Posts Tagged ‘dog sports’

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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Ten months of training has led up to this day: Cooper’s first AKC hunt test. It was a huge hunt test, with 59 dogs running at the Junior level. Russ and Cooper were slated to run 57th, but fortunately, got to run a bit earlier than that. Because pro handlers handle so many dogs, they’re given a bit a leeway to run when they can, and that opened up an earlier spot for Team Cooper.

The Land Series

The land series consisted of retrieving two ducks, a launched bird and then a live flyer. For the first bird, the dogs had to mark the duck and then run through (or around) a small patch of blackberries. Nothing significant obscured the dog’s view of the 2nd bird. Both retrieves were about 80 yard, and both ducks landed in short grass cover.

At the Junior level, the handler is allowed to hold the dog’s flat buckle collar in order to restrain an over-eager dog. This rule must have been written with Irish Water Spaniels in mind, specifically Cooper.

But his retrieves were text-book: Cooper went out and back. The only glitch was that he dropped the first bird at the line before Russ could get a hold on it. But the rules state that the dog can pick the bird back up and then deliver it to hand. The dog qualifies as long as the handler does not touch the bird or the dog before the dog delivers the bird. Russ told him to “fetch it up!” and fortunately, Cooper complied.

The 2nd retrieve worked out well, too. Cooper remembered his flyball rules, and ran out and back as fast as he could. Plus, the live flier landed on it’s back with white breast feathers showing, making it easy for Cooper to find.

Oh, and a bit of humor: On Cooper’s return with the live flier, the judge commented not “good job” or “good work,” but “nice hairdo.”

The Water Series

Then we went on the water series. Today we had what one commenter called “splashing water.” Not deep enough to swim in, but dogs did need to be willing to go through water to get their birds on the other side. The judges planned the retrieves to make it easy for most dogs to resist “running the bank” (going around the water rather than through it) on the first bird. The first bird was straight across the middle of the pond. However, the 2nd bird was closer to the edge of the pond, so some dogs might think it was simply more efficient to run around rather than through.

More efficient maybe, but against the rules for any level above Junior. And while all dogs went through the water to get the birds, a few dogs ran the bank on their returns. It seems like a silly rule to me — efficiency should be rewarded, I think. In real hunting situations, as along the mouth of the Columbia River, many hunters want their dogs to run the bank for as long as possible, so the dogs won’t use up all their energy swimming in cold currents and tides.

All this means that for most dogs running hunt tests, not running the bank is definitely something you have to train for. Cooper’s love of water has meant that running the bank hasn’t been a problem. So far, anyway.

Cooper is so eager for the work. You can see it in the video — after the 2nd bird in each series, he comes to heel and starts to scan the horizon for more birds. There just have to be more than 2 birds out there, right?

And another bit of humor for the day: While waiting in the holding blinds for the water series, the handler before Russ said, “I see you’re running an exotic dog, too.” Exotic — translated as “not a Lab, not a Chessie, not a Golden.” This handler had a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever. A NSDTR is another rare-ish breed, like an IWS, but both have long been used and bred to the work.

Anyway, back to the story and its happy ending. Cooper and Russ did really well, and the judges recognized that with a pass and a ribbon.

Cooper's 1st AKC ribbon -- Junior Hunt qualifying score

Oh, and about the pink flamingos that you see at the starting line: they’re a tradition at this Memorial Day hunt test on Sauvie Island. I’m not sure where the tradition started, but the host club, Oregon Hunting Retriever Club, auctions them off each year to benefit breast cancer research.

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For today’s picnic trial (a practice hunt test), the Oregon Hunting Retriever Club somehow arranged for sunny T-shirt weather in Scappoose, Oregon, about 15 miles downriver from Portland. The crowd of us enjoyed practicing (or watching) both Junior and Senior level tests, plus a hotdog lunch.

Cooper was his usual self: a butthead on the way out to the line, and a rocket once actually sent to retrieve. On any kind of hunt or retriever training, he gets so filled with thrill-filled energy that he can barely contain himself. The picture below is sort of misleading — it shows Cooper sitting still with a loose leash.

Once Russ started walking out to the first blind (which you can see, out of focus to Russ’s right), Cooper was bound and determined to get out there as quickly as possible. There are birds out there! I must retrieve them! Russ had to correct Cooper all the way out there, just to get him to stop pulling on the lead for more than two seconds at a time. So frustrating!

Once out there, though, Cooper was like a rocket getting the land birds. Out, grab the bird, come back into heel position, and deliver the bird. The water bird, though, was a little different.

Cooper marked where the bird fell in the pond, leapt into the water when sent, and then practically swam right over the bird. He paddled around for quite awhile, and even hunted along the bank for a bit. The problem? The bird was a pigeon. If it’s in the water, it’s supposed to be a duck, right? Who would have thought to look for a pigeon in the water?

Eventually, though, the bird boy threw some clods of dirt at the pigeon, and Cooper got the picture. O-h-h-h, you want me to pick up the pigeon? OK, I can do that. Swim over, grab the bird, come back into heel position, and deliver to hand.

So, if we can just train a civilized heel in thrilling situations like this, Russ will be a much happier camper. But even so, we can’t help but be very pleased with what Cooper has achieved since August. Can’t wait to see how he does in real hunt tests, coming up in April and May.

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Russ just finished building the website for the Lower Columbia Hunting Retriever Club:

Lower Columbia HRC website home page

We’re members, so Cooper is shown on one of the club’s webpages:

Cooper's picture on the LCHRC website

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Or, at least, sometimes you don’t win. They’re not exactly the same thing. That’s what I’m trying to tell myself.

Take the most recent Rose City Classic dog shows. Both my dogs looked good. Stacy made Tooey look like a real show princess, and Tammy neatened up Cooper’s gundog cut. They’re both good looking dogs with nice movement.

But neither Tooey nor Cooper won Winners in the ring. Tooey came in first in her puppy class on one of the days, but then lost out to another beautiful bitch. Cooper came in 2nd and 3rd in his Open class on the two days — not enough to progress to the next level. So neither of them “lost” exactly — they just didn’t win.

And then there was last weekend’s Pineapple Express Flyball Tournament. Had Cooper been behaving himself consistently, he would have been much more likely to run more of the 64 possible heats. Instead, he got to run only 10 heats. The captain (rightly) pulled him because he was snarking at the teammate-dogs who were passing him at the start gate. And then, in a couple of the heats that he did get to run, some other dog on the team fouled — dropped the ball, ran outside a hurdle, or something.

All that led to fewer points than possible. Not exactly a loss — after all, he did get some points, and all the points count. He just didn’t do as well as I had hoped going into the tournament.

I think what went wrong was similar in both venues: a combination of handler error, overly high expectations, really good competition, and dogs who need more training and practice.

So what do we do? Get over the discouragement. Lower expectations. Maintain hope. Devise better practice. Work on it. Get support. And give it back.

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Russ and Cooper waiting for the launchers to be loaded

Yep. Cooper is parked on a log as we look down range while the bird launchers are being loaded. This is actually a hunt test simulation that replicates conditions seen in flooded timber. In that situation, the hunters may be in a blind or boat while the retriever is parked nearby on a stand set in the water or on the side of a tree.

The issues for the dog and handler are that distance between the two is increased and only a voice command or stern look can control a rambunctious puppy. And with a high and small perch, a dog that tends to break or squirm before being released falls into the water. Not good form. For a dog to mark multiple birds, he needs to be able to turn its head and look in each direction while keep his aft end glued to the stump.

How did Cooper do? Well, after the second shot, he fell off, but immediately sat on the ground until released. For the rest of the dogs, we got a bigger stump with more stability.

Notice below the correct way it should be done. The dog follows the muzzle of the gun, looks skyward over his shoulder, marks the incoming bird, and still stays sitting on the log (the new and improved version – stump 2.0). Even Cooper could have stayed on a stump this size.

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While the Rose City Classic dog show was underway in Portland, I spent the weekend in Rainier, Oregon, participating in a seminar on how to run and judge a UKC Hunt Test. The seminar was hosted by the Lower Columbia Hunt Retriever Club (a UKC affiliate) and held on the grounds of Parkdale Kennels. The regional representative from the Hunt Retriever Club (UKC) gave a classroom session on Saturday. On Sunday we moved outdoors and the group designed a trial for all three levels: Started, Seasoned, and Finished. As the Oregon winter rain flowed from the sky, everyone was in their mandatory water proof camo clothing (see page 8 of the rule book) as we placed the bird launchers and discussed the tactics.

Judges establishing the rules for a Finished UKC Hunt test

In the advanced trial (Finished) of the UKC, a dog must “honor” the retrieve of another dog. This means it needs to sit quietly, unrestrained, while guns are firing and the other dogs are working the course. A feature that distinguishes the UKC hunt trial from an AKC, is the handler of the dog also shoots at the birds while his or her dog sits. This is to simulate real hunting conditions. Below is Butch from Parkdale Kennels with one of his Labs and Earl, the Boykin Spaniel, sitting by in a good honor.

Shooting over a Lab while a Boykin honors

And one more important distinction between the UKC and AKC retriever hunt tests is which dogs are allowed to compete. The UKC is open to more breeds and mixes as it is focused on the hunting experience and less on maintaining the arbitrary “Purebred” experience. One such example is the Boykin Spaniel, a very versatile retrieving dog that is not much larger than some ducks. Pictured below is “Earl”, from Deer Island, Oregon. He is a top champion who competes at the national level in the UKC Grand series. In the world of Labs, it is great to see a 25 lb. dog zoom out 200 yards straight to the bird. And with all this talent, Earl is not eligible for an AKC retriever hunting test.

The Duke of Earl, a champion Boykin Spaniel

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The big flyball tournament is coming up in just two weeks, so it’s time to focus the practice. Going into this weekend, the big questions for Cooper were:

  • Can he do a decent box turn?
  • Can he pass another dog without stopping to discuss?

Yes, and it depends. Take a look at this video of yesterday’s flyball Fun Match:

So, yes he can do a decent box turn. What we’re looking for is called a swimmer’s turn. Hit the box sideways with all four feet (triggering the ball), grab the ball, and push off with same said four feet.

You might notice a clear barrier right in front of the box — that’s there to force Cooper to pick up his back feet just before he hits the box. Otherwise, it would be way too easy for him to hit the box with just his front feet. That’s not only slower, it can also cause injury to the dog’s shoulders over time. We’ll use that barrier at all times except in the actual tournament, just to build in the muscle memory of the swimmer’s turn.

And can he pass another dog? Well, it depends. In the video, Cooper did really well passing a little, light-colored dog, and today in regular practice, he did fine passing a Chihuahua, going straight out to the box and straight back. And he’s fine with all dogs when he’s returning to me with the ball.

But he’s not so fine going out, passing bigger dogs who are coming back. With those dogs, he turns his head and body toward the other dog, slowing himself and the other dog way down. It’s not clear why he’s doing that — lack of confidence? trying to protect me from this big dog that’s rushing toward me? trying to play? challenging the other dog? But whatever the reason, whenever he does that, he gets pulled from the race and doesn’t get to play any more for awhile.

You can see in the video that he REALLY wants to play. I’m hoping that not letting him play every time he pulls that stunt will get the message through: Ignore the other dog and GO GET THE BALL!

So it’s clear: We need more practice. More chances to do it right and keep playing. More chances to do it wrong and get pulled. More chances for the connection to be made and the light bulb go on.

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For a retriever, chasing a seen bird is instinctual. Going out after an unseen object requires following the handler’s instruction. Following instructions is not something that comes naturally to Cooper, and Russ is not a particularly bossy person. Fortunately, the “force to the pile” drill will help Cooper and Russ learn to work together, giving and following instructions.

In this drill, the dog goes out to a pile of bumpers that have already been set out beforehand, and brings one back. The point seems to be to bore the dog with going out and returning with bumpers that were not thrown (and are thus not exciting), over and over again.

Why bore the dog? Once the dog is bored, the hope is that instead of going to the pile, he will goof off, wander away, get distracted by some suddenly enticing scent — something, anything for which the handler can correct the dog.

The point of this is to teach to the dog to go out upon command, even when he hasn’t seen a bird fall. To trust the handler that there is something out there that needs retrieving. To obey the handler, no matter what.

Eventually, there will be “blind” retrieves: times when there’s a bird out there that the dog hasn’t seen fall. In a hunting situation, this might be a wounded bird that must be found and dispatched quickly. In a hunt trial, blind retrieves are set up on purpose to test the dog’s ability and willingness. This situation is what the “force to the pile” drill is preparing for.

In the early stages of this training, before the dog knows the hand signals that tell him to go left or right, something visible is used to mark the pile of bumpers. In this case, we’re using two while fence posts, stuck in the ground at angles to form an “X”. The bumpers are spread around the “X” instead of being lumped in a pile, to make it easier for the dog to just pick a bumper and bring it back. (If the bumpers are in a pile, many dogs will “shop,” rooting through the pile in order to pick the “perfect” one.)

This “force to the pile” drill is harder than it looks. The dog starts by sitting in heel position next to the handler. Only when the dog’s body and head is pointed at the pile can the handler send him out. This way, it’s more likely that the dog will go out straight. If the dog’s head or body is turned, he’ll go out to one side or another. And if he gets in the habit of going out to the side, he will be much more likely to miss a distant mark in the future.

To make sure the dog is sitting straight, the handler has to notice the position of the dog’s body. That sounds easy, but think about it. When the handler looks down and to the left, he sees (or should see) the dog’s head at the handler’s knee, pointing at the mark. But, if the handler’s body is also pointed straight at the mark (as it should be), it’s not all that easy to see if the dog’s body is also straight. You have to twist your head and maybe shoulders around to see it, and that movement can easily prompt the dog to move out of position.

And, at the same time, a novice handler is also having to think about what to do if the dog “breaks” (leaves position before the command), refuses to go out, changes position, wanders off, lies down, stands up, looks around, etc. And in the park where we usually practice, you also have to notice other dogs (some friendly and some not), people (some oblivious and some not), and flying chuck-it balls, frisbees, and etc.

It’s a lot to notice. Think about how it felt when you were first learning to drive, and you’ll get a sense of what learning to hunt-train a dog feels like.

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Last week in Centralia, Washington, it was 10 degrees with 4 inches of ice on the pond. Then a warm, wet storm system blew in from the south Pacific (we call this the “Pineapple Express”) and we are back to our usual soggy but mild winter weather. So with the ice off the pond, it was time for water retrieves doubled with a land retrieve on the other side of the pond.

During the last week at home, while Cooper was recovering from his gastrointestinal distress, we worked on the beginning of some handling drills. This included “whistle-sits” where he sits immediately upon a single whistle tweet, facing me, at any audible distance.

Cooper, after a "whistle-sit", waiting for further instructions

If anyone has any doubts about the retrieve drive of an Irish Water Spaniel, they only have to watch Cooper in action. The challenge is to keep him in control until released. I will put him up against a Lab any day, which of course is what a hunt trial is all about. Anyway, at the start of this series of photos, Cooper is staring down range, waiting for the launch of either a duck onto land or a dummy into the water.

Waiting for the launching of a bird across the pond

Having heard "Cooper", he launches himself after the dummy

Blowing right past a set of decoys set out as a distraction

Returning with the dummy

According to Cooper, this is what being an Irish Water Spaniel is all about. He is off the dog-show hook for a while now that Tooey is our current queen of the dog shows.

Today I was fortunate because I was able to hand off my camera to Annette (owner/handler of Dillon, another hunt trialing IWS who shares a grandfather with Cooper). She took these photos of Cooper and myself as we worked as a “team.” It was great to get some documentation of this process. Thanks, Annette.

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Today’s field training session with Cooper started on a cold crisp morning of 10 degrees. The set up was 4 long single retrieves averaging 150 yards. Cooper’s task was to mark a duck falling into cover and navigate the undulating terrain to find and return with the bird.

In the ideal world, both in hunting and hunt tests, once the dog locates and picks up the bird, it stays in his mouth until the dog delivers it to hand. This is important so that if the bird is merely wounded, it will not escape, as it might if set down while the dog is attending to other business, such as shaking off water upon exiting a pond.

Today, due to some unknown cause, Cooper was experiencing some “gastrointestinal distress,” but his spirit and drive was undiminished. He relieved himself several times before our training session and was driving at full speed on his retrieves without any problem.

Until duck #3.

Returning at full speed with duck in mouth (and Cooper is a sprinter by nature), he abruptly stopped at 50 yards out and assumed the position appropriate to another lower intestinal event. While he completed this untimely call of an irritated colon, the duck stayed firmly locked in his jaws. And then he was back into high gear, made his usual spinning stop into the heel position, and handed off the bird before blazing out for duck #4.

Good hold. Good boy!

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Today’s training session with Cooper was yet another milestone. Last week he executed multiple single water retrieves back to back, all under verbal control. So this week we moved into double retrieves.

At the water’s edge and guided by the shotgun muzzle, he marked the launch and landing of the first duck dummy. Then we rotated about 120 degrees and marked a second dummy as it hit the water. With his laser focus, he shot out through the muck, the shallow pond water, and weeds, grabbed the second dummy, and returned to heel. He did drop the dummy to shake off the water and mud, but with a “fetch” request he picked it up and handed it over before spinning around to get the first dummy. All in all, it was a good performance (other than his covering  me with water and mud).

In the gallery above the pond was Patrick’s owner, Kathy, up from California, and Marian, from Florence, Oregon. Marian, who is a well known IWS breeder on the west coast, brought her pack o’pups with her to have Andy evaluate a couple of girls for their potential as trainable hunters (they most definitely have it).

In Ireland and the UK, the name of “Bog Dogs” is given to this breed acknowledging them as water dogs of Irish origins. When Marian’s pack was cruising the pond’s edge I was compelled to photograph them working their way through the bog in the training grounds. Note that the one on the left, with a white muzzle and leading the pack, is 14 years old. Bog dogs, indeed.

Bog Dogs

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Russ is a very generous guy — all his friends know that. So it’s only natural that he’d share his new-found hunt trialing education with me.

Here I have just released Cooper to go get the dummy that Russ has thrown out. Cooper was good here — I didn’t have to hold onto him too tightly to stop him from bolting. Eventually, the goal is that he will sit at the handler’s side and wait to be released by the handler’s saying “Cooper!”


Here Cooper is racing out to get the bumper. Behind him, I am fumbling, trying to hold the e-collar control and grab the whistle so I can give the “toot-toot” that reminds Cooper to come back to me.


Here is Cooper racing back with the bumper. I hadn’t quite managed to whistle at the perfect time. But I did get the whistle in because Russ started reminding me, “Whistle now! Whistle now!” At the same time, I am supposed to be remembering to say “Here!” and “Heel” and “Sit” all in the right order (and maybe “Hold” if it looks like he’s going to drop the dummy, and “Fetch” if I’m too late with that, and he actually drops it).


At last, success: Cooper sits at my side with the bumper. He even let me take it (delivery to hand).


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Andy introduces Shotguns to the training mix

Andy introduces shotguns to Patrick

Training for hunt trials and hunting can be two distinct activities. And the different organization  that offer hunt trials, such as the American Kennel Club and the United Kennel Club, add even more complexity.

Andy prefers the trials presented by the UKC over the AKC because he thinks the UKC trials represent a more natural hunting scenario to the dogs and handlers. One element is the use of guns and live fire over the dog as it would occur in a duck blind.

So the first step in his process is to include an unloaded shotgun at the line, cock it, point it down range in the direction of the ducks, and dry fire on an empty chamber at the time of the launch of a duck or dummy. If the dog is smart, they will associate the muzzle direction with where to look so they can accurately mark the fallen duck.

In time, live fire will be added after the dog is steady at the line (not bolting before being released) and improving in their marking skills.

As I was standing back with the camera for this photo, Andy was demonstrating with another IWS named Patrick. After this demo, Cooper and I came to the line and repeated the process. His steadiness is getting really good, and his introduction to live gun fire will occur this week.

Andy reports that his steadiness for water entries still needs a bit more work as his excitement at demonstrating his “dock diving” skills sometimes over-rides his discipline. Andy has remarked that his water entries are rather spectacular for a rookie trainee, but then, Andy has yet to see Cooper in his civilian job as dock diver extraordinaire.

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Andy's dog kennel on wheels (at the pond)

Andy's dog kennel on wheels (at the pond)

After a night of rain in the Pacific Northwest, the sun popped out about 10:00 am. I took this one photo just after I made the 80-mile drive up I-5 from Portland to one of Andy‘s training grounds near Chehalis, Washington. Then it was time to put the camera away and to start working with Cooper.

Andy had set 2 pair of launchers on either side of the pond and a stack of bumpers on the far side for blind retrieves for the advanced dogs. My job today was to keep Cooper “steady at the line” until I released him in a series of single retrieves of Dokken Dummies (fake ducks). The task was to keep Cooper’s drive in check and for him to be aware that I was the sole source for the permission to leave the line. Once I said, “Cooper,” he shot down to the bank and launched himself into the pond as though this was a dock diving competition. He may be a rookie, but he gets points for style.

Then Andy had me do the same drill with a Lab who was quite a bit more pushy than Cooper and about 20 lbs heavier. Made me appreciate my seemingly sedate package in the curly brown coat. And then another chance to work with a 2nd Lab before the bonus round of handling Joey, the talented IWS from Colleen. After his double, Joey just swam out to the blind retrieve of about a 100 yards, came back, and calmly laid the bumper in my hands, looked up, and asked if there anything else he should get on my behalf.

Another handler mistook the curly brown dog in the water for Cooper and thought we had a prodigy taking back cast instructions after only 8 weeks of training. (I believe Joey has been at this for a year — and it shows.) Perhaps Andy had me handle Joey so I would get an appetite for a really well trained IWS.

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