By now, I’ve met quite a few Irish Water Spaniels who do field work. Most of them are very good retrievers with great noses, who love to find and flush birds and are willing to go long distances or jump into cold water to grab up that duck or upland bird. These are all excellent qualities. But…
Most of the ones I’ve met also have at least some challenge with staying steady — waiting for the handler to give the command before going out to get the bird. Cooper has always had this problem. He’s so eager to go NOW! as soon as he sees the bird fly, that persuading him not to do so has been largely ineffective. With actual hunting, this hasn’t been a problem, but with both retriever and spaniel hunt tests, his not being steady has stopped us from competing at higher than the Senior level.
So when I started training Carlin (Cooper’s nephew) to retrieve birds, I was not shocked when I saw that Carlin wants to go NOW! without waiting for my command to go.
At first, Richard, the trainer I work with, was not terribly concerned. He was more interested in making sure that Carlin would be eager to go out, happy to pick up and hold the bird, and willing to bring it back to me. He said we’d work on steady later.
Well, later came today.
Carlin seems to have gotten over his distaste for chukars, and will zoom out to find and pick up one he’s seen fall from the sky. He’ll also (occasionally) bring it back to me (yes — we need to work on that, too). But, today’s problem is that he zooms out too soon, getting up from his sit and taking off before I even have a chance to tell him to go.
We’ve tried standing on the long line attached to his collar (he just pulls it out from under my feet). We’ve tried my holding onto a short leash (he pulls it out of my hand). We’ve tried replacing the flat collar with a pinch collar (ditto). We’ve tried having someone behind me hold onto the leash (also ditto). So, sadly, Richard and I began the conversation about whether or not to start using an electronic collar.
Now, I’m not totally opposed to an e-collar. Both Cooper and Tooey were trained using an e-collar. But that’s not my first choice. I’d rather not use one at all, or if I have to use one, to use it to enforce behavior only after Carlin completely understands what I’m asking him to do.
In this case, I don’t think Carlin started out the day completely understanding, but by the end of the day, he began to get a glimpse.
After trying the various leash techniques today, I noticed that Carlin does not leave my side when the bird goes up or when it hits the ground. What jolts him out of his sit, and simultaneously out of his mind (and therefore, out of any ability listen to logic or persuasion), is the gunshot. He goes nuts with the thrill of the hunt when he hears the gunshot. It’s like the start of a foot race. The gunshot rings out, and he’s off! I even began to suspect that he’s not even aware of what he’s doing — it’s just some kind of inherited reflex — if you hear the gun, you must go NOW!
As Richard and I were discussing e-collars, Richard suddenly had an idea. He knew that Carlin and I had practiced some sit-stays in obedience class, where Carlin is sitting and I’m standing, facing him, from some distance away. Russ started this in puppy kindergarten when Carlin was a baby puppy.
So Richard had me put Carlin in a sit facing where the bird would go down about 30 yards away. Then I did what Richard told me to do: I told Carlin to “Wait” and then I stepped out about 3 yards toward the area where the bird would fall, then turned, faced Carlin, and took one step to my left. This meant that Carlin could easily see where the bird would go down, but he could also see me looking at him.
Carlin swiveled his eyes between me and Richard as Richard carried the bird out to the area we’d decided on.
I said, “Carlin’s going to break.”
And Richard replied, “No, he’s not.” Then he said, “I’m going to throw the bird. When you hear the gun go off, wait two beats, and then tell Carlin to go.”
So Carlin sat, and I stood facing him, waiting for the gun to go off. I wouldn’t be able to see the bird fall, but Carlin would. Carlin kept his eyes mostly on Richard, with brief glances at me. In just a few moments, the gun went off. Carlin’s front feet jumped about an inch off the ground, but his butt stayed planted. I counted out two beats and then said, “Take it!” Carlin took off, grabbed the bird, and brought it back toward me.
It was a miracle. Completely unexpected, at least by me. Totally amazing.
So we did the same thing again, and it worked again. And this time, Carlin brought the chukar directly to me and sat.
What a good boy! What a great idea. What a great place to stop for the day.
As I understand it, the plan will be for him to get reliably steady when I’m standing out in front of him like that, and gradually, I’ll move around back to his side. God, I hope it works. I would dearly love to have a reliably steady dog, and for him to be happy while we’re getting there.