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Tooey turns 9 years old today. She didn’t get spiffed up as she would be for a show. She got her last bath on the day after Thanksgiving, and just a minor trim. She was probably last brushed about then, too.

Her muzzle is graying. Her coat, never a dark brown, has silvered a bit overall. She has slowed down a bit, but she still chases squirrels in the yard, even if Carlin gets there first.

And she still hunts for Russ, even if she’s gotten even more wilful about not returning when Russ calls her back. Her motto is: If the bird comes down, it must be retrieved, no matter what. Even if it has fallen on the other side of a river or a barbed wire fence.

She keeps us warm at night, retrieves the Sunday paper from the front end of the driveway in the morning, and patrols the property during the day.

And she’s the most beautiful Irish Water Spaniel I’ve ever seen.

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A sunny November day in Southwest Idaho is by definition a perfect day to go chasing pheasants with your dog. Today, Carlin was up for the task, so we headed to an area along the Payette River near the micro-town of New Plymouth. The area we hunted was along the flood plain of the river. It was laced with ponds, ditches, cattails, and other terrain that provides good cover for upland birds.

Carlin took about 20 minutes of covering ground when he got birdy. I watched him study an area of cover and then visually track something in the grasses. In he dove and out came a rooster pheasant.

Now one might assume that having observed Carlin’s behavior that I would have been ready with my gun. The bird came right at me and over my head, but I totally missed it with both shots. At least it got Carlin jazzed up about finding birds.

A short time later, he was out ahead of me walking a ditch line where he flushed up another rooster. This one didn’t have a chance, and I dropped it right back into the ditch. Carlin got his first water retrieve of the season with a gorgeous bird that will be on our dinner table within a day or two.

He was quite proud of the find and retrieve. He shows this pride by willing pose for the camera and waiting to hand off the bird until our short photo session was over.

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We’ve lived in Boise for a year now (already!), but we still haven’t done much exploring of the state. So yesterday, we took the opportunity to drive through the countryside and meet some new dog folks.

The trip to Council, Idaho took just over 2.5 hours. Council isn’t quite that far from Boise, but Ann and Gary live about a few miles from there, all on gravel roads. We took the I-84 route for speed, but if we’d had the time, I’d have preferred the route through New Plymouth and Payette, as it’s just plain prettier than the interstate.

But we got there, and met the folks, their guests, and their myriad dogs, mostly a collection of Cesky Fousek (Chess-key Foe-sek). These dogs, also known in the USA as Bohemian Wirehaired Pointing Griffons, are a coarse-coated versatile hunting breed, developed in the Czech Republic. According to what we’ve read and people we’ve talked to, the Fouseks retrieve happily and love water, as well as point.

They certainly seem suited to Idaho, particularly with that wirehaired coat. Sure, they picked up a few seeds and cockle burrs as they roamed Ann and Gary’s property, but the debris just pulled right out, with very little effort.

Their dogs seemed just like descriptions of the breed that I’d read: friendly, happy, and very responsive to their people.

We brought Tooey and Carlin with us, and they, along with two Cesky Fousek and one Cairn Terrier, went for a nice long walk through the fields, into a pond, and then, to Tooey’s delight, to the Weiser River, where they all (except the Cairn) went swimming and retrieved sticks.

It was a great day. I know that because we were all tired when we got home, and ready for some hot tea and early bed. Of course, that was delayed for an hour or so, because unlike the Fouseks, the two IWS had to be brushed and combed to get all the debris out of their coats.

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Carlin is my third retriever Junior Hunter, falling somewhere in between Cooper’s stellar performance and Tooey’s slow, grudging one. Carlin loves going out to look for birds, but he has struggled with delivering the ducks to hand and with going straight out to the fallen bird, rather than quartering out to it like a spaniel.

Fortunately, at the hunt test put on by Sand and Sage Hunting Retriever Club, he delivered all four birds directly to hand, succumbing to his spaniel instincts only once.

The test was held in Othello, Washington. The club’s name describes the landscape pretty well — sandy, desert soil studded with sagebrush and long tall, seedy grass. The grounds were located on a professional retriever trainer’s property, so the fields and ponds were already in pretty good shape for the test.

Carlin ran #10. I prefer #3 or #4, just because he gets pretty amped up waiting his turn in the holding blinds. But when we got to the line, he sat when I asked him to, and studied the objectives before him.

The first mark was pretty short — only about 60 yards. It did involve running through a dry, shallow swale, but this didn’t put off any of the dogs. Most of the run was through flattened grass, the bird landed just on the edge of a large patch of sage brush.

Carlin picked it up and brought it right back to me. No dropping it on the way.

The second mark was a live flying duck. When gunners shoot a live duck, you never know exactly where it will fall. Carlin’s was long, about 105 yards. As the duck flew and fell, Carlin sat quietly by my side. I know he saw the bird go down because his butt came up just slightly when the bird landed (out just past the post, into the long grass to the right).

From my perspective, that mark should have been easy. And it was, for a few dogs. But there was apparently some kind of force field out there that made many dogs shy off about 15 yards before the area of the bird’s fall. Most dogs, though, eventually found it.

Carlin eventually found it, too. He started quartering the field just at about the same place that all the other dogs got off track. He ran to the right almost to the sage brush, then back toward the trees for about 40 yards, and then quartered the field back and forth toward me. Finally, he got close enough to the bird to wind it, pick it up, and bring it back to hand.

We had a touch of excitement when Carlin decided to go see the dog waiting his turn in the holding blind. This is not a good thing as it shows lack of control. But I got him back, leashed him up, and waited for callbacks.

Most of the dogs got called back. A few didn’t. There was one dog that decided to eat the bird, another that never did come back willingly to the handler and had to be corralled, and a couple of dogs who didn’t deliver their bird to hand. But that was the minority. I really felt for those people, having been in their shoes with one of my dogs too many times.

But we were called back to the water.

I think the two marks were about 80 yards and 70 yards. Both of them had the dog leave the bank, swim across some water, get up onto the land on the far side of the pond, trot some distance to pick up the bird, and then do a return trip. Or at least, that was the idea. It was a relatively small pond, so several of us were not surprised when the test dog ran along the bank around the pond instead of swimming through it.

So the judges put up a hunting blind at the start line, just to the left of the handler, with the idea that this would dissuade the dogs from running the bank.

It worked. I don’t think any of the dogs ran the bank. Instead, they all happily entered the water. Some, like Carlin, leapt in, ears a’flyin’, while others more sedately trotted in.

Carlin did a nice, very straightforward job of his water marks. In the water, out on the land, pick up the bird, and bring it back to hand. No bank running, no shenanigans, no quartering. Just solid good work.

That was Carlin’s 4th pass in a retriever Junior Hunt test, and that earned him his JH title. I was so pleased and so grateful to all the people how have helped us get to this place.

Carlin, Junior Hunter, Sand and Sage Hunting Retriever Club, October 1, 2017 with judges Eric VanStaveren and Chelsea Jensen

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After a long, very hot, dusty, and wildfire-smokey Labor Day at the Scatter Creek Wildlife Management Area in Rochester, Washington, I was tired. Carlin and I had just run his 10th passing master-level spaniel hunt test. He’d gotten to go swimming as part of the test, so he was refreshed, but I wasn’t.

I knew Carlin had passed the test. But I wasn’t sure that his scores were good enough to get that last high-scoring pass needed to qualify him for the Master Hunter Upland Advanced title.

After a dog gets a spaniel hunt test title, the dog can earn an “Advanced” title at that same level. So, for example, a spaniel that has earned a Junior Hunter can earn a Junior Hunter Advanced. (For dogs classified as retrievers, as are Irish Water Spaniels, the titles would be JHU and JHUA, for Junior Hunter Upland and Junior Hunter Upland Advanced, respectively.)

To earn these Advanced titles, the dog must first have earned the initial title with however many passes that takes. So, for a Master Hunter title, the dog needs to earn 5 Master Hunter passes. Then, the dog needs to earn that number again, but this time each a with score averaging 8 or more.

While ribbons were being given out, Russ went and found the judges’ score sheets, and did some quick calculations. Carlin, despite having hopped a foot out of position on one of his bird flushes, and despite an ugly hunt dead portion of the test, had squeaked by with an average of 8.25

So, that was it. Carlin had earned the highest possible title in spaniel hunting tests. More than two years of testing and three of training, working toward this goal. And we finally made it.

I cried and hugged Russ, the judges, my trainer, Carlin, the test secretary, and just about anyone else who looked like they wouldn’t mind being hugged.

Here are the tests he qualified in for the MHUA title:

Master Hunter Upland pass 6Missouri Headwaters Gun Dog Club – May 21, 2017
Average score: 9.33

Master Hunter Upland pass 7 – Cascade English Cocker Spaniel Fanciers – May 26, 2017
Average score: 9.2

Master Hunter Upland pass 8Cascade English Cocker Spaniel Fanciers – May 27, 2017
Average score: 8.9

Master Hunter Upland pass 9 – Clumber Spaniel Club of America – September 2, 2017
Average score: 8.63

Master Hunter Upland pass 10 – Puget Sound English Springer Spaniel Club – September 4, 2017
Average score: 8.25

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Of all the things that can go wrong at a dog competition, I think the most painful must be handler error.

I’m not talking about disqualifying errors, like the guy I watched at a recent hunt, who sent his dog for the retrieve before the judges released him to do so. He had a great dog who could do the work, but the team was disqualified for that error.

I’m more talking about the errors in judgement, where, maybe, if you’d made a different choice, the outcome might have been success rather than failure.

Dog competitions are, for the most part, team sports. Both team members have to be on their game. And if one team member falters, the other one has to pick up the slack. And mostly, it’s on the human half to do the human thing — to think ahead and have a plan.

I’ve been on the successful side of this from time to time. For one example, Tooey and I were in what I hoped would be her third pass for her CD obedience title. I studied the course, and watched several other dogs run, and I saw the place where Tooey would likely falter. There were two about-turns in a row, and I thought she’d stay with me for the first, but lose me on the second. So I saved my second “Heel” command for that moment just as we came out of the second about-turn. I lost points for using the command, but it helped her remember what to do, and we passed.

But I’ve been on the fail side of it too. Like today’s Junior retriever hunt test with Carlin. Carlin had passed his 3rd Junior test yesterday, so if we’d passed today, he’d have gotten his Junior title. But due to series of errors, we didn’t.

The root problem is that I have not force-fetched Carlin. He and I have worked a lot on picking up birds. But I have never taught it to him in such a way that he believes he must pick up a bird whether he wants to or not. And by this weekend, I had been lulled into thinking that, since he’s been picking up birds pretty consistently for the last several weeks, that this would not be a problem today. Error in judgement #1.

I also, for some reason, did not do a good job myself of marking the spot where the bird fell. Carlin has always been an excellent marker, and I was relying on him to mark the fall of this bird for me. I knew sort of where it was, but not really. Error in judgement #2.

So when Carlin ran out the 100 yards, across a road, over a dike, and into the cover, and put his nose down, I assumed that he’d pick up a bird out of that spot. Error #3.

But then he lifted his head without the bird in his mouth. Not having marked the fall of the bird myself, I then assumed that he’d put his nose down into a spot where another dog’s bird had been, and would shortly go over to his own bird and pick it up. Error #4.

But Carlin didn’t pick up a bird. Instead, he began to hunt around in wider and wider circles. He stopped at one point, and stood looking at me. I’d been advised recently to just let my dog work it out and find his own bird, and besides, I didn’t exactly know where the bird was myself. So even if I’d tried to handle him to the bird, I would be handling just to be doing something.

Finally, when Carlin had gotten himself way out of the area of the fall, the judge suggested I try to handle him. So I tried. Carlin took the first handle, but not the rest of them, so he never did find his bird on his own. The judge told the gunner to throw the bird for Carlin again. He did, and Carlin picked up and delivered it smartly to me. But of course, by that time we’d failed.

So, this is what I think happened, based on what I saw and what observers told me. He really did mark the fall of his bird, and when he put his nose down, that actually was his bird. I should have, at the moment he put his nose down, given him an emphatic come-in whistle. I think that may have helped him decide to pick up his bird, even though he didn’t want to.

Having not done that, my next move would have been to give that whistle as soon as he lifted his head without the bird in his mouth. If that had been the spot where his bird was, then that might have helped him decide to pick it up. If his bird was actually somewhere else nearby, then that whistle might have told him that I knew the bird was close by and and that he should pick it up and come in.

Having not done that, then when he later stopped his hunt to look at me, I should have realized that he was asking for help. I knew he was between me and bird, so I could have just given him a back command. It would have cost us points, but it might have helped him. Of course, if I’d known where the bird was myself, I’d have known whether to give a left back command or a right back command, but I didn’t.

I can’t recall feeling this crushed in quite a long time. Carlin failed one of the hunt tests in McCall last month, but that wasn’t due to anything I did or could have done in that moment. That was a training issue, something to keep working on.

Today’s failure was more on me than on Carlin. Yes, it’s a training issue about picking up birds, but it’s also about my being the one that knows her teammate’s weaknesses and comes to the game ready to pick up the slack.

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The day just outside of Butte, MT, started out beautiful: misty, a cool 41 degrees F, and quiet (or as quiet as a it can be at a retriever hunt test with almost 100 dogs and their people). It had been so hot in Boise, that this weather was sweet indeed.

And the day ended up just as sweet, even if quite a bit warmer.

The test was put on by the Helena Valley Gundog Club at the Bob Sparks Retriever Grounds in Elk Park, MT. Absolutely beautiful grounds.

The land work came first. It was held in a field of knee high grass and scrubby bushes, surrounded on three side by tall conifers. Carlin was early in early in the running order, which we both like because a long wait in line to run can really amp him up and get in the way of good focus.

The marks were short, probably only about 70 and 80 yards. But there were odd dips in the ground, and places where, if you’re only 24 inches tall, it can look like the ground is going up hill. Some of the other dogs had trouble, but not Carlin. He went straight out and straight back with the second bird. He stopped and hunted a bit about 10 yards in front of the first bird, but soon pushed out and then dived into the cover to grab up the bird.

When Carlin got back, one of the judges even called it, “Such a nice run.”

The water work was held in a very odd pond. The water was essentially U shaped, with an island coming down the middle of the pond, almost to the start line. A perfect recipe for bank running. This is where the dog stays on the land as long as possible instead of going in a straight line the whole way to the bird, no matter if that line crosses water or land. With this Junior test, the judges are just looking for the dog to get into the water at some point to get the bird. And in this case, the bird landed in the water, so if a dog were to run the bank, they’d have to jump into the water at some point to get the bird.

And that’s what Carlin did. On the first bird, he ran half-way down the bank, jumped into the water and swam to the island. Then he ran down to the end of the island and and then at the top of the U, finally jumped into the water to get the bird. On that one, he swam almost all the way back to the line, got out onto the land, and then came over to me to hand it over. (And thank God, he didn’t drop the bird when he got out of the water.)

On the second bird, he did almost the same thing, only this time, he ran all the way to end of the U, jumped in, got the bird, then got out onto the land at the end of the U, and ran all the way back down the bank to me.

I was very happy to get all 4 ducks delivered to hand. I did wish that he hadn’t had the opportunity to run the bank — that undid some of the training I’ve been doing the last couple of weeks. If he is to run a Senior test someday, he’ll need to go in a straight line to the bird, without succumbing to the temptation to run a handy bank.

But still, with these 4 birds, he earned his third pass. Just one more to go!

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