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.”

Tooey, doing a quality control check on a Prado pond. It passed.

Tooey, doing a quality control check on a Prado pond. It passed.

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.


Martyn, 3 Cockers, 1 IWS, and Patrice

(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.

Prado Dog Park in Chino Hills, California

Prado Dog Park in Chino Hills, California

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.

Zooming through the chard, photo by Marsha Linehan

Zooming through the chard, photo by Marsha Linehan

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.

photo by Marsha Linehan

photo by Marsha Linehan

Delivery to hand, photo by Marsha Linehan

Delivery to hand, photo by Marsha Linehan

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)

Carlin celebrates Senior pass #4 with the judges and Russ, photo by Marsha Linehan

Carlin celebrates Senior pass #4 with the judges and a kiss to Russ, photo by Marsha Linehan

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.

Big Sky Bird Hunt for Carlin

Here is the summary of my 2015 trip to Montana with Carlin. It is easy to brag on my dogs all the time, and they mostly earn it. But on some occasions it is best to reveal some less than perfect outcomes with our pups.

Last week I trekked off to northern Montana to spend 3 days hunting wild birds with Carlin’s trainer, Richard, of Tuxedo Kennels. This is the same area where we spent a week in August training for hunt tests and hunting. But Carlin’s brain was somewhere else last week, and he was not the stellar bird dog that I was expecting. Here is the blow by blow report.

Northern Montana in late October can have all weather patterns. Being only 50 miles from the Canadian border and uninterrupted high plains, one can expect wind, snow, rain, sun, fog, hot or cold. However, after arriving in a light rain, I won the weather lottery for the next week. Lows in the 30s and highs of mid 60s under full sun. Absolutely perfect weather for hunting birds with a dog. The area where we hunted is dry land farming of wheat (food for birds), mixed with draws and drainages that provided the cover. Not only were these areas the home to a large population of pheasants and sharptail grouse, but also the home to a huge population of burrs that where lying in wait for Carlin.

Big Sky country where bird cover abuts agrigculture

Big Sky country where bird cover abuts agriculture

As reported in an earlier post, Carlin was brought to his knees early in the hunt by burrs of multiple types. After an hour, he was so covered with burrs that he would walk only 20 feet before having to lie down and yank burrs out. Rinse, lather, repeat. While birds were flying, Carlin was self grooming. And while this process was playing out, our hunting party put up a large pheasant rooster an 8th a mile away. As it flew in our direction, it met a with a perfect shot from Richard’s son, Garret, and fell about 30 feet from Carlin. Carlin interrupted his grooming to mark the bird. Retrieve number one.

But Carlin had another problem besides burrs. We were also using a couple of Richard’s dogs to cover the area, and those were females. Carlin’s brain had no capacity for looking for birds, so when he wasn’t pulling out burrs, he was totally preoccupied with tracking the females in the field. After a morning of no flushes, one retrieve, and bazillion burrs, Carlin got to spend the balance of the day in his crate while we continued to hunt. We spent that evening removing burrs.

The next day, it was again apparent the Carlin’s nose was focused on females and not birds. So while the main group of hunters moved to the other side of a large field of cattails, I stayed back with Carlin. As the group moved toward us, a covey of sharptail grouse flew out and generally in our direction. My hunting partner, Norm, managed to knock down 2 with his double gun, while another high flying grouse headed my way. I brought it down where it landed 20 feet behind me. Carlin took 4 quick steps and he had another retrieve.

As a group, we were bringing in a lot of amazing birds, a good mix of pheasants and grouse. But other than the one retrieve, Carlin was there to pull out burrs and chase girls.

The morning's collection of pheasant and grouse

The morning’s collection of pheasant and grouse

Carlin admiring the work of other dogs . . .

Carlin admiring the work of other dogs . . .

The third morning, as the rest of our our group was pushing through cover, Carlin and I waited in a field to block the escape route of any birds. Fortunately a sharptail grouse didn’t get the memo. It blew full speed away from the other dogs in our direction, where I dropped it just 30 feet away with an easy shot. Carlin zoomed unscathed through a barbed wire fence and did another delivery to hand.

A sharptail grouse on its way to my hand

A sharptail grouse on its way to my hand

After a morning hunt in some farm fields, we spent the last afternoon working some draws below a large reservoir. Because it was the perfect environment for burrs, Carlin got to sit that one out while we put lots of birds in the air and few more in our vests.

For our last push of the afternoon through pastures and a cattail patch, Carlin joined me but hung close to my heels. While he showed no interest in finding birds on his own, he was happy to retrieve the last bird of the trip.

Picking up a rooster in tall grass

Picking up a rooster in tall grass

Carlin returning a big Montana rooster

Carlin returning a big Montana rooster

Each night in the motel was a grooming session. By this time Carlin was learning to hide behind the air conditioner and the bed to avoid the scissors and combs. Can’t blame him as it is not pleasant to have burrs cut out everyday.

Even though he didn’t flush a single bird, and picked up only a few retrieves, most of his energy was dissipated walking with me and chasing girls. Add a few hours of grooming and he eventually got tired and had to sleep.

Sleeping 10-24-15

After a session of burr removal, sleep overcomes the boy

We got home early on Sunday, and after unpacking the car, Patrice and I found and cut out another 100 burrs. Maybe tomorrow’s bath with find and remove the rest.

Cooper was the retriever of the family. He’d retrieve anything, anywhere, for as long as you’d throw something. He lived to retrieve. Even on his last evening, he was retrieving.

Tooey will retrieve, especially if she’s going after birds on a hunting trip, but she’s never really enjoyed retrieving for the fun of it. It’s part of her job as a hunting dog, but not something she would recommend one do for fun.

Unless we’re at the beach.

Today, while Russ and Carlin are out hunting birds in Montana, I took Tooey out west to the beach. This particular spot is divided by a river, with a long sandy beach along the ocean. It’s a beach Tooey knows, and was the spot where she first saw and swam in the ocean.

As soon as she hopped out of the car, she knew exactly where she was. Tooey does not usually pull on the leash, but today was an exception. This is the beach and it’s time to go swimming!

Tooey_LeapingGood thing I brought the wubba along. We got to the river bank first, and she started barking at me. Throw it! Throw it!


After about 45 minutes of solid toss-retrieve, toss-retrieve, we moved on the the ocean with its waves and swells.


There I threw that wubba for another solid 1-1/2 hours. She brought it to me, and then ran back out into the surf, waiting for me to throw it again. She loves the surf, and when particularly big waves came rolling in, she’d crash through them, grab the wubba, and then body surf her way back in to shore. People would stop to watch, ask me what kind of dog she is, and smile at her obvious joy.


After about 2-1/2 hours of solid wubba-throwing, I was tired and hungry. Time to go get some lunch and then home for a bath before dark. But you can bet Tooey didn’t want to leave. If she could speak, I know she would have been channeling her inner Cooper, saying, “Oh, do we have to leave? Can’t you throw it one more time?”


Pheasant Quest 2015, Day 1

Well, Russ reported that the take today is one grouse, one giant rooster pheasant, and about 1000 burrs of at least 6 varieties. The photo below is out of focus, but you can see the lighter colored blobs all throughout his coat — each blob is a burr.


Apparently, after running though multiple patches of burrs, and then jumping into a beaver pond, Carlin managed to collect, and then weave into his coat, more than 1000 burrs, turning it into a single felted, tangled mass. Russ reported that Carlin collected so many burrs that after only an hour of hunting, he couldn’t really even trot more than 20 yards without stopping to try to pull burrs out of his legs.

Somehow, it didn’t cross my mind, before I sent the boys off on their hunting trip, that there would be burrs. It should have. I’ve been told about a Standard Poodle that came back covered in burrs. And there were always burrs in eastern Washington. I was just thinking that it was good that his coat would be long enough to keep him warm. And I was looking forward to showing him in January. Russ didn’t think of the burr problem, either.

But now we know. Carlin should have gone to Montana only after having his coat clipped down to no longer than 1/2″ of coat.

So, this evening, Russ has managed to cut the burrs out from Carlin’s armpits, his inner thighs, and his (formerly) lovely long ears and topknot. There was not nearly enough time or energy to try to work 1000 burrs (and this is no exaggeration) out of his coat. They have to be cut out, and there are many more to go before tomorrow morning, and a new day of hunting. Russ is going to try to scissor his coat short so that the additional burrs Carlin collects tomorrow and the next day can be easily removed.

I’m trying to mentally prepare myself for a patchwork boy upon their return. I have resolved already not to cry and to remember that there will always be another dog show. And that what we really wanted was a hunting dog, so now it’s time to treat him like one.

Pre-pheasant Quest 2015

Yesterday, Russ and Carlin, along with hunting buddy Norm and and Norm’s Boykin Spaniel, Scarlett, left for a hunting trip in Montana. It’s a long drive — about 15 hours — and when Carlin reached the hotel in Havre, MT, he apparently had some energy to burn.


In the photo, I don’t see Scarlett, who is about 1/3 Carlin’s size. She’s a smart girl, so I’m betting she’s hiding under one of the beds.

Let’s hope the boy has some energy to find birds bright and early tomorrow morning.

Lessons of late

Having written this blog for many years makes it possible for me to go back and remember my life with Irish Water Spaniels quite clearly. I’ll look at the current month, but one, two, three, or more years ago. So today, when I looked at October 2011, an entry titled “Another dog show anxiety dream” came up in my search. In that post, I recorded a dream in which I was panicked because I was very late to an obedience trial that Cooper and I were entered in.

Sometimes, in going back and reading the blog, I can make links between something that happened in the past and something that is happening now. Like that post and this weekend.

This Sunday, I stewarded at an obedience trial. Carlin is not ready to show in obedience yet, and I like stewarding. I like helping out and staying connected with other folks. I like watching other dogs’ successes. And I am comforted by witnessing in other dogs’ performances the fact that my dog is not the only one to lose a lot of points for poor heeling, get distracted by loud noises or dogs barking, or forget to sit at the finish of an exercise.

We were about half way through the Utility class, and dog #406 hadn’t checked in yet. But just as dog #405 was just finishing, and the gate steward was lifting her hand to mark #406 absent, dog #406’s handler walked into the building.

The judge had already decided not to take dogs out of order since, as a one-ring trial, there would be no ring conflicts. So if the handler and her dog were going to run, they had to do it right then. The gate steward saw her and called to the handler to say that she was next in the ring, while I went over to get her dumbbell from her. Of course, the handler was shocked. She said we must have started early, but we hadn’t. She’d just gotten her times mixed up. But she pulled herself together, put her dog on a leash, and into the ring they walked.

Several of us stewards were all pulling for her. We speculated that maybe arriving at the last moment had not given her time to develop ring nerves. We wanted her and her dog to succeed, to triumph over adversity.

But they failed. The dog just did not meet the requirements to qualify. Who knows why. Perhaps it was that neither handler nor dog was warmed up and ready to run. Or maybe they would have failed in any case.

I knew the panic that poor handler was feeling, because I’d felt it in my dream. I admired her for choosing to run anyway, for giving it a shot. And like I did when I woke up from my dream four years ago and again yesterday, I bet she vowed never to be late to a trial again.

Lately, Carlin and I have had the great good fortune to be invited to practice field work with some local folks who run English Springer Spaniels in field trials and hunt tests.

So when I discovered that the Northwest English Springer Spaniel Club, to which these folks belong, was putting on a spaniel field trial this past weekend, I volunteered to help out. And boy, did they put me to work.

The day started off cool, mostly cloudy, and with little to no breeze, but it soon warmed up and a breeze came up with that as well. The course was set in an uneven field of armpit-high grasses, pocked by elk tracks. My job — bird shagging (to my English friends, that would translate to “game keeper”). That means that I would follow along behind one of the two judges, and when each dog retrieves a bird, I then step up to the judge, turn, and present the basket on my back to the judge, so the judge can put the bird in it.

In a hunt test, bird shagging is probably the best job there is. At least at the tests I’ve attended, you are so close to the action that you can see everything the judge sees. Courses are relatively short — long enough for two, maybe three dogs, to run. So, if you’ve got the basket of birds on your back, the most birds you’d ever carry at one time is maybe 6 or 7.

Bird shagging at field trials has the same front-row-seat advantage.


Jan, her dog Maia with bird, and the judge

But the field trial courses are longer. A lot longer. I didn’t find anything in the rules about courses, but listening to the folks talk, it seems that there is generally an outbound course and then the inbound course for each judge and his teams, and each course is long enough for about 4 to 6 dogs to run. So, if a dog makes his three bird contacts, and actually retrieves one or two, on one run, the bird shagger might carry 16 pheasants. And at 3 .lbs a piece, that’s just under 50 .lbs.

A whole baseket-ful:


photo by Cindy Williams

By the end of the first two series, I was tired. Consider this — multiple runs carrying many pheasants, on uneven terrain, and in armpit-high grass. I can assure you that I slept very well that night. And for the rest of the weekend, I was stiff and sore, particularly while trying to do anything that required lifting my body up by my legs.

But I’m really glad I did it. My position right behind the judges let me see lots and lots of impressive bird work. I saw many a dog sitting quietly while a second dog raced past the first to retrieve a pheasant that fell only yards from the first dog. Amazing. Dogs retrieving birds that they could barely see fall while looking up through the tall grass. Handlers directing their dogs with only soft whistles and hand signals.

Impressive and inspiring.

As soon as I recover, Carlin and I will be back out there practicing. He, being an Irish Water Spaniel, will never get to run a spaniel field trial*, but we can aspire to working at the level of the dogs I watched this last weekend.

Oh, and there’s no wood chopping in this story. I’d have been way too tired to even attempt that.


*For reasons that still mystify me, the AKC changed the classification of IWS from spaniels to retrievers several decades ago. That means they can run in retriever field trials, but unfortunately not in spaniel field trials.


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