This was a hard Junior Hunter test. Only 31 out of 56 dogs passed the first series, qualifying to be called back to the second series.
The First Series
The first two retrieves started with a live flier at about a distance of about 80 yards. From the start line to the area of the fall, it was all tall grass (knee high on Russ, head-high on Cooper), with an patch filled with a flock of duck decoys. Once Cooper blew past the decoys and got to the area of the fall, it took him about 30 seconds to find the bird, using his nose. Sadly, this bird was mortally wounded, and not quite dead when it landed.* One of Cooper’s virtues is that he’s not intimidated by a live bird, as he’s proven with chukars in actual hunting.
The second duck was launched against a backdrop of tall trees, and never visually cleared the treeline. Plus, the shotgun sound didn’t go off until after the duck was at the apogee of the arc — meaning that if the dog wasn’t looking in the correct direction at that moment, the dog had only a fraction of a second to hear the sound and then turn his head see the dark duck fall in front of a line of dark trees, behind tall cover, over 100 yards away. Even though the duck landed into an area dotted with tufts of grass, the area between the start line and the area of the fall was interspersed with tall grass, ferns, and blackberries.
Making the 2nd retrieve even tougher was the fact that the 1st bird had been a live flier. Most dogs are attracted to live fliers, so when the dog is confused or can’t find the 2nd bird, they’ll often go back to where the live flier fell. This was the downfall of many of the dogs that didn’t qualify in this first series.
Many of the successful dogs followed the line part of the way, and then used their noses to find the duck. When you see the video of Cooper, you’ll see that for the 2nd bird, he went straight out and straight back — he was one of the few successful dogs to nail it this way. As Andy, pro handler who handled the other 3 Irish Water Spaniels said to us, “That dog has wheels.”
This first series took a long time. A lot of time was spent watching a lot of dogs, who were doing long, slow, and sometimes futile searches for hard-to-find ducks. With 56 dogs, the first series started at just before 10 and didn’t end until about 3:30.
The Second Series
Amazing as it seems, on all of Sauvie Island there was no water available for water retrieves for the Junior level tests. So the AKC gave a dispensation to allow the second series of retrieves be held on land instead.
These two retrieves were somewhat easier, if for no other reason than they were only about 80 yards each, and no live fliers. Plus, in these retrieves, the shotgun sound preceded the duck’s being launched, and the duck calls were close enough to hear.
The only real obstacle in this series is that the first duck landed in a dip in the land. When most dogs went out (including Cooper), they circled around the depression, and only went down into it when they scented the bird. The second bird was basically a straight, flat line through tall cover. Cooper went wide of the fall, and looped back around to the bird when he scented it.
And as before, he brought the bird back to hand, and hopped into the heel position, waiting for that elusive 3rd bird. Oh, well. He’ll have to wait until he gets into the Senior and Master levels for that to happen.
* The fact that ducks (“live fliers”) are killed during the test is the one part of this whole enterprise that troubles me. The ducks start out caged, and then they’re thrown up into the air by an assistant and shot by the gunner. Most ducks are lucky and killed outright. A very few are wounded and are only killed after they’re retrieved, and that makes me very sad. I realize that all these ducks are used, reused, and then frozen and reused again to train dogs, and that’s a necessity when you’re training a hunting dog. Hunting dogs have to practice on real birds, or they won’t be able to retrieve birds.