Picture this: hundreds of acres of rolling hills of lush and verdant agriculture. To this, add dozens of ponds with coots, egrets, and curlews foraging for food. In the morning, coyotes are calling back and forth as they look for breakfast. And above, redtail hawks are scanning for their share of the bounty. Not only is the the perfect place for wildlife, but this is the perfect venue for a hunt test, either retriever or spaniel.
Now picture this: this area surrounded by hundreds of miles of 6-lane freeways, hundreds of strip malls, thousands of houses, and millions of people. This is exactly where we spent the weekend with Carlin running two hunt tests in suburban Los Angeles with the Southern California Sporting Spaniel Club. Prado Recreation Dog Park in Chino Hills, California, is an oasis of dog park perfection and was the venue for two days of AKC Spaniel Upland hunt tests. Oh, and the occasional palm tree and blooming cactus patch says, “we are not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”
So, what compelled me to drive 1000 miles (one way) just to snag a few pheasants for Carlin, when there are ample supplies close to home? First, this venue is where the 2016 Irish Water Spaniel Club of America National Specialty will be holding the WC/WCX tests, and I have the good fortune to be the field chairman, so I thought I better scout out the property before next Spring. (Note: if you are planning on attending, this location is remarkable and should not be missed.)
Second, this trip was initially the brainstorm of Patrice, who missed out on handling Carlin’s last run at Senior, due to a bad case of food poisoning. And she really wanted to wrap up Carlin’s Senior title herself after months of hard training. But as soon as she paid for Carlin’s entry and made motel reservations, Patrice’s employer wanted her to travel overseas to Wales for business. Conflict! Angst! So I offered to make the trip solo with the boy while she went to Europe to earn kibble money for the pups.
(The bonus for Patrice is that Martyn Ford lives in the neighborhood (sort of), so she got to spend some time with some of her favorite dog folks after her work was concluded).
So Carlin, Ms. Tooey, and I headed south a 1000 miles to Chino Hills in pursuit of the wily California pheasant. Being a sporting Spaniel club, SCSPC is used to Springers, Cockers, Clumbers, Sussex, and Boykins, but Carlin was the very first Irish Water Spaniel to test with their club. In fact, he was the very first IWS that these folks had actually laid eyes on, much less watched as a hunting dog. He was a novelty for sure, and I felt the pressure not only to pass the tests for Patrice, but to keep my fingers crossed that Carlin would be a good ambassador for the breed. As Carlin is a male IWS at the height of his adolescence, I was honestly concerned that his behavior might bring on some embarrassment.
On Saturday, November 7, the land series was in a field of wild chard, under slightly boggy conditions. We queued up in the gallery with couple of little American Cockers, while the working dog ahead poked around looking for pheasants. My concern was that Carlin’s focus was going to be the girl dogs and not birds, as was the case last month in Montana. But when it was our turn, Carlin became Mr. Bird Dog.
In contrast to the little Cockers which disappeared under the chard while looking for birds, Carlin bounded through, over, and around anything that could remotely be considered bird cover. Zooming between the gunners, he was clearly the biggest and fastest dog of all the entries. And because he bounded above the cover, all the spectators could follow his actions from a distance. He soon put a bird in the air, the gunner dropped it 40 yards away, and Carlin delivered a live bird to hand as planned. A quick drink of water, and he was off again. The second bird was put up, but this one eluded the gunners. Carlin was not steady, but he quickly returned on my whistle command while the bird flew off into the trees. Done with the land series.
The hunt-dead was a bit nerve-wracking. Carlin had been doing some stellar work in training, going straight back for 50 yards through heavy cover before locating a dead bird. But this test was up against some cover that was the same as the land series, so rather than taking a straight line out to the area of the dead bird, Carlin figured there was more quartering to do and more birds to flush, right? Wrong! But after a few moments that seemed like we were pushing the 5-minute time limit, he eventually walked over and picked up the bird as though he knew where it was all along, but wanted to use his time allotment for real hunting.
On to the water series. While Carlin was lining up in the heel position overlooking a glorious pond and as I was removing his leash, one judge said that he had hunted over a cross between an IWS and an American Water Spaniel. “A great dog, but he hated water and would never get wet” is what he said. (Another setup for being an IWS ambassador). The pheasant went skyward, splashed 30 yards out, and that very same judge tapped my shoulder to release Carlin for the retrieve. Carlin attempted to jump half way to the bird before entering the pond with his huge water launch. Everyone in the gallery and the judges now know what the “W” stands for in IWS. Carlin would have passed just because of his water entry alone, much less bringing the bird back to hand like he did.
Result: One orange ribbon and the third pass at the Senior Hunter Upland level.
Sunday was another day in paradise. The land portion was held at the same location, but going in the other direction. There was no wind for scenting, none. But Carlin made about a dozen passes through the chard, checking out previous bird locations. He started to move a bit too far out for my liking and definitely too far for the gunners. So as I was about to call him in closer, he stuck his head into a clump of chard, grabbed a pheasant, and trotted back. “You lookin’ for this?” Carlin handed me the bird, I gave it to the judges, and we moved on. And for bird number 2, it decided to flush rather than be trapped, and flew off the course, where the gunner dropped it into moderate cover. Boom, zoom, 2nd bird delivered to hand.
The hunt dead was a condensed version of Saturday. I lined him up, he went straight for 10 yards, hooked a right, quartered through the cover, went left, and as he was crossing in front of me, I blew the whistle masking a four letter word that meant “Sit!! and right now”. He stopped, I let him sit there and think about it for a few seconds and then raised my right arm with a somewhat loud “BACK”. He spun, went out and picked up the bird. (Note to self: things to work on for winter training.)
Carlin was the last Senior dog for the water series on Sunday, and the gallery was primed for a repeat of the prior day’s water work. He did not disappoint. There was a minor moment of concern, though. As the bird hit the water, Carlin’s rock solid steadiness at the line faltered with a forward hop of about a foot. Fortunately I reflexively blurted out a “No” before anymore forward motion occurred, and immediately followed that with a “Take It!!” command. Carlin’s grand water entry completely distracted the judges from the fact that he was on the verge of not being steady. His score sheets had three 10s and one 9 on the water work, so the little hop was not a problem (this time).
With that, Carlin earned his fourth senior orange ribbon. This fourth pass now gives him his AKC Senior Hunter Upland title. (4 attempts, 4 passes)
One serendipitous aspect of this test, was that one of the judges was also the very judge who awarded Cooper “Best of Winners” at a dog show 5 years ago, which gave him his second major win and elevated him to his AKC Championship. While Carlin is our dog of the moment, the mighty Coop is never far away in our minds and he is missed everyday. To have this connection between these two Realta boys is very powerful as we try very hard to make sure that Cooper does not fade away in our memories.
This is, after all, The Cooper Project.