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Archive for August, 2010

I had a lot of fun at the IWSCOPS Specialty this year. I loved working with Tooey during the Bird Dog seminar, and I was thrilled with how well she and I worked together in the Rally obedience ring.

But the Specialty also included conformation shows. Conformation is great if you win. Not quite so fun if you don’t. And it’s excruciating if you almost win.

That’s what happened to Tooey and me. In each of the three conformation rings this weekend, I knew the judges were choosing between Tooey and another bitch. I could see their eyes go back and forth, back and forth. But in the end, in every case, Tooey came in 2nd.

It’s not a matter of how beautiful Tooey is. She’s gorgeous, and I had a lot of help grooming her. (Thanks Stacy, Jayme, and Colleen.)

There are a lot of reasons that may explain why she didn’t win — the judge felt that the other bitch met the standard just a bit more closely, the other handler did a better job of handling, the fact that Tooey seemed bound and determined to stop and scratch, the phase of the moon — who knows?

I also showed Cooper in the Field Dog class. The Field Dog class is reserved for dogs who have hunting titles, and I was proud to show him off. (He looked great, too — thanks to Tammy.) Cooper was the only hunting dog with a hunting title being shown in the conformation ring, and the judge thanked me for bringing him.

In any case, Cooper and I shared the same sentiment about this weekend’s conformation ring:

Thank God that's done. Now let's go get ducks.

But I’m not done with conformation forever. I will keep showing Tooey in the conformation ring at dog shows until she gets her championship. Let’s just hope it’s soon. Then I can really say, and be, done.

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Of all of the types of competition offered at a Specialty, Rally Obedience is my favorite. A Specialty is a group of competitions for one breed of dog — in my case, Irish Water Spaniels. The recent Specialty put on by the Irish Water Spaniel Club of Puget Sound included various competitions — Conformation, Obedience, and Rally Obedience.

If you have a dog who likes to work, and you’ve never tried Rally, I really suggest you think about doing it. It’s like a choreographed dance of obedience moves that you do with your dog, set up as a series of stations in a ring that’s about 50 x 60 feet. Sits, downs, stays, left and right turns in various configurations, weaving around cones, all done with the dog heeling at your side. It’s not strenuous, but it is mentally challenging for both the handler and the dog.

And it’s fun, too. You  get to move with your dog the whole time. And unlike regular obedience, you can talk to and encourage your dog all the way through. You can be as serious or as silly as you want — whatever it takes to keep your dog engaged and on course.

The wonderful thing is that, unlike conformation, everyone can win. In conformation, people parade their dog or bitch in front of the judge, and the judge picks one dog and one bitch as the two winners — those two get points. Everyone else, no matter how deserving, is left out.

In Rally, on the other hand, if you pass, you pass. Every team starts out with 100 points. A judge sets up the course, and then watches each team go through it, subtracting points for various kinds of mistakes. The big mistakes include missing a station —  not performing that maneuver at all. The smallest mistakes have to do with things like having the leash be too tight, or the dog’s momentarily losing its concentration on the task at hand. Knocking over a cone, repeating a station, too much barking — these are some of the medium-level mistakes. But at the end, if a team has 70 points, then they pass.

After you get three passes at your level, your dog can get a Rally title. Tooey and I are working on her Rally Novice title, and at this Specialty, we got 2 qualifying scores, and nice ones, too: a 94 one day, and a 96 the next.

For the competitive sort, you can also win a placement. 1st through 4th places are awarded for the four top scores. I was very pleased with our 3rd places on both days, but I would have been just about as happy with any qualifying score. We got nice yellow ribbons and a dog first aid kit. In the second picture, Tooey is practicing her “Hold” command on the kit.

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Irish Water Spaniels were bred to be working dogs, retrieving waterfowl and upland game birds. But just because that was their original work, that doesn’t mean that every modern IWS has the desire to go get birds. You have to test a dog to find out. And this weekend’s IWSCOPS Specialty gave me the chance to see if Tooey is “birdy.”

Every year, the Irish Water Spaniel Club of Puget Sound puts on a Specialty. This includes a set of competitions for Irish Water Spaniels only — conformation, obedience, and rally obedience. Just before the start of the Specialty, IWSCOPS puts on another event that gives IWS a chance to show whether they’re birdy or not  — and that’s the Bird Dog seminar.

Jim started it out with a short talk/demo, reminding us that a retrieve has three parts — going out to the bird, picking up and holding the bird, and bringing it back. Going out to the bird and picking it up is instinctual for most retrievers — holding it nicely without eating it, bringing it back, and giving it up to the handler all have to be taught.

(He also warned us, and I will now warn you, that live pigeons were going to be used for this event. This is understandably upsetting to many. Others may have thought of a solution, but I don’t know how to get around this — hunting dogs have to be willing to pick up real birds, hunting dog handlers have to mold their dogs’ natural prey drive to teach them to do this, and inexperienced retrievers sometimes have to see live prey in order to get excited about the idea. If you have a dog who chases live squirrels or thrown tennis balls, but merely sniffs ones that’s aren’t moving, then you can see the dilemma.)

Jim showed us a technique for some early stages of teaching Hold. Basically, you start by rolling your hand into your dog’s mouth and keep it there while saying “Hold.” One good thing about starting this with your hand is that your dog won’t bite your hand. That way, the dog begins to learn that “Hold” doesn’t mean “Bite.” That’s Jim demonstrating on Tooey in the picture below. Then you take your hand out while giving another command. Russ uses “thank you” for the give command, so that’s what I’ll use, too.

After we all got a chance to practice this maneuver, then we got to try out our dogs on birds. We first got the dogs excited by showing them some pigeons. Here’s Liz showing a pigeon to Tooey. Tooey was pretty revved up at the sight. A good sign for a potential hunting dog.

Most exciting was the actual test. Someone out in the field throws out a pigeon, you send your dog, wait until it grabs the bird, and then do whatever you can to get your dog to bring it back to you across the finish line. In this case, our line was between two folding chairs. As you can see, Tooey passed the test.

Thank you, Tooey!

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The photo below is Cooper hanging out calmly behind a holding blind at this weekend’s Upland test. This was his calmest moment during the whole weekend.

This was Cooper’s first Upland test, and it was a learning experience. First, Cooper and I had to walk up from the start line in parallel with another handler and dog, Cooper in the heel position and me with a shotgun in hand, waiting for a surprise chukar to launch out the blackberries. We were to honor the other handler and dog, and not do the retrieve. As all four of us moved forward, the bird went airborne, the other handler and I both shot at it while both dogs kept their butts on the ground. The other dog was released for the retrieve, and Cooper simply sat and watched the other dog fly past him to get the bird. Hmmm, off to a good start.

Cooper and I then returned to the holding blind as seen above, while the other team, shooters, and the judges proceeded further into the field to go get more birds. (These folks can be seen at the top of the photo in blaze orange).

Because we had succeeded at honoring the previous dog, it was Cooper’s turn to do his first retrieve on the next walk up from the line. We repeated the walk up with another honor dog, shot at the bird, Cooper stayed at heel, and went for his retrieve on command. But then we started the downward spiral for the rest of the weekend when Cooper spit the chukar out at my feet instead of delivering it to hand. After a bit a coaxing, Cooper delivered the bird, and we proceeded to go find more birds to flush and retrieve.

Being a Spaniel, this boy started quartering, nose to the ground and headed into heavy cover. Cooper stopped, pounced, and brought back a dead chukar that had been planted in the cover to test a dog’s tracking ability. Cooper 2, Chukars 0.

Cooper then returned to quartering (a requirement of the test), when he scented another bird. He paused, lunged, and came up with a live chukar that didn’t have a chance to fly before Cooper nailed him. Cooper 3, Chukars 0.

The next bird was found hiding in a wire enclosure to keep it from running but with an open top to encourage the bird to fly straight up when confronted with a flushing dog. Not this bird, it sat tight. So on my verbal coaxing, Cooper pushed the cage over and the bird took off on a very low flight trajectory. I whistled a command for him to sit, but Cooper also took off on a low flight trajectory, whistle-sits be damned. The gunners brought down the bird with single shot, and Cooper was on it in a flash and brought it back to hand. Cooper 4, Chukars 0.

But, unfortunately, his refusal to sit on command at that last flush was an immediate disqualification. Cooper 0, Russ 0.

The Upland test, even with its failure, was the highlight of the weekend. Cooper really showed his Spaniel-ness, nose to the ground, tracking, quartering, pouncing, and retrieving. Now all we need to add is sitting on command.

But the rest of the test was extremely frustrating. Cooper was reasonably calm during the Upland test, but that was only the calm before the storm. He was so wound up in the hunt test environment that he couldn’t keep his brain in his head.

I am still so frustrated about the rest of the hunt test and Cooper’s behavior, that my language will not be suitable for a family rated blog. Oh well, “running with the big dogs” will have to wait until next spring at the earliest.

08-24-2010: Our friend Carol was taking photographs at the water series and just sent me these images. The photo of Cooper and myself walking up at the edge of the pond, waiting for a surprise duck to fly up, shows exactly where his head was at that day. Out ahead by 3 feet and not at heel.

Cooper at heel (plus 3 feet)

Returning with a duck from a marked retrieve

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After Cooper earned his AKC Junior Hunter title and his HRC Started Retriever Hunter title, I thought it was time to take a break, catch up on other projects and revisit the hunt test world sometime in the spring of 2011. That notion lasted about 6 weeks. 

We have kept up on Cooper’s training and his progress in some advanced work looks promising. So with one more hunt test scheduled for 2010 (in the Pacific Northwest), I entered Cooper for the two-day test, and in the next level up, Seasoned. So I ramped up our training over the last two days by working with a couple of other trainers near Salem, Oregon.

The training grounds can only be described as a golf course for retrievers. Ponds with fresh water sculpted out of the pastures, bordered with cat tails and reeds, walnut and oak trees, and wonderful weather. The wild ducks and herons stayed discretely out of the way as the dogs flew across the water and fields.

Cooper scanning for ducks, bumpers, or any retrieving opportunities

Practice today concentrated on some scenarios that we expect to see tomorrow. Double retrieves on both land and water, plus blind retrieves, and of course no leashes and no collars, just voice and whistle control. Cooper did okay in training, mostly successful, with a lot of learning on both our parts. I also had a chance to run a few Labs that are accomplished in field trials in order to hone my handling techniques. What a contrast to running a novice Irish Water Spaniel.

Anyway, standby for a post or two when we get back from the Seattle area after I have had a chance to run Cooper with the big dogs.

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Every day, we are involved in something that could potentially kill or injure. We get in our cars and drive. We ride bicycles. We walk on the side of the road and cross crosswalks. We use sharp kitchen knives. We turn on the stove top. We operate power tools. We let somebody else pick up our child at school. We stand outside in a storm. We let the dog hop out of the car or go out the front door.

And when bad things happen, we look back to find a reason. The two classics:

  • It’s my fault
  • It’s somebody else’s fault

All of this is brought to mind by the death of Kathy’s Irish Water Spaniel, Patrick. Patrick had wanted to go outside, so Kathy let him out. Then he wanted back in, but she was momentarily distracted and didn’t let him in right away. During the next short moments, Patrick found a reason to jump the fence and chase Molly, the other household dog, across the street. And at that moment, horribly, a car was in that same spot at the same time as he was, and Patrick was killed.

It’s easy to see why Kathy, in her grief, could be buried under a heavy weight of what if’s and if only’s. If only she’d let Patrick in when he asked. If only she’d put in a taller fence. If only she’d gone out side with him. If only…

But that’s not fair. There are a lot of other what if’s. What if the car hadn’t been on that road right then, or the car’s brakes had been new, or the driver’s ability to react quickly had been better? What if the car had been traveling either slower or faster, and so not been in the same point in space and time as Patrick? What if the driver had chosen another route? What if the road had been built to slow traffic? What if Molly hadn’t jumped the fence first, or the thing she was chasing hadn’t been there? What if either Patrick or Molly had made the choice not run in the first place?

And even the things Kathy could have done might not have prevented Patrick’s death. Even if she’d let him in the house, perhaps Patrick could have, like some other IWS have done, thrown himself through a window to chase Molly. Even if Kathy had gone outside with him, he might have left Kathy to chase after Molly anyway. Or if Patrick hadn’t been in the road, maybe it would have been Molly instead. And even if the fence had been made taller, it may not have been tall enough to keep either of these very athletic dogs in.

This is not to say that we don’t have to try to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe — we have to do what we can. But we can’t live like hermits in a fortress, and we can’t control everything.

And that’s the scary part. Humans have a hard time handling the fact that we don’t have control over what happens. It’s less existentially frightening to blame ourselves or someone else, than it is to admit that life is often random and control is an illusion.

When I had heard about Patrick’s death, I thought about all the things I do that could put Cooper or Tooey in danger.

  • I drive with them in the car — they are secured in crates, but even that does not guarantee safety.
  • I walk with them on the sidewalks. Our wind-y residential street is generally safe, but not completely all the time.
  • I take them hiking and to the beach, where they could be injured or drown.
  • I take them field training, where they break their spines rolling on a fast retrieve, or break their legs falling into a hole, or drown in a pond.
  • I feed them food that could have bacteria in it.
  • I let them jump out of the car in the driveway and in front of our house.
  • I take them to classes and dog shows, where some other dog could attack them.

The thing is, I do these things a lot. Nothing has ever happened. I’m careful. I secure my dogs when it looks necessary, I call them back to me when I’m not sure about their surroundings, I made sure they both knew how to swim before letting them run off into water, I watch for traffic (cars, bikes, people, other dogs, cats, squirrels, and etc.), I don’t let them get too tired or too hot or too cold, I walk the training fields to check for animal holes, I buy reputable food and check the ingredients, etc., etc.

But I also know that shit happens anyway.

And when it happens again to me, my husband, or my dogs, I will struggle with the need to blame myself or somebody else. I can only hope that that struggle will give way to remembering that nothing is all anybody’s fault. That we live in situations and environments and webs of relationships where life is beyond control. That I cannot be perfect. If I can remember all that, then when shit happens, the road to forgiveness will be somewhat shorter.

Patrick is gone now, and I can’t wish him back. I can hope that Kathy will find some peace in the knowledge that her experience will remind us to love our loved ones and to prepare for the day when we will have to forgive, too.

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We got a phone call late last night from a very upset friend. Kathy called to report that her dear Irish Water Spaniel, Patrick, had just been killed by a car. To lose a pet is tough, but for Kathy this is devastating for lots of reasons. Patrick was Kathy’s true companion. He was also a rising star in the IWS world who started strong when he was young, and then ran into a few obstacles on his way to becoming an all around performance and conformation champion. But with tenacity on both Patrick’s and Kathy’s part, he was back on track to becoming an accomplished example of this breed.

SHR CH Cat's Idyll Reminiscence "Patrick"photo by Kathy Dassel

Cooper and I first met Patrick last fall on our weekly trips to work with a trainer. Even though Kathy wanted to maintain the bond and companionship with her devoted IWS, she had placed Patrick into a full-time residential hunt training program to maximize his hunting potential. Kathy periodically visited Patrick, groomed him, and observed his progress with training. In just 4 months he earned a Started Hunting Retriever (SHR) title given by Hunting Retriever Club (HRC). Patrick was just 18 months old when he earned this title, just as the summer hunt test season concluded in 2009.

Patrick then spent the winter and spring away from home honing his hunt skills. But as is not unheard of in the world of high-pressure hunt training, Patrick revolted, had enough, and didn’t want to play this game. It was time for Kathy to take Patrick back home.

Kathy and Patrick out in the field

Sadly, he’d decided he had had enough of hunt training and ducks before he completed enough hunt tests to get his AKC Junior Hunter title. Kathy even sent Patrick to Maryland this spring for the 2010 Irish Water Spaniel National Specialty, where he was entered in the Working Certificate (WC) hunting test. But Patrick was still not having any of it. He showed no interest in getting wet or picking up a duck.

I suggested to Kathy that she contact a local trainer in central California, just a few hours from her home. She arranged an evaluation with Jim Dobbs in Marysville, California. Jim already had a full roster of dogs, but he saw the potential in Patrick, and made space for him in his program. Just last month, Kathy placed Patrick with Jim, and everyone was pleased that Patrick’s interest in water and ducks was rekindled. After just a few weeks, it looked like Patrick was back on track to compete in AKC hunt trials again. And, being just a couple of hours away, Kathy was able to see Patrick frequently, groom him, and take him for weekends at home and trips to regional dog shows to compete in the Best of Breed ring.

Patrick, showing that intense drive of born retriever

It was on this weekend’s stay at home where the unthinkable happened. Molly, Kathy’s young IWS female who sometimes competes with Tooey in dog shows, jumped the fence on Kathy’s rural property and made a run for the road. Patrick pursued, over the fence and onto the road. And there, Patrick was hit by a car and killed. According to the driver, Patrick had overtaken Molly and diverted her, taking the full impact of the car on himself.

Patrick, retrieving a duck, just as an Irish Water Spaniel was meant to do

Cooper and I learned a lot watching and working alongside Patrick this last year. And I have just shed a lot of tears over someone else’s dog. Life with Irish Water Spaniels means many things to those of us who live and thrive with these amazing creatures. Rest in peace Patrick.

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