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Archive for September, 2012

One of the most moving and delightful aspects of being in the Irish Water Spaniel community is that what used to be a collection of strangers has become a community. And a very generous one at that.

I have written many times about the amazing support and help I’ve received over the years. I’ve been given countless hours of grooming help and help with training. I’ve been rescued in time of need by IWS people. Several have gone field training with us and offered their knowledge and experience. Many have stood ringside while I and my IWS have competed in conformation and obedience, and then gave me a shoulder to cry on or a congratulatory hug.

But it hasn’t stopped there. All writers hope for an audience, and in this I’ve been blessed, too. Since I started writing this blog, I’ve been sent comments, which I love. I’ve been told by one commenter that she chose IWS based on what I wrote in the Cooper Project. Another one, an IWS breeder, has told me that when people ask her about IWS, she sends them to my blog to learn more. A mother wrote me to say that my blog makes her son laugh. And another reader wrote me that she was finally able to identify what was going wrong with her dogs nails because she found and read my posts on SLO.

And it’s not just comments on the blog. I’ve gotten emails, overseas and domestic phone calls, cards and letters, as well as comments on Facebook and Yahoogroups.

And I’ve been given gifts. Every time, this is so totally unexpected that it makes my thanks temporarily incoherent. I’ve been given t-shirts, prints, vintage books, packs of IWS greeting cards, handmade cards, and even generous offers of places to stay and people to visit.

I treasure all of this, even though there is that internal voice that says I don’t deserve any of it. And there is something to that, I think. It’s not me who deserves it — it’s the open-hearted generosity of those who give it. It’s given me something I’ve not had in life before I got my Irish Water Spaniels: a group, a people, a place.

Thank you to all of you. I just hope I can live up to the example my IWS community has set.

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I am absolutely thrilled with what the mail brought to me today: three certificates from the Irish Water Spaniel Club of America, certifying my dogs as “working dogs.”

Well, really what they certify is that my dogs both fulfilled the requirements for earning a Working Dog Certificate ( WD — one each Tooey and Cooper) and Working Dog Excellent Certificate (WDX — Cooper). Shows they can do the work of flushing Spaniels.

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The club has fortunately provided several ways for a dog to earn these certificates. One way to earn a WD or WDX certificate is similar to the way dogs can earn a WC or WCX certificate, by passing a club-designed test. But Irish Water Spaniels can also earn WD or WDX certificates by passing Spaniel Hunt Tests. That’s how my dogs did it: Tooey passed a Junior level Spaniel Hunt Test, and Cooper passed a Senior level Spaniel Hunt Test.

So, what’s the difference between a WC/WCX and a WD/WDX? The main difference is in the type of hunting scenario they simulate. WC and WCX tests focus on retrieving skills with ducks and/or pheasants. For a WD and WDX certificate, a dog has to show off its upland hunting, flushing, and retrieving skills with pheasants, chukars, or pigeons.

To get a clearer and more detailed picture of the requirements, check out the rules about WC/WCX and WD/WDX tests on the IWSCA website. You could also take a look at the various posts I’ve written in the past about Cooper’s success and failures at WC (here) and WCX (here and here) tests.

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I think I had one of those ah-ha moments. It was another one of those things that my teachers have told me, but which I hadn’t really started to understand for myself. The moment occurred last Tuesday, while I was practicing Obedience with Tooey, and it maybe explains why she refused to go into the water at the last hunt test of the season.

Taken from the AKC Obedience Regulations, amended January 1, 2012, page 73

Tooey and I have been working on the broad jump. The broad jump consists of four white telescoping hurdles, all about 8 inches wide. (See the diagram.)

We’ve been gradually adding hurdles — starting with her jumping over one hurdle and then two. On Tuesday, after several beautiful jumps over two hurdles, I added a third. I gave her the command to “Fly” over the hurdles, she trotted toward them as usual, really slowed down as she got closer, stopped when she got to them, put one front paw on the nearest hurdle, and looked up at me.

Her expression clearly said, “What am I supposed to do now?”

Just that one change, from two hurdles to three hurdles, was enough to stop and confuse her.

My teachers (and many of the books I’ve read) have all said that environment and context are as much a part of the correct execution of a behavior as the command or signal. That a command to “Sit” in the living room does not necessarily mean the same thing to the dog as a “Sit” in the backyard or at the park. You have to practice it many times in many situations until the dog “generalizes” the behavior, and understands that “Sit” means butt down no matter where you are, who else is around, and what else is happening.

Similarly, to Tooey, “Fly” over two hurdles is one thing; “Fly” over three hurdles is clearly something else. She understood the first, but not the second. So I went back to the beginning, throwing cookies over the three hurdles until Tooey was as happily flying over them as she had been over two.

So, what might this say about her performance at the hunt test last weekend?

Tooey had made it through the land series really well. She did her usual workmanlike job of going out and retrieving the ducks, and she did it with little of the hunting around that many of the other Junior dogs were doing. We were pleased and very excited. This meant that if Tooey also got her two ducks in the water series, she’d pass her 4th retriever Junior Hunter test, and would have her Junior Hunter title.

But when she and Russ got to the start line at the edge of a deep pond, she was clearly distracted and confused. She sat at Russ’s side, marked where the duck had fallen on the other side of the pond, heard Russ send her, but then wouldn’t get into the water. She looked up a Russ a couple of times, clearly confused. He sent her again, and she moved out along the bank for a few feet or so, and then came back to Russ. That was it — she was out.

Russ leashed her up, and we went home, without the pass or the title, and ourselves clearly confused as to what the problem could have been. Tooey loves the water. She has always loved the water. Getting into any kind of water has never been a problem. If we had been asked to predict what might fail Tooey in a hunt test, not getting into the water would never have occurred to either of us.

But on Tuesday night, maybe the problem was at least partially defined: A command in one environment is not necessarily the same as the same command in another, new environment.

We’ve practiced at all kinds of ponds and rivers — still water and moving water, deep swimming water and shallow running water, and steep banks and flat banks. But this test was set up at water unlike anywhere we’ve practiced. This was deep water with a 90 degree drop for a bank, just the pond’s edge with tall grass. At the line, the dog sat on the edge; take one step and the dog is in deep water, needing to swim right away. Nothing gradual about it.

Tooey doesn’t usually do the water-spaniel leap like Cooper does (see the banner photo at the top of the blog). She usually walks in, at least part of the way. But to get into the water at this test, there was nothing to walk on. So she was confused, just like she was on Tuesday with the hurdles. Her look up at me on Tuesday was just like her look up at Russ on Sunday: “What am I supposed to do now?”

That is exactly the question. But now, at least, having formulated a hypothesis as to what the problem might be, we can keep working on it, and see what happens next year.

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Compared to Cooper’s Saturday’s Spaniel Hunt Test, Sunday’s upland course was a straightforward soccer-field size course with a nice mix of cover — tall grass, Scotch broom and ferns, and low brush. This test was put on by the Mt. Rainier Sporting Spaniel Association. Cooper was the 4th Senior dog to run, so it was still relatively cool with a slight breeze.

It often happens that a dog will not need the entire course to find and flush all his birds, so the next dog often follows along behind with the gallery. This happened in Cooper’s case on Sunday, so Cooper actually started halfway down the length of the course. He pretty quickly found and flushed up a bird on the right edge of the course. This bird flew down the length of the course and disappeared into the Scotch broom at the far end, without being shot. Cooper ran after the bird and disappeared into the broom for a few minutes, and then returned without the bird. This is something that the judges didn’t mark Cooper down for because Senior level dogs don’t have to be steady to the flush, and once a bird disappears from sight, no one can know where (or if) the bird landed.

Fortunately, Cooper returned straight to Russ, who sent him off again quartering the course. On the left edge of the course, just as Cooper turned to cut back toward the right, a bird flushed up behind him that he didn’t see. The gunners shot it and it went down, outside of the left boundary of the course.

Because it was obvious that Cooper had not seen the bird flush behind him and couldn’t have marked where it fell, Russ chose to handle Cooper to the area of the fall. Russ send Cooper for the bird, and on the way out, Cooper found and trapped a third bird and delivered it to hand. But because there was already a dead bird down, that bird still had to be retrieved.

Russ lined Cooper up to the dead bird, told him “Dead bird!” and sent him out to the bird with a “Back” command. Cooper knows that “Back” means to go straight out, but apparently he was feeling somewhat independent. Russ gave him some “Over” and “Back” commands, but Cooper wasn’t exactly following Russ’s instructions, so the retrieve took much longer than it should have. Finally Cooper found the bird, and delivered it to hand. The judge gave Russ a a backwards compliment, saying that this was a case of the “handler saving the dog’s ass.” Another way of thinking about this is that this really is a team sport — the dog and the handler have to help each other out to get the job done. This works better if the dog actually pays attention to the handler.

Apparently, the judges were satisfied with what they saw in the upland portion of the test, so Cooper was called back to the hunt dead part of the test. The instructions were straightforward — Russ pretty much knew exactly where the bird was. He lined Cooper up, but once again, Cooper decided to do his own thing. He hooked left like a spaniel rather than going straight like a trained retriever. Russ helped him out as best he could with whistles and “Over” and “Back” commands, but Cooper wasn’t particularly listening. Very frustrating! But the good thing was that Cooper’s hooking left actually sent him downwind of the bird, so he was able to find and retrieve it well under the 5 minutes allowed for the hunt dead part of the test.

Last was the water work. He had done well enough so far, and if he passed this part of the test, he’d have his 4th pass and his Senior Hunter Upland title. Russ walked Cooper to the line at the water, and then took several minutes to get Cooper into heel position, reminding him to “Heel” and “Sit.” Cooper was anxious to go and kept creeping forward, so Russ took his time, reminding him again, “Heel in,” “Sit,” “No, heel in.”

After Russ called for the bird, the bird was thrown, and the shot was fired. Cooper scooted out a foot or so and stood up, cocked and ready to launch. Russ halted him with a verbal “No,” gambling that this would be less bad than Cooper’s actually breaking. And it worked — Co0per stayed in place and didn’t break for the bird, even as it was slowing floating away downstream. Because of the possible infraction, Russ held him back for several extra tense moments to prove that Cooper was steady. After several beats, Russ released Cooper, who jumped a quarter of the way to the bird and completed his retrieve.

We didn’t know for awhile if Cooper’s scooting out at the water would be enough to disqualify him from passing the test or not. In other tests under other judges, it might have been. But during the ribbon ceremony, they called out Cooper’s name, and handed Russ that beautiful orange ribbon. With that fourth pass, Cooper earned his Senior Hunter Upland title. He is now CH Realta Rosario Cooper CD RN SH SHU!

Cooper Irish Water Spaniel

Russ, Cooper, and their 4th Senior Hunter Upland ribbon

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Tooey had a great Spaniel Hunt Test on Friday, a terrible one on Saturday, and a somewhat improved one on Sunday. By the time Sunday evening rolled around, we were all exhausted, and decided to leave early and skip today’s test in favor of going home and sleeping in our own bed. But I digress.

All the Spaniel Hunt Tests this weekend were held at the Scatter Creek Wildlife Area near Rochester, Washington. The upland portion of the Junior tests were held in reasonably tall grass cover all three days, with some sections in which the dog disappeared into the grass and other sections where the grass what shorter and greener. Friday’s course also had patches of tall Scotch broom. All three days. the bird planters planted the courses with pigeons and chukars.

Tooey Irish Water Spaniel

Tooey almost hidden, quartering across the field

Tooey Irish Water Spaniel

Tooey out at the edge of the field near the gunner — photo by Christine Robertson

Tooey Irish Water Spaniel

Tooey trying to get a look around the field

Friday was Tooey’s best day. In the test put on by the Puget Sound English Springer Spaniel Association, she successfully quartered the field, found and flushed one pigeon and two chukars, and retrieved the birds that were shot, one chukar and one pigeon. For the flushed pigeon, she actually sat to the flush, something dogs aren’t expected to do until they are at the Master level. So she passed the upland part of the test. And on the water, she watched the bird go down, leapt out to retrieve it, swam to it and grabbed it up, brought it back to the land by the tippy-tip of one wing, and spit it out at Russ’s feet.

The spit-to-feet is not ideal. What we want her to do is deliver the bird to hand. In other words, put the bird in Russ’s hand. That’s what we’ve been training her to do, and that’s what she needs to do with ducks in retriever hunt tests, so, like I said, the spit-to-feet is not ideal. But at the Junior level Spaniel Hunt Tests, getting it to within two steps of the handler is acceptable, so Tooey passed.

Tooey Irish Water Spaniel

Russ and Tooey and her second Junior Spaniel Hunt Test ribbon

Saturday was terrible. She found a bird soon into the course, but just stood there and looked at it for a moment before going on to see if she could find a different bird. That’s called blinking the bird. Then she flushed up a second bird, it was shot, and she ran over to where it fell. She found it, sniffed it, and then declined to pick it up, even with Russ encouraging her to fetch it up. She kind of wandered around and accidentally flushed a third bird, but because she wouldn’t retrieve the second bird, the gunners let that third bird fly away. Finally, the judges told Russ to leash her up and walk her off the course. Argh!

Sunday was better. She actually hunted the course instead of wandering around on it. When she found the first bird, she started her “stand around and blink the bird” routine, so right away, Russ started to encourage her to “get it!” After a long moment, she stuck her nose down and flushed the chukar, it was shot, and Tooey retrieved and delivered it to hand. Soon thereafter, she located another bird, and Russ encouraged her to get it. This time, it was a pigeon she flushed, it was shot, and she delivered that to hand.

While Russ took Tooey off the field, I remained in the gallery behind the judges and marshal to see if I could learn anything from the judges’ discussion. They liked her bird finding ability and her retrieves, but a spaniel should not need encouragement to flush a bird — that’s supposed to be natural behavior. The concluded that they would have to discuss it.

Since Tooey “made call-backs” (i.e., was invited to complete the water portion of the test), they must have decided to give her another chance. Going into it, it looked good. Tooey was eager. In fact, Russ had to restrain her by the collar so she wouldn’t leap into the water before the bird landed. When Russ released her, she swam straight to the bird, grabbed it up, swam back to land, and spit it out right at the shoreline. All of Russ’s encouragement didn’t persuade her to pick it up and even spit it close to Russ’s feet. Instead, she stood at the waterline, looking for another bird to land. Finally, the judges told Russ to leash her up.

So, an improvement in flushing and retrieving on land, but still not up to standard for retrieving a bird out of the water.

We’re not exactly sure what we’re going to do. We suspect that she doesn’t like pigeons, especially wet pigeons, so when it’s a pigeon she finds, she’s reluctant to flush it or deliver it. We could spend the time until the spring tests training her to pick up pigeons, or we could start training her for Senior tests, where they don’t use pigeons. When we hunt, we don’t hunt pigeons, so there’s no practical value in training her to pick up pigeons. We’ll take a break, and then decide.

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Today’s Spaniel Hunt Test, put on by the Clumber Spaniel Club of America, was a tough test. Out of 17 entered dogs, no Juniors (including Tooey), only a handful of Seniors, and 3 Master dog made it out of the land hunt to be called back to the next part of the test.

The Senior/Master upland course was set amidst an oak and Douglas fir grove, winding through narrow fields of 2 to 3 foot tall grasses, 5 to 6 foot tall Scotch broom, an assortment of ferns and brambles, and hidden yellow jacket nests. The trees have branches hanging down to the ground. Several of the shorter dogs were invisible to their handlers much of the time, and most of the flushed birds were visible for only moments, making it tough for the gunners, dogs, handlers, and judges to see the birds before they were swallowed into the forest shadows. Several dogs took the entire course (and about 15 minutes to run it) without finding any birds, and a couple dogs were given a rerun at the end so they can cool down.

The aerial photo below was probably taken some years ago, before the vegetation had grown up and the smaller trees had filled in. Imagine all the open areas filled in with the vegetation mentioned above. The photo also shows how wind-y and crowded the 200-yard course was through the trees, particularly in the 2nd half of the course.

Aerial view of Saturday’s Spaniel Hunt Test course

Flushed pheasant disappearing into the trees

Russ  narrates a video of the first quarter of the course, where Cooper ran his hunt. You can see how torturous the course was and the first part wasn’t the worst of it. Upon reflection, it didn’t seem particularly more difficult for the dogs to flush birds than any other course we’ve been on, but it was harder for the dogs, handlers, judges, and gunners to see the birds fly and fall, for the handlers to see their dogs to handle them, and for the judges to see the dogs’ work.

As you look at the video, notice that we can only occasionally see the gunners to the right and left. Look for orange moving through the trees — those are the gunners. At certain sections of the course, one or both of the gunners had to come out of the trees and walk the middle of the course with the handler and dog. Often the dog would not be visible and sometimes you could know where they were only by hearing them panting. At the narrowest points, the dog couldn’t get more than 10-15 yards to either side due to the trees and dense cover. To get through the course, we followed a winding path marked by orange flag.

You saw from the video that Cooper gets his job done in the wide section in the earliest part of the course. While he was out of sight on the right, he flushed a pheasant out of the tall Scotch broom. That bird evaded both shots by the right-hand gunner and disappeared into the forest. Russ called Cooper back to the center of the course and resumed the hunt.

Shortly thereafter, Cooper flushed up a bird near the center of the course, and the left-hand gunner knocked it down almost instantaneously. Cooper retrieved it, delivered it to hand. With two flushes and a retrieve to hand, Team Cooper got the job done in just the first 50 yards of the course — and he’d barely warmed up. An English Springer Spaniel moved up to the spot where Cooper finished, and that team took the entire rest of the course to get their birds.

With such good work, Cooper was called back to do the hunt dead. The bird was hidden around the back side of a scraggly small oak. Russ lined Cooper up facing just where Russ figured the bird would be.

Cooper Irish Water Spaniel

Russ lining Cooper up to the hunt dead bird

Cooper went out about 45 yards or so but but then started hunting, taking himself way off line, too far to the left. Russ whistle-sat him, and sent him to the right. Cooper went too far over to the right, so Russ whistled him again and sent him back left, where he found the bird, and delivered it to hand. If this were a retriever hunt test, this would be seen as sloppy. But for a Spaniel test at the Senior level, where some quartering is not unexpected, it worked out fine.

Having succeeded at the hunt dead, Cooper was called back to the water. The water retrieve always makes me nervous because Cooper has had a history of breaking on the water, going for the bird before being sent. But on Saturday, he stayed sitting, butt to the ground. The bird was thrown, the shot was fired, the bird splashed, and Russ waited 3 beats to confirm in the judges’ minds that Cooper was steady. Only then did Russ send Cooper for the bird. Cooper did his usual dramatic Realta rocket entry into the water, snatched up the pheasant, swam back, and delivered it to hand. Then, for an added flourish, he leapt up and put his muddy paws on Russ’s shoulders, kind of a Cooper-ish high 5. Good job, Dad! Can I go get another one?

Cooper and Riki Irish Water Spaniels

Realta dogs do good work — Christine with Riki (Master pass) and Russ with Cooper (Senior pass)

Three dogs qualified in this test, two of them were Irish Water Spaniels, and both of those are Realta dogs. Cooper got a Senior pass, and his half-brother Riki got a Master pass.

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