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A Most Perfect Failure

This last weekend was the debut for Carlin in the hunt test world. But Ms. Tooey also plays in this game from time to time. She already has her Junior titles in retrieving and spaniel upland work, so I entered her into the Senior level spaniel test last weekend put on by the Northwest English Springer Spaniel Club. Tooey was a late bloomer in the world of field dogs, but when she discovered upland work, she turned into a great hunting dog. Last hunting season she put up and retrieved about 50 birds. And with our last week in Montana, she has now produced birds in 8 states*.

As we followed an English Cocker Spaniel onto the course, this test got off to an awkward start. That dog flushed a bird near the beginning, picked it up and brought it only 2/3rds of the way back, dropped it and proceeded to run uncontrolled around the course, flushing up all the remaining birds. I am sure this not only embarrassed the handler, but probably put the judges on edge and lowered their tolerance level for poor dog work.

And so we had to anxiously wait until the course was replanted with birds and start back at the beginning. Tooey flushed her first bird to the right and the gunner dropped it at the edge of the course. She promptly picked it up and made a very polite delivery to hand from the seated position.

Bird #1 on the way

Bird #1 on the way

Bird #1 delivered to hand

Bird #1 delivered to hand

Further up on the left side, Tooey flushed her second bird. Unfortunately, the gunner did not get a quick, clean kill, and the wounded bird ran a bit before Tooey tracked it down. And then the bird put up some resistance to being picked up in the mouth of a 70 pound dog. Tooey managed to get a firm grip over the fighting bird, but not before a third pheasant flew up a few away from where Tooey was sitting (with a live bird in her mouth).

She patiently waited and watched to see if this new bird was going to be shot and where it might land for yet another third retrieve. The judge told the gunner to let that third bird go, and so as soon as it left the area, I called to Ms. Tooey, still quietly sitting with a live bird in her mouth, in for her second retrieve. And yet again from the sitting position, she delivered it to hand. That is steadiness that one could only lust for in a Master level spaniel.

Bird #2

Bird #2

Here is your bird sir

Here is your bird sir. May I have another?

So with less than a third of the course covered, Tooey put up and retrieved two pheasants and was rock steady for a third flush. (Maybe I should have entered her in the Master level test?) After the Juniors were to run their field work, the Seniors and Masters were to move on to the “hunt dead” work and the water series. I put Tooey back in the car and positioned myself to watch Patrice run a spectacular Carlin in his Junior land series.

However, before that series started, one of the judges called me over to tell me that he had failed Tooey on the land series and she was out for the rest of the test.

Say What?

He did not think that she hunted that well and should have shown more enthusiasm in her quest for the birds. (Like that Cocker?) Hunt tests have rules, and the bottom line is that dogs are judged on their hunting style and not just on their finding and returning the two birds.

What the photos do not show is that behind Tooey and me are two judges, two gunners, and small gallery of people, including the next dog that was going to run. Tooey always keeps an eye out for strangers, and as a consequence, she monitored these interlopers while still finding and retrieving pheasants. I suspect that her keeping a cautious eye on the crowd slowed her quartering speed, and the judge may have been a bit cranky as he watched the prior Cocker scare $100 worth of pheasants into the sky.

But, if one is going to fail, one can not ask for a better performance with master-level steadiness.

Maybe it’s just time to visit more states to add to Tooey’s real-world hunting chops. (Nebraska and the Dakotas are next.)

*To date Tooey has found, flushed, and retrieved birds in Oregon, California, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, and Montana.

During the 2-hour drive down to Monmouth, Oregon for Sunday’s upland hunt test (also put on by the NWESSC), I remembered another second event I competed in, this one with Tooey.

Back in 2010, I showed Tooey in conformation at the June Puyallup shows — on Saturday, she showed beautifully and got Best of Winners, but on Sunday, nothing. As we were disappointedly leaving the ring on Sunday, Colleen came up to me and said, “You got complacent. You won yesterday, so you thought you’d win today. You can’t do that. Every time, you have to bring your best to the ring.”

She was absolutely right, and that’s what I was thinking about on Sunday as we drove to the test. Carlin passed his first Junior upland test on Saturday, but that didn’t mean he’d pass on Sunday. Regardless of the previous test’s beautiful scores, I had to bring my best game to the field this time, too.

Fortunately, the boy did it again.

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It was tougher on Sunday, though. You can see that by his scores. Instead of all 9s and 10s like on Saturday, on Sunday there were a 7 and an 8.

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I’m not sure why, but I think there could be two potential explanations. Let me explain.

First, it’s possible that Carlin just doesn’t do well on the 2nd day of any kind of event. That would be like his uncle Cooper. Cooper had a hard time on 2nd days, whether in field events or Rally. It’s like his brain was over-tired and he couldn’t focus as well.

Another possibility is that Carlin was just too amped up by having to watch other dogs work the field and get birds. I noticed this in Montana, on the day when he had to watch two other dogs work on the water before him. Although he did a nice swim out to the bird, he couldn’t, for the life of him, focus on holding onto his bird.

What happened at Sunday’s test was this: Carlin was dog #4. Dog #1 took the first 1/2 of the course to get his birds. That meant that Dog #2, who had followed Dog #1, started in the middle of the course. From the middle to the end of the course, Dog #2 hunted up one bird. So then, Dog #2 had to come back to the beginning to the course to try to get his 2nd bird. So, as Dog #2 was working, Dog #3 followed in the gallery behind Dog #2, anticipating that Dog #2 would finish well before the middle of the course. Given that assumption, they asked Carlin and I to follow Dog #3 down the course, figuring that we’d start maybe 2/3 to 3/4 of the way down the course.

So that meant that Carlin had to watch Dogs #2 and #3 run the course and flush birds, while he wasn’t getting any of that action. And as it turned out, Dog #3 needed to work until the end of the course, so after Carlin and I had walked the whole course, Carlin didn’t get to work, so we had to walk all the way back to the beginning.

This whole time, Carlin was wiggling and vocalizing. He wanted those birds that Dogs #2 and #3 were getting. He was getting more and more amped and less and less focused. By the time we actually got to start, he was ready to totally blast off.

Which he did. I had a real challenge keeping him within gun range. He didn’t respond nearly as quickly to the whistles, and I had to use my voice and him name much more frequently to get him to respond to me.

He did find his birds, though. He trapped his first bird, and brought back to me, but then he dropped it on the ground next to my feet. I didn’t grab it soon enough, and it flew away. The judge wisely told the gunners not to shoot it, so that Carlin would not be rewarded with a retrieve after having dropped his bird. Then, he flushed another bird, which was shot and fell into the heavy corn field that ran along the side of the course. Carlin went right into the corn to try to find the bird, but the judges had me call him out, saying such heavy cover wasn’t fair to a Junior dog. Then, he flushed a third bird, which the gunners shot and Carlin retrieved to hand.

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That dropped bird cost us some points, and his wilder running with less response to my commands cost us some points in the Retrieving Abilities and Trained Abilities components, respectively. But he passed, so we were on to the water.

His water work was beautiful. He had the leash looped in front of him, so he couldn’t break. But he didn’t even get up — he was steady and waited until I sent him, and then he left the line with a flying leap. He grabbed the bird, swam back with it, and delivered it nicely to hand.

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Carlin was such a good boy, that I gave the bird back to him and let him carry it off the line. We handed the bird to the bird steward, took a picture of the score sheet, and went off to celebrate with ribbon pictures and a satisfied ride home.

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As Carlin and I were walking off the land portion of today’s spaniel hunt test, a fellow participant came up to me and said something like, “It’s so great when the first dog can put on a real show like your dog just did.” And it’s true. Despite the heat in the 90s F, despite the skies hazy with smoke from forest fires in eastern Oregon, and despite my relative lack of experience, Carlin really did put on a show.

The Northwest English Springer Spaniel Club held their annual hunt test at the Lukiamute Valley Pheasants hunting preserve. The field was 8-12″ straw left after the wheat was harvested, dried and yellow in the summer heat, interspersed with the occasional lone corn plant, green weed, and some kind of prickly thistle.

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Carlin was the first Junior dog to run, and as we waited for the bird planters to plant the pigeons and for the judges and gunners to get themselves sorted, Carlin stood in a stock tank filled with water to cool off.

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The video will tell the story of how the land and water portions of the test went. As you can see, he quartered the field beautifully, turning when I whistled him to turn. He found and flushed his first bird, but the gunners missed it, so as Carlin chased after the bird, the judges told the gunners to let the bird go and asked me to call my dog back. Lo and behold, Carlin did exactly as asked. “Wow,” said one of the judges, “Nice recall.”

He trapped his second bird and brought it back to me, but put it down at my feet. Before I could grab it, that bird flew out of my hands. The gunners brought it down, and Carlin re-retrieved that same bird to hand.

The water work was equally beautiful. I looped his leash around his chest (allowed at the Junior level) to stop him from leaving the line early in case he decided to break. But he didn’t break — he just sat there and waited for me to send him for the bird. And then when I did send him, he went straight out to the bird and straight back (except for that small deviation arriving back at the bank of the Lukaimute River). He delivered that bird to hand, too.

As you can see from the score sheets below, Carlin’s scores were really high — all 9s and 10s. To pass a hunt test, a dog has to get an average of 7 points per test component, with no component being scored below a 5. (Components are the same for all levels, but the higher the level, the more stringently the requirements are applied.)

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It was a fun test and a fun day. I was very happy with Carlin’s performance. Plus he got a lot of compliments about his drive, style, and desire to hunt. I did mostly OK, too.

Stay tuned to this station for a report on Sunday’s test.

It’s Friday now. We spent half of Wednesday and all of yesterday traveling home from Montana, along rivers and over mountain passes. If this hadn’t been fire season, it would have been a beautiful drive. As it was, the grey, dusty, smoke obscured the skies and the scenery in both Montana and Washington state. We drove past staging areas filled with people and fire-fighting gear, temporary road signs that said, “Fire ahead. DO NOT STOP”, and whole swaths of blackened ground and charred trees. It made me grateful for all these people and the work they do, protecting the wild areas that I love to use and enjoy.

So, having described Wednesday’s land work in my last post, now on to Wednesday’s water work…

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The water was this lovely, large pond. We used the same area, marked on the map with a “3”, previously in the week. First Carlin and I watched two other dogs (including Tooey) do their water work. Then it was Carlin’s turn.

The gunners, standing back from the peninsula, were going to try to bring the bird down on the other side of the peninsula, so that Carlin would have a land-water-land-water mark. But, the duck actually landed in the water off the point. Unfortunately, Carlin was not steady this time — in other words, when the gun went off, he got up out of his sit. So I grabbed him by the collar and dragged him off the line and back over the dike that contains the pond. (Having watched the other dogs may have been too much distraction for him.)

We tried to use one of the other dogs as a “pick up” dog, but she wasn’t advanced enough in her training to retrieve a bird that she hadn’t seen fall. So, after a break, I brought Carlin back to the line to see if he could get it. I positioned the two of us facing the bird, but Carlin was busy looking around for a gunner rather than looking where I was facing. So at the same time that the gunner put a shot into the water near where the duck was floating, I took Carlin’s collar with my right hand, put my left hand pointing to the bird just to the right of his head, and gave him the hand signal that my obedience trainer is just starting to teach us. He pointed himself in the right direction, and I sent him off with a “take it!”

He did that whole 75-yard swim, directly at the bird. And then he picked it up, and swam directly back, dragging that heavy bird through the milfoil. He held the bird onto the land about half way to me, but then dropped it to shake. Sigh. I went over to him, put the duck back into his mouth, told him so sit, walked off about 8 paces, called him to me, and this time he delivered the duck to hand.

Ok, so one more time.

This time he was steady to shot, and so I sent him off. He swam, picked up the bird, brought it back, and again dropped it to shake when he got back to shore. I put it back into his mouth and told him “Hold”, but he spit it out. I put it back into his mouth again, told him “Hold” again, and he spit it out again. A third time, I put it back in his mouth, and this time also pushed my index finger up into the underside of his chin, lowered my voice an octave, and repeated “Hold”. For 10 very long seconds, I repeated “Good Hold” and he held it. Finally, I said “Drop”, and he put it in my hands.

“Good hold, Carlin. Good boy!” I said. He glanced at me, and wandered off aimlessly. The boy was tired. A full morning’s fieldwork, four 75-yard swims, on top of 4 solid days of training. But then I changed my voice to a song, “Really good, good boy. What a boy, good boy. You a good dog? You get a bird? You got your bird!! Good boy, good dog!” He looked back up, came back to me, and started to dance around trying to get the duck I still held in my hand. We played and I sang “What a good boy! What a good dog! Good boy, good dog.”

It was a good time to stop for the day. I didn’t really want to stop for the week because an opportunity to train like this is a rare luxury. But I could see that we were all tired and could use a lazy day at home. So we said goodbye to Richard and Laura, packed up, and took off west and south for home.

Today, Wednesday, was not supposed to be our last day of training. But after Carlin did a beautiful job of quartering two different fields; finding, and retrieving his bird on each; and then after doing two 75-yard water retrieves, Carlin was done. He was tired. My brain was about full to the brim, too. So we decided to call it a day, a day early, and go home. (And honestly, I think Richard was looking for a well-earned day off, as well.)

The day started off in a field of low cover, about 8 to 12 inches of grasses. If you look at the photo below, it’s the field labeled “1”.

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This day’s training was set up to mimic a hunt test. While Richard ran a Springer, Carlin and I followed along behind. This often happens in spaniel hunt tests, where one dog follows the working dog. This is done so that if the 1st dog finds and retrieves all its birds before running the whole course, the 2nd dog comes up and starts the course where the 1st dog finished. Carlin has never done this before, and it was not easy. It’s HARD watching another dog getting all the birds. He wasn’t perfectly quiet, but he wasn’t barking and he wasn’t wildly jumping around, either, so that’s good.

When the Springer was done, Carlin and I advanced a few yards up the field, and I sent him off upwind with a “Hunt It Up!” Carlin did fine. I am the one who is still learning how to read my dog and remember what to do about it. Carlin, like Cooper and Tooey both, tends to range out too far. He’s busy looking for birds, which is good, but out of gun range, which is not good. So my task has been to whistle Carlin back into gun range and indicate the direction I want him to go. During our week in Montana, I’ve really improved at this.

What I’m slowly getting better at is noticing the changes in Carlin’s body posture when he’s found a bird. Like I said in an earlier post, it’s like first learning to drive a car and trying to remember to both notice the other cars and steer, shift, and brake all at the same time. If he’s found a bird, even if it’s a little out of range, I don’t want to whistle him off it — better for me to move up quickly to where he is. So noticing when he’s “getting birdy” is key.

Richard and Russ both have told me that when Carlin first gets a whiff of a bird, he raises his nose, head, and neck high up into the air. Then when he’s located his target, his head goes forward again, his tail extends back, and after a bit, he dives his head into the bird. I have to notice when his head first goes up in the air and be ready to decide if a) there really is a bird there and be ready to move up to him, or b) there really isn’t a bird there, and whistle him back toward me. Today, finally, I did that part well, decided there really was a bird, and moved up.

So, Carlin found his bird, I moved up to him smartly, the bird flushed, and what did I do? I told him to “Take It”. Argh!!! Absolutely the totally wrong thing for me to say. I should have whistled or commanded him to “Sit”. Fortunately, Carlin ignored my command and sat, as he’s been taught to do when a bird flies. Good, good dog.

So, the bird flew, Russ brought it down, I sent Carlin with the “Take It” command, and he retrieved it and delivered it to hand. Good boy, Carlin.

Then we repeated the whole thing on field “2”. We switched fields and directions to give Carlin a different picture and experience working downwind. This time, both Carlin and I did everything right. I whistled at the right times and stayed quiet at the right times. I moved at a slow enough pace to enable Carlin to quarter the whole field. He found his bird, I noticed it and moved up, he flushed it, sat to shot until I sent him, and then retrieved it smartly to hand. What a wonderful success to end field work on for the day.

My next post will be about today’s water work. Stay tuned.

 

The two hunters, one who knows and one who is learning:

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Tooey and Carlin next to the stand of Russian Olive trees

Today was not so much an official training. It was more of a hike with the dogs through a variety of terrains: stands of Russian Olive trees, hillsides covered with grasses and sweet blooming flowers, and ponds surrounded by bogs and cattails.

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Carlin in the pond

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Tooey at the edge of the cattails

The point today was not to retrieve birds, but to get Carlin excited about real-life hunting by watching Tooey and by finding and flushing birds.

Tooey knew exactly what we were out there for. Once we sent the dogs off, she was scenting the wind, following bird trails, and searching likely spots where birds would hide. She was, as usual, methodical and thorough, not leaving a spot until she was satisfied there were no birds there. Carlin started out looking like he was just having a romp.

If Tooey has any fault, it’s working a bit too far away from the hunters. But that gave me an excellent opportunity to call Carlin back to me when he followed Tooey too far out, so that he would learn the useful distance is from dog to gunner.

As the morning wore on, the two dogs together flushed 9 pheasants and a covey of Hungarian partridges, and the more we got into the day, the more focused Carlin became.

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Flushed pheasant over the cattails

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Flushed pheasant flies off

A couple of those pheasants flew up right in front of Carlin’s nose. And one, Tooey had cornered up against the base of a tree, and when Carlin crashed in behind her, the bird flew up and out right in their faces. And after rustling around in 5-foot high cattails, the two of them flushed a hen pheasant, a rooster, and a young bird from the second hatch, all in one great flutter of wings. The others were flushed as the dogs traversed the fields and the ridges surrounding the ponds.

It was an exciting morning, and all of us thoroughly enjoyed the day and the hike, the cool cloudy weather, and the opportunity to watch the older dog do what she knows how to do so well and the younger dog begin to see what can be found with a good nose and a steady pace.

We did one quartering exercise with Carlin. He quartered nicely within gun range and found his pigeon. When the bird flew, Carlin stayed steady in place (yay!), and waited until the bird fell and I sent him for it. And then he finished it off with a lovely delivery to hand.

Then Tooey practiced her hunt dead. Russ sent her out in a line to the bird, but she had her own ideas about how to find it. She hunted around in her own methodical style, found it within a few minutes, and delivered that to hand.

We debated briefly about continuing on with the training, but both dogs had worked pretty hard in the morning, and they had just done some very successful birdwork practice. So we decided to stop for the day. That was obviously the right choice, as the skies chose just a few moments later to open up in a thunder-and-lightening downpour so hard that we couldn’t see as we drove away. So we pulled off the road and waited happily for the weather to clear.

It would be nice to think that practice makes perfect, but that’s just not true. Good practice, however, especially if it’s regular and frequent, can make much, much better.

The lack of regular and frequent has been my biggest handicap in training Carlin for fieldwork — I work a Monday through Friday, 8 to 5 job, so my daylight time is very limited. And I don’t live anywhere close to training grounds with varied cover and ponds, where I can train my dog on birds. And I don’t have anyone to work with regularly, to help set up scenarios, tell me when I’m doing well or poorly, throw bumpers, and all the other parts of putting together a training session.

I do have pieces of what I need, though. Russ takes the dogs out in the morning to a large, closely mown field. He can work with them on their marking short retrieves using bumpers. I work them on heeling at home and on waiting for things they want, like meals and going out doors. When we have time, Russ and I will drive out on a weekend morning to a local training field, where lately the ponds have been all dried up. And on some Saturdays over the last several months (not during hunting season), I’ve been able to go up to Washington state and work with Richard.

This week I am enormously fortunate. Russ and I have been able to work three days in a row on some fabulous training grounds in Montana with Richard of Tuxedo Kennels. Tuxedo Kennels has facilities in both Washington (not during hunting season) and Montana (during hunting season), and through good fortune and my regular and frequent asking, we were invited to come train this week. (Actually, I think Richard just likes Carlin and wants him to do well, and I come along as part of that package.) Every day so far, Richard has set up hunting scenarios, provided birds, and most of all, provided timely, pertinent training for this newbie dog-handler team.

Today, things came together. Carlin heeled nicely out to the field. He quartered the field beautifully, and my handling flowed along with him. When he got too far or too wide, I noticed it in good time and called him back in. I actually saw when Carlin scented the bird, and sped up my pace to catch up with him. Carlin trapped all his birds this morning, so Richard threw the birds for him to retrieve. Carlin was steady until sent, retrieved the birds, and then brought them to hand in really close to heel position. It was a thing of beauty.

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Richard pointing out the course while Carlin waits

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Carlin bringing back the bird

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Carlin delivering the bird to hand from heel position

And Carlin’s water work was equally as beautiful. He had a 65-yard swim across the pond to retrieve a duck that had landed into some tall grass on the shore. I think that’s the longest water retrieve he’s attempted, and about half way across, he popped (turned around and looked at me). I repeated his “Take it” command, and he turned back toward the duck, got to shore, hunted around a bit, found it, and got a nice firm grip on the body of the duck. He swam almost straight back to me, got into near-heel position, and delivered the duck.

With all the challenges of this scenario, everyone watching was amazed. Carlin has a hard time being steady at the water, but this time he was mostly steady, just lifting his butt about an inch off the ground. He had a long swim back and forth through milfoil weeds in the water. The duck’s location in the grass on the shore was not immediately obvious, but Carlin was persistent in his hunt. When he found it, he brought it directly back and delivered it beautifully at my side.

I had my part, too, which I did pretty well, if I do say so myself. When he popped, I stepped forward, raised my arm, and repeated his “take it” command. When he was coming back, it appeared that he might come back a little off the straight line back, so I stepped sideways to redirect his gaze to the right spot. And I reminded him to hold his bird just before he got to the spot where he was most likely to drop it.

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Carlin at the line; Laura playing judge

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Carlin swimming through the milfoil weeds

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Carlin searching for the duck

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Re-entering the water for the swim back

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Swimming back with the duck

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Holding the duck

We were a team today, and it was beautiful.

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