-verbal cues both from other dogs and us humans. They learn very quickly when you’re getting ready to go for a walk and, most well socialised dogs, understand very clearly the intentions of other dogs without ever having to utter a single syllable..

Everything about the techniques which Mr Onen applied that day involved and revolved around silencing the mouth and using other signals. I watched him that day as he took a young dog that was constantly pulling forward on his owner. He held the rope lead loosely over two fingers and by use of slight pressure and slowing his walking pace the dog was looking to him for signals within minutes. Not a single word was spoken.

The silence factor took a while for me to comprehend. It was only after I began working with my own dogs in the following days, that I finally understood. Then everything began to make sense. Is it just a happy coincidence that all those men and women who successfully compete at the top level of working tests and field trials are people of few words?

Maybe , in relation to retriever training, the less said the better….

Balancing working/show condition during the Summer months.

June.

We are now in the height of the Summer Working test/Show season. Each weekend brings either one or the other with some weekends bringing both.

Keeping condition on dogs at this point in the season is one of the most challenging things , I find, for a dog doing both disciplines. The early months of roadwork and sea swimming have laid down a solid base of condition and now its simply a matter of maintenence. The rigours of training, however, can take its toll on a dog and if not watched for carefully can leave them too ‘light’ for the show ring.

It is important that condition is not mistaken for simply adding weight, something which should never occur in an active working gundog.Personally, I find the most effective way of keeping and holding condition is to increase protein percentage in their food without increasing volume. I  also like to add plenty of oil in their food to keep skin and coat in peak condition. This system seems to work for me as, so far, none of my dogs have broken down through injury either through hunting season or the Summer circuit.

In addition to daily assessment of their physical condition there is ongoing work to progress their gundog training. Each working test is used as a marker with which to pin point areas that need to be worked on in training

My plans for the boys , Bertie and Mossy are progressing as outlined earlier in the year. I removed Mossy from the show ring in Ireland , for this season,to concentrate on his gundog training and am campaigning Bertie in the ring .At present Bertie has three green stars from three shows towards his show champion title. He will need another four to complete which I expect him to achieve before the start of shooting season..

Mossy has competed in two working tests and has been unlucky not to be in the ribbons. Competition is so tight at prelim and novice levels that it takes a near faultless performance to finish in the top four and at the moment he needs tidying up on his presentation.

The next two weeks will be extremely busy. Another working test to attend this coming weekend then final preparations for our next trip to the UK. This time to compete at East of England champ show on Saturday and the Chesapeake Bay Retriever Club Champ show on the Sunday. We will be travelling with four chessies and puppy. Chester is returning to the showring following a spell in semi retirement. He will be competing at East of England and the Club show with plans to return in August to attend Welsh kennel Club.

After an intensive morning training, last Sunday , on Lough Ennell I thought it would be nice to take a photo of some of the silverware and rossettes which they have gathered in the last year.

 

Lough Bawn Working Test

Lough Bawn has long been held in the hearts of all who compete with retrievers in Ireland. Nobody can quite recall exactly when they started to be run there but almost everyone has had the experience of running their dog there. I’m not around long enough to remember the original hostess Mrs Tennyson, by all accounts, she was quite a character but the house still holds a certain charm that beckons you in and invites you to relax and enjoy its surroundings. It sits comfortably overlooking the lake with lawns spreading out like a giant picnic blanket before it. The current hosts have continued the family tradition of going to extraordinary lengths of making all who organise and attend the event feel most welcome. This is helped by the congenial atmosphere which the secretary, Mrs Jean Johnston, and her very capable committee provide.

Today I was again running two dogs. Mossy in preliminary and novice and then Bertie in the afternoon advanced test.The grounds provide a range of cover and landscape but are compact, which makes for good viewing from the gallery and ease of movement from one test to the next.

The first test in preliminary consisted of a two dog walk up with a single seen. Mossy did this test well scoring 30/30. Next a single mark into cover with shot fired. He scored 18/20. Finally onto the water again a single seen for which he scored 16/20. Total score 64/70 was not enough to put him in the ribbons. On to novice and his first retrieve here was a single mark into cover with shot, the distance of course longer than in preliminary. The next retrieve a four dog walk up and single seen. Now, one of Mossy’s problems last year was unsteadiness in line. This was his first opportunity to sit in line with four dogs and he was last dog up. I am relieved to say he sat quietly and steadily throughout. He needed handling on both retrieves in novice which would again knock him out of the top placings.

Lunchtime gave me the chance to take Uisce to the lake. It was a beautiful warm afternoon and she entered the water of her own accord and swam around like a little otter. The working tests have been wonderful oppurtunities for her to mix and meet all sorts of people and dogs and I can see her growing in confidence each time I bring her out.

After all the practice I did with Bertie over the last two weeks with jumps and marking sods law neither featured in yesterday’s working test!  This was a test which required precise and experienced handling.  Poor handling meant that dogs over-ran and needed to be handled at length to the required area. This in turn made the dogs’ run look clumsy and unstylish.

The first test Bertie ran was a long single blind uphill into woodland. No shot but a bolting rabbit on return. There was no clear or straight track and although the handler could clearly see the patch underneath the tree where the dummy was laid it would be easy to lose the dog in the heavy cover en route to the area. Bertie succeeded in spite of my overzealous whistling. In hindsight I should have let him take his own line until parallel with the dummy then cast him either left or right. This was a mistake I repeated again at the water. Instead of trusting my dog to enter the water I fought against him and pushed him back along the bank where he lost confidence and momentum. The result of which meant walking down to the water and sending him from the bank. When I asked two of the judges afterwards what I should have done both agreed that his earlier water entry would have been their course of action. My dog listened to each command I gave, however, in their opinion, I was giving a combination of incorrect hand signals and commands.

In summary, Lough Bawn delivered on location, hospitality, and patient judges. I came away though feeling through my inadequate handling and my failure to trust my dog more, that I let him down and for the first time felt truly out of my depth when competing against more experienced handlers