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Archive for October, 2012

Spaniel owners and handlers, and specifically those who hunt or do field work with their dogs, may find this blog post of interest. What follows are my observations and photos of an English Springer Spaniel Field Trial in Wales, and the specific distinctions and comparisons to what a most of us in North America may be familiar with in sanctioned field trials and hunt tests. For those of you who are not aficionados of chasing birds with your dogs, just follow along and see how I spent my vacation.

Recently, our friend Martyn Ford of Langstone, Wales, made it possible for us to spend Wednesday October 17th following and photographing a fall field trial hosted by The English Springer Spaniel Club of Wales (Y Clwb Ci Dwr Saesneg o Gymru). Martyn, who is a very successful field trialer of Irish Water and Cocker Spaniels in Europe, made the arrangements and also guided us as to the distinctions of a Kennel Club sanctioned field trial.

To start, one needs to have a proper hot English breakfast with the judges and club secretary. We joined the club at a small free public house, The George Inn, in the village of Aylburton. After a plate of eggs, toast, bacon, ham, beans, tomatoes, plus coffee, juice, and fruit, we were ready to spend the day walking several miles through farms and fields and woodlands in pursuit of pheasants.

The George Inn, Aylburton, Gloucestershire

Due to lack of public hunting lands in the United Kingdom, a club needs to host a field trial on private property, preferably on an estate with a professional game keeper providing the grounds and birds. The official name of this trial was The Riverside Shoot, and our host was Colin Markey. Colin manages several large farm properties and raises thousands of birds through out the year. The Riverside Shoot was held over several hundred acres on a hilly woodland surrounded by fields of corn. Due to the long wet summer, the crops were still unharvested and filled with hundreds of Colin’s pheasants. Before the shoot, an effort was made to drive the birds back up into the cover of the thick woodlands where the field trial was to be held.

Game keeper, Colin Markey (right), discussing the location logistics with the judges

If you have ever attended a field event in North America, you may notice one thing of significant difference in these photos right away. No blaze orange and no camo apparel. It may be tradition or it may be a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. The uniform of the day is green and brown tweeds. A mix of waxed canvas and polar fleece is also acceptable, as long as it is green, brown, or something in between. This includes judges, stewards, handlers, and gunners. So how do the Welsh avoid shooting each other in the field without orange? The same we used to do it — don’t point your gun in an unsafe direction. Seems simple and it appears to work quite well. And two other pieces of shooting apparel are also useful: Wellington boots (Wellies) and neck ties. The mud is deep and it always nice to dress your best.

Patrice and Martyn conferring with the judges, Dave Rayner and Dave Templer

This field trial was a “16 Dog Novice Stake.” Through a lottery, only 16 dogs (plus two reserves) were entered, and only 16 dogs run. (In this case, one of the entered dogs was absent, so a reserve dog was run in its place.) All were beginning dogs that had not won a previous stake or trial. They are held to the same standard as a championship level trial, but since this is a winner-take-all competition, it levels the playing field to have similarly skilled dogs compete against each other. Another distinction of a Kennel Club field trial is that it replicates an actual shoot. Colin’s birds were released into the forest in August, and they are free to roam, disperse, or stay as they choose.

The flag planted in the foreground is the national flag of Wales, and marks the secretary’s location. The wooded hill in the background is the location for the field trial.

The field trial starts with everyone trekking from the estate’s farmyard to the woods where the handlers and their dogs look for birds. (There were hundreds!) So once the 16 handlers and their dogs were gathered, they joined up with 2 judges, 2 stewards, 4 gunners, game handlers, the secretary, and 2 American observers, and off they trekked (through the mud) to wooded hills to hunt for birds.

The field trial is located in the wooded hillside on the left. Several hundred acres full of pheasants and partridges.

Once everyone reached the woods, the judges each took half the handlers (8 each), plus two gunners and a steward. The first dog-handler team for each judge began to hunt side by side up, around, and over the hill through the forest, working very close in heavy cover to find and flush birds. Unlike an AKC field trial or hunt test, the birds are not planted — they are the semi-wild ones already living at this location. There were so many birds that we often saw them walking across the path ahead of us.

Several things can disqualify a team from the competition. One is when the dog misses finding a live bird, especially if the judge finds it after the dog moves past its location. The dog must also be quiet (no whining or barking allowed) and be steady to flush and shot, including to birds flushed by the other dog working the course. And if a bird is shot, then the dog must mark the fall and retrieve the bird to hand. If a dog fails to find a downed bird, the other judge, handler, and dog are moved over to essentially do what we call a “hunt dead” or blind retrieve. If a dog and handler fail any of these factors, they are out.

2 handlers and their dogs, Martyn (steward) and the judge just prior to starting the day’s hunt.

The 16 dogs in this trial were all English Springer Spaniels. From my limited participation in hunt tests, my feeling is that these dogs where about 10 pounds lighter and shorter than Springers I have seen in AKC field events. And I would also say that these pups were a bit more on the lean and mean side when compared to average field Springer in the USA. They are nimble and uninhibited in busting into tight cover, which consists of ivy, plus bracken and brambles, or what we call ferns and blackberries.

Lean and athletic Springers awaiting their runs at find birds.

Typical cover of ivy, blackberries, and ferns

As you can see, the cover is heavy and the forest dense. I wasn’t able to make any successful images of shooting birds as I was standing behind the judge and steward while the dog and gunners where just a few yards ahead.

The photo below is the scenario where a bird went down into a nearby pasture and the dog, handler, and judge made their way out of the woods to go for a blind retrieve. The game keeper, Colin, is advising the handler and judge as to its approximate location.

Getting ready to send the dog on a blind retrieve.

The area of the hunt is never covered twice. The gallery of handlers is obliged to follow the club secretary for several hours through the woods waiting their turn with the judges and gunners. The secretary carries the Welsh flag while the gallery treks behind awaiting the call up from the stewards.

Mr. Wayne Lewis, club secretary with the national Welsh flag, leading the gallery of handlers and dogs

If a handler and their dog pass muster with one judge, then they return to the gallery and await their turn to work under the other judge. While I did not keep track of the successes, my guess is that about 30-40% of the dogs failed and were disqualified. And from my own handling and hunting experience, this was a tough course and difficult at best. Even the dogs that failed were amazing!

The look of disappointment after being disqualified

If a dog and handler disqualify at the beginning of the trial, they are obliged to stay in the gallery and follow for the duration of the shoot which could last for several more hours and cover a few more miles.

A judge making notes and one of the gunners getting ready for the next dog

About half way through the shoot, the game handlers dropped off the birds that they had been carrying. By this time, Patrice had already mentioned to her steward, Iain, that in America (at least in the Pacific NW), we have a different term for game handler: “bird shagger.” Iain found this very funny, and word spread quickly that the American visitors had a rather obscene term to describe the task of carrying dead birds. I am glad we could contribute something amusing for the day.

Game handler carrying some of the mornings results. Notice the fine tie with the embroidered club logo.

I do not know the natural history of pheasants in Europe. The Chinese Ringneck Pheasant we have in the USA was introduced in the 1870’s south of Portland, Oregon for the amusement of a lumber baron. But I did see a painting in Paris last week of dogs flushing pheasants that was painted in 1702. The reason I mention this, is that in the morning’s bounty of birds, there was a beautiful collection of birds that I couldn’t identify.

The morning’s collection of pheasants headed for the table.

This shoot and field trial was not only different than what we have seen here, but it was also distinctly Welsh. A number of the handlers were not speaking English, but Welsh. And as you can see in the photo below, they weren’t wearing proper British tweeds, but waxed canvas. This might be the equivalent of an HRC southern hunt test where wearing Mossy Oak camo is a a badge of honor. These guys are the quintessential Welshmen and their dogs. The only thing English about these gentlemen were their English Springer Spaniels.

Proud members of the “Y Clwb Ci Dwr Saesneg o Gymru” and their flag

Martyn was one the stewards, even though he is English, but the other steward, Iain, is a Welsh farmer when not participating in field trials.

Iain, farmer and field trial steward in his “Welsh Camo”

Two other distinguishing aspects between this field trial and ours is the attire of the gunners, which are called “guns.” In addition to no blaze orange, they also were not wearing any  hearing protection, but did sport neck ties. I like the tie idea, but would be inclined to protect my hearing. These gentleman probably fired 100 rounds and brought down 50 birds, so there had to be a toll on their hearing. That said, they were very good shots in such heavy cover. The leaves had not fallen and so seeing birds outlined against the sky was limited.

Guns: Neil, Jeff, Shaun, and Andy

After all the qualifying dogs had run under both judges, there was a tie that had to be broken. The top two dogs and handlers were invited back to hunt up more birds. The judges were now comparing both dogs side by side and looking for style and precision. They made their decision, called a stop in the action, and then everyone headed back to the farm for the announcement of the results.

Patrice and Martyn heading back to the parking area after the completion of the shoot

Of this field of handlers, judges, gunners, and gallery, there were only 2 women amongst these Welshmen. Patrice was one, and the other was a handler who prevailed to earn the top spot. She and her dog can now compete in the Open class of field trials. And the other 15 can try again at the Novice level.

The winner of “The Riverside Shoot”

After the shoot, handlers packed up their dogs into their rigs, a smart collection of Land Rovers and other British SUVs (just like home). And all the birds taken were headed to the table. In fact, if you go to market in Wales, the dressed pheasants for sale are harvested at shoots similar to this.

A Land Rover with dog crates and tonight’s dinner.

Judges Dave Rayner and Dave Templar, relaxing under the tailgate after the shoot

In addition to a delightful day spent with Martyn and seeing the dogs work in heavy cover, the ESSC of Wales acknowledged their two American guests and presented us with an official club necktie. Life is good.

The official neck tie of The English Springer Spaniel Club of Wales

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One of the many pleasures of our recent trip to Wales was going to the South Wales Kennel Association Championship Show. It wasn’t at all a large dog show — it was more like the many small shows I’ve been to in western Oregon and Washington, held at county fairgrounds. In fact, this dog show was held in a livestock pavilion at the Royal Welsh Showgrounds in Builth Wells (Llanfair ym Muallt), Wales. It was a multi-day show — we were there on Sunday, October 14th.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by how similar this dog show was to the ones here at home. As the AKC notes, “Early American shows followed precedents set in England with respect to the championship title…” There have been many divergences since, but the basic running around the ring to show your dog to a judge looks really similar.

Like all the dog shows I’ve been to, this one started with last minute, day-of-show grooming. First in the parking lot (been there, done that)

Irish Water Spaniel

Martyn grooming Rowan in the parking lot

and then inside the pavilion (ditto).

Irish Water Spaniel

Rowan being touched up in the horse pavilion

Irish Water Spaniel

Patrice getting a lesson in topknot trimming

Then there is the waiting for the Water Spaniels’ turn in the ring. This part was a bit different from what I’d seen before. I’d heard of benched shows, but I’d not been to one until this show. Dogs wait for their ring time on an assigned bench, separated from each other by divider walls. This allows spectators and hangers-on like us to look at several breeds throughout the day.

Irish Water Spaniels on the bench, waiting for their turns in the ring

Then there’s the running-round-the-ring part. The was much the same as at home, with just a few differences. The main differences I saw were that in addition to the dog and handler running in a circle around the judge and their running away from and back to the judge (the “up and back”), there was kind of triangular pattern, with the dog running in a right-hand diagonal away from the judge toward the right corner, then a left-facing run across the other end of the ring at 90 degrees to the judge, and then a diagonal from the left corner back toward the judge.

Irish Water Spaniel

The judge taking a look at today’s selection of IWS bitches

Irish Water Spaniel

Judith and Patrice watching the bitches show their stuff

Irish Water Spaniel

Judith showing off Merlin, today’s Best of Breed

Also, the handlers’ clothing was much less formal than what I’ve seen in America. The Water Spaniel handlers were actually quite nicely dressed, compared to what I observed one ring over, with the Spanish Water Dogs. Over there, I saw lots of jeans, T-shirts, and tennis shoes, which I think is quite sensible for a horse arena, but not what you’d generally see here.

The classes seemed to be a bit different, too, but that could be because there was a relatively small entry of IWS. I don’t pretend to understand the KC’s classes, so I won’t attempt to explain them here. But here are the results of the show for IWS:

results published by Fosse Data

This show’s Best of Breed was (no surprise) Merlin (SH CH/AM CH Whistlestop’s Elements Of Magic CD RN). It was a pleasure to see Merlin in the ring, and to visit with Judith, his owner and handler, and also Tooey’s breeder. We also were pleased to watch Martyn show Rowan (CAN CH Luckpuddle’s Weekend Warrior), his recent import from Canada who took Reserve Best Bitch.

I did have to wonder why anyone would exhibit at this show. As I understand it, to get a show championship from the Kennel Club, a dog or bitch has to get three Challenge Certificates. But not all shows offer Challenge Certificates, and this show was one of those that did not. I asked several people why they were there, and it appeared that some were there to give their dogs practice in the ring, others were there to show off their dogs to breeders and puppy buyers, and at least one was there to show his two American guests a good time.

The one type of exhibitor whose presence made sense to me were the ones hoping to get Best of Breed. The BOB then competes against other BOBs in their respective Groups (IWS are in the Gundog group), and as Judith explained to me, dogs that place in the Groups can move up in their breed rankings.

Dog shows are not all about showing dogs, though. Just like at home, there’s the shopping, too. I toured all the booths, hoping to find something different than at home. But, with one exception, it was all the same. The same shampoos and conditioners, the same kinds combs, brushes, clippers, and matt cutters. The same food, toys, bait, leashes, collars, and dog beds. And when I say the same, in many cases, they were not just the same kinds of things, but also the same brands.

The one exception was the collection of Wellies for sale. Cheap, too. At that price, I could have bought a pair for the field trial we were going to later in the week, and then just left them in England.

Wellington boots for sale at the dog show

And, of course, I can’t neglect the dog show cuisine. We had a decent coffee and croissant for mid-morning snack, and for late afternoon lunch, we had a choice of pulled pork sandwiches or toasties. It was cold, so we chose the toasties. Mine was tomato and bacon. Russ and Martyn had bacon, sausage, and cheese. To make the toasties, the cook put the chosen ingredients between two slices of bread. He then placed the sandwich into a device that squished everything together, heated the contents, sealed the edges, toasted the bread, and embossed a logo onto both sides. All served them up with a smile. It was cold, we were hungry, and so the toasties were tasty.

Toasties served with a smile

Fed and satisfied with the day, we all headed back to the car for the drive home and a delicious home-cooked dinner.

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Saturday evening we had guests coming, so Saturday morning I got busy brushing and combing the dogs. It always takes a while. Tooey gets mats behind her ears and between her toes, and Cooper’s coat collects a sample of every bit of vegetation he wanders through.

So by the time our guests arrived, the dogs were relatively neat, and our guests were mostly charmed. (Perhaps they got a little tired of Cooper’s frequent offers of a soggy tennis ball, and Tooey did her stand-offish bit for a while…)

Then Sunday morning, after our guests went off for the day, and it being an absolutely and uncharacteristically beautiful, warm, and dry October day, we decided to go field training.

Tooey Irish Water Spaniel

Tooey bringing Russ the bumper after a 100 yard retrieve

Tooey Irish Water Spaniel

Russ being very pleased with Tooey’s 100 yard retrieve through 2 foot cover

We had a lot of fun. We always do. We did walking singles and lining drills, and both dogs did pretty well.

The dogs also collected hundreds and hundreds, nay thousands, of seeds. The field was covered with 1 to 3 foot grass cover, all of it ripe and waiting for some force to come along and help distribute the seeds. My dogs were happy to be that force.

And distribute the seeds they did. I could have planted an entire meadow with the seeds my dogs collected, even with the dogs’ short field cuts. I pulled seeds out from between their toes, from under the eyelids (thank you Rod for your advice about checking the eyelids), and from around the ears (though none got into the ears, thank you Martyn for your advice on ear grooming).

Brushing didn’t get all the seeds out, so both dogs went into the bath, which got out a lot more of seeds, and then got blown dry, which got out almost all the rest of them.

So, I guess I could have (should have) waited until Sunday to do all that brushing and combing. The dogs probably would have liked that better. But the extra brushing didn’t hurt. And they’re clean now. For at least a while.

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