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When Dagmar, a very accomplished hunting dog trainer in Germany, saw this photo, she said, “This dog would fail in a hunting test here.”

And when I read Dagmar’s comment, I thought, yes, exactly.

The photo shows a 9-month old Cesky Fousek that was participating last Saturday in the Natural Ability Test put on by the Bohemian Wirehaired Pointing Griffon Club of America. If this dog had been participating in an upper level AKC pointer hunting test, it would have failed here, too. Pointing dogs are supposed to stay steady and point, not flush a bird or grab at one that flies.

But that is not the point of a Natural Ability Test. And as one who has participated in AKC hunting tests, getting my head around what exactly is the point of a Natural Ability Test has been a bit of a puzzle.

One of the aspects I have looked for when evaluating a dog or a bitch is the titles before and after their pedigree names. This, I have thought, tells me something about what they’re good at. If I see a CD, I know the dog can succeed at Obedience competitions. If I see a hunting test title, I know they can succeed at hunting tests. And etc.

But what I can’t necessarily tell is whether the dog has natural talent in those areas. Does he love Obedience, and just naturally follow the handler’s lead? Or has he learned the exercise only after extended repetition and repeated corrections? When I see hunting test titles, can I assume the dog naturally finds game and brings it to her handler? Or has she been forced the pick up birds and deliver them to avoid correction? Just by looking at titles, I can’t tell.

This is something that other people think about, too. And one group of such people is the Bohemian Wirehaired Pointing Griffon Club of America (BWPGCA).

The BWPGCA is trying to sustain and improve a breed of dog for upland hunters. They want dogs with natural talent for searching for, finding, pointing, trailing, and retrieving upland game birds and ducks on both land and water. Specifically, they want to select dogs and bitches for breeding who have these talents naturally.

So they have developed two tests to look for these qualities in their dogs at various stages of development. One is for young dogs 6 to 16 months, called the Natural Ability Test (NA). The other is for dogs 16 to 24 months, called the Intermediate Hunting Dog Test (IHDT). Both tests assume that the dogs have been exposed to hunting, gamebirds, water, and gunshot. But the NA test doesn’t assume any training, and the IHDT assumes only some training. They’re not looking for the dog who retrieves a bird because the dog has been forced — they’re looking for dogs who naturally pick up birds and give them to the handler out of a desire to work together as a team.

Of course, inherent ability is important, but it’s not the only criteria for breeding. They also look for proper conformation, which is evaluated during the tests.

They look for proper coat, eye color, height and length, weight, temperament, and other factors as outlined in the Cesky Fousek Breed Standard. Separately, they also require PennHip testing so they can eliminate dogs with hip dysplasia from the breeding program.

As a person who has owned AKC-registered dogs for over a decade, this whole program is unlike anything I’ve heard of before. In the past, I have advocated for a breeder’s total right to breed their dog or bitch with any other dog or bitch they choose. And I have advocated for a careful program of out-crossing to diversify the Irish Water Spaniel gene pool. And here I have found a group that utterly rejects the first idea, and pursued the second idea so strictly that they have transitioned from one breed to another one, from Wirehaired Pointing Griffons to Bohemian Wirehaired Pointing Griffons (English for Cesky Fousek).

It’s been days since I watched these tests, talked to the people, interacted with their dogs, and listened to their geneticist’s presentation. And I still have no idea what I think.

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It was a busy weekend with the dogs. Russ took Carlin out spanieling on Saturday, and on Sunday I took Tooey to Barn Hunt practice and Carlin to Scentwork practice.

Russ said Carlin did everything perfectly spaniel-wise. The grey, snowy weather didn’t trip him up, and he didn’t forget anything, even though he hadn’t been practicing spaniel work since last fall. He found his birds, sat after flushing them, stayed sitting while one flew away and the others were brought down, retrieved the downed ones, and delivered them to hand.

Apparently, Carlin’s work finding birds was better than Russ’s work bringing them down, but as I wasn’t there, so I can’t say.

Anyway, Sonya Holcomb took some photos, for which I am grateful.

Carlin waiting his turn to hunt — photo by Sonya Holcomb

Carlin staying steady in the field watching his flushed bird fly away — photo by Sonya Holcomb

Carlin delivering his bird — photo by Sonya Holcomb

There are no photos of Sunday’s practices, as there were no photographers to hand and I was busy handling my dogs.

On Sunday morning, Tooey was a bit off on her rat hunting. I actually began to wonder if she was feeling well. She was way slower than normal — if the practice runs had been at a trial, she’d have qualified in only one run, which was just two seconds under the time limit (2 minutes 30 seconds for the Open level). And she did something she’s never done before — indicated a tube that didn’t have a rat in it. Very odd. She indicated that same tube (but not any other non-rat tube) in both runs 2 and 3. The woman playing judge said she thought Tooey was treating this non-rat tube differently from the tubes with a rat in them, but agreed that it was a subtle difference.

But in all three runs, she happily went through a longer-than-usual tunnel without being asked, and she was happy to climb the hay bales. So — not a total loss. I do wonder how she and I will perform in a couple weeks at the Valley Barn Hunt trials in Kuna, Idaho. I guess we’ll see, as Sunday’s practice was the last one before the trial.

Carlin did really, really well at his Sunday afternoon scentwork. He stayed mostly calm (except when a pug, dressed in a lumpy yellow coat with a floppy hood, walked by — obviously, this was an alien being that needed warning off). Staying calm around other dogs is his challenge, so I was happy with his demeanor overall.

I am often amazed at that dog’s nose. He found all his hidden odors — small containers of birch essential oil buried in the dirt, lying along the railroad tracks, tucked up high in a door jamb, behind an electric meter, and under a wooden pallet. He even found a container with clove essential oil, stuck up above his head on a fence post. I haven’t trained him to find clove, so he got rewarded big time when he found and indicated that one.

All in all, a very happy weekend. Both dogs ate their dinner and zonked out — Carlin curled up on the grass in the backyard kennel and Tooey inside on her dog bed.

For the third year in a row, Carlin has won the Mount Rainier Sporting Spaniel Association’s Trucker Memorial Field Challenge Trophy.

I didn’t do a blog post on it when Carlin won the 2nd time, but I did with his first win. That post gives a nice little history of Trucker, the dog the trophy is named for, and his owner/handler.

The trophy is awarded each year to the club member’s dog that earns the most points from spaniel hunt test passes: Master=3 points, Senior or WDX=2 points, and Junior or WD=1 point. And in 2017, six Master passes earned Carlin the most points and the trophy for that year.

I handled Carlin to 5 of those passes, and Russ did the first one. We are very proud of this dog and his good work.

One of my earliest memories of Carlin is his trying to get Cooper to play with him. He’d grab one of Cooper’s rubber balls, put it on the ground several feet away, and push it toward Cooper with his nose. He did that over and over, but it never worked.

It broke a place in my heart. Carlin so admired Cooper, but Cooper never would have anything pleasant to do with the upstart brat.

So, last night, years later, when Carlin started that game up with me, that little place in my heart started to heal.

For many years, I’ve been asking Carlin to give me his ball so I could throw it for him. I don’t demand it. It’s not the same thing as throwing a bumper. The bumpers are mine, and when I throw or hide them, Carlin must return them to me.

The many rubber and plastic balls, however, belong to Carlin. I never force him to give me his ball, but occasionally, if I find one near my feet, I’ll throw it.

Then about a week ago, I changed something. It used to be that when I came home, Carlin would run off to grab a ball to show me. He’d parade it around, prancing with his head and tail up, for all the world a sign that says “Look at what I have!”

Several days ago, I just started trotting after him, not trying to overtake him, or catch him, or take his ball — just follow him.

Eventually, after leading me around in circles and figure-8s around the furniture, he’d flop down on his dog bed and let the ball fall out of his mouth. Whereapon, I’d grab it up and toss it for him.

Then last night, I was sitting on the living room floor watching a new Netflix series, and Carlin put his ball on the ground, and nudged it toward me with his nose. I tossed it, he ran to get it, and then lay down on his bed again.

Then, a few minutes later, I saw the ball rolling toward me again.

This time, I stood up, asked him for a Twirl (move in a counter-clockwise circle), and then threw the ball.

Same routine again, except this time I asked him for a Spin (clockwise circle). And again with a Sit, again with a Down at a distance, and lastly with a Heel Backwards along the wall.

I have no idea if this game will go on, or whether it was a one-time fluke. But I had a fabulous time, and I think Carlin did, too.

Carlin is now a Man-Dog

We have discovered, through our experience with Cooper, that male Irish Water Spaniels don’t fully mature until they are 4 years old. Today, Carlin is now a Man-Dog.

2018Mar01_Carlin_blog

His birthday portrait also resurrects another tradition that fell by the wayside, which is an annual portrait of our pups.

Compared to Cooper and Tooey, our photo attention towards Carlin has been limited to being in the field with just an iPhone. He has spent little time in the studio compared to Coop and Miss Tooey. The last studio shot I made of this boy was for his 1st birthday.

And here is his first formal portrait at 5 months.

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Carlin at age 5 months

So happy 4th birthday, Carlin. And many more returns of the day.

My own joy stealer

Every dream turned into a goal involves a journey laden with setbacks, disappointments and milestones. There is joy in that journey. Guard that joy well so that in the end you rightly celebrate the accomplishment as well as the memories of the trip.

That’s from an article “The Joy Stealers” by Connie Cleveland. In the article, she talks about the comments we make that diminish another’s dream or accomplishment, whether out of thoughtlessness, misplaced kindness, or malice. And in one tiny sentence, she mentions that sometimes we can steal our own joy.

I think that’s what I’m doing in the back of my mind.

My first two Irish Water Spaniels were All-Around IWS. That’s an award given to Irish Water Spaniels that get titles in AKC retriever hunt tests, obedience, and conformation.  I worked hard for those titles, and fortunately, I had two dogs who agreed to go along with me (as well as a lot of help from other dog folks).

With Cooper, my first IWS, I wanted to achieve all that because I wanted to make his breeder proud of us, and because I could see that he had all the talent, work ethic, and beauty to achieve it. He loved retriever work, kind of got a kick out of obedience from time to time, and tolerated conformation because he loved me.

With Tooey, I thought I could do it again, and we did. She loved conformation, even though, being English, she didn’t look like the other American IWS girls. So that title took awhile. Retriever hunt tests took even longer — only when Russ decided to make it fun for her in the field, did she finally get that title. Obedience was OK, so long as the judge was a woman with a gentle touch, and not some big guy with a floppy coat.

So both of them got their All-Arounds. And now I have Carlin, who has all the beauty, brains, and work ethic that Cooper had, and he has a retriever title. So, all I need to get is the conformation championship and the obedience title, right?

Well, maybe not.

Carlin has issues. Ever since he was viciously attacked out of nowhere and injured by a dog twice his size, he has been deeply suspicious of other dogs he doesn’t know. Which, in a conformation ring or at an obedience trial, is just about every dog. He lunges and barks at them, and it raises my stress levels every time. I put a lot of effort and thought into keeping him safe, and those efforts are distracting when you’re trying to remember the Obedience rules or struggling to help your dog stay calm in the conformation ring. I’m sure some very intuitive person with excellent handling skills and a lot of dog knowledge could pull it off, but I don’t think I’m that person. And I haven’t found the person who can take him on without my sending Carlin away and spending a lot of money.

So. I may have to give up that dream. And the thought of Carlin’s not getting an All-Around like Cooper and Tooey fills me with regret.

And I think my own regret might be stealing at least some of the joy I could be feeling about Carlin’s considerable accomplishments:

  • A Master Hunter Upland Advanced title. It took 18 increasingly difficult spaniel hunt test passes and years of training to get that title.
  • A Rally Novice title. He loves doing the Rally exercises, but not the dog-filled environment. We got that title by concentrating on small shows with relatively few dogs and one ring. And he was on leash the whole time. And I kept him either busy or in the car, so he never had very many moments in a row to worry about other dogs.
  • A Coursing Ability title. That was not work — it was all fun. Just the joy of watching my dog run alone at top speed for 600 yards, and loving every second.
  • A retriever Junior Hunter title. That one was work, and a lot of training, and involved several failures. There were parts he loved (swimming and running), and parts he didn’t like so much (ducks). But we did it. When we passed that last test, I cried and hugged the judges. (They were very nice about it.)
  • A lot of very fast progress in Scentwork in just a few months. He loves the game, is very methodical in his searches for odor, and almost always finds it. If there’s a weak link, it’s me.

Really, when I look at that list, it’s kind of amazing. It’s a lot to rightly celebrate. And my trip with Carlin is not over yet.

Cooper in glass

If you’ve studied an Irish Water Spaniel in slanted light, then you’ve seen it. Maybe you’ve seen it in the afternoon when the sun has started to sink, but its light hasn’t yet turned golden. Or maybe you’ve seen it in the early morning, when the light still has a touch of blue.

It’s that glint of purple along the side of each brown curl in the coat of a dark Irish Water Spaniel. It’s the hint of purple that makes some people call an IWS coat “puce”.

It’s also the color the AKC chose to recognize Winners Dog in conformation shows.

This is what I wanted to capture in this memorial for Cooper. He’s my own curly brown winner of my heart dog.

The white sparkly bits are what’s left of Cooper’s physical self, his ashes. The picture doesn’t show how lively they look in the glass. How lively he always was in himself, and how he still is in my heart. These ashes transformed are not gray and somber — they float around the brown curls and within the purple swirls like stars, shiny and bright.

My many thanks to Mossyrock Designs of Emmett, Idaho for taking care of my Cooper this way, and to Jan for inspiring me with her own glass piece made by the same artist.

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