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Posts Tagged ‘hunt tests’

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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Let’s just get to the thrill-packed conclusion: Cooper and I failed today’s WCX test. And we totally failed this time, unlike Cooper’s almost pass last time.

But it wasn’t just Cooper. Working certificate tests, like hunt tests, are a team sport. And this time, both team members messed up big time.

As Cooper and I walked from the parking lot to the first holding blind, it became obvious that Cooper was wild and revved up. As you can see from the picture below, I even resorted to wrapping the leash around his muzzle to stop him from pulling me.

photo by Martha Jordan

He waited in the holding blinds like I asked him to (without jumping on the blind or running out from behind it), but he was still pretty amped up, looking wildly around at every gunshot and whistle.

When it was our turn, we made our way to the line. I walked. Cooper, now off leash as required in the rule, essentially ran in circles around me, as he jumped out and I called him back, jumped out and was called back, and again, rinse, lather, repeat.

At the line, I took a few minutes to get him into heel position facing the spot where first bird would fall. I signalled to the judge that we were ready. The judge called for the bird. The bird was thrown, the gunshot went off, and so did Cooper.

In a hunting situation, this would be somewhat acceptable. But in the land series of a WCX test, the dog is supposed to wait for three birds to fall before being sent out to retrieve the first one.

When it became apparent that Cooper intended to retrieve that first bird, I called him back with a “Here!” command. He came back part way. The second bird was thrown, and Cooper went out about 10 more feet.

And that’s when I started my series of mistakes. I yelled, “Cooper! Here!”

To the non-hunt-tester reader, that sounds reasonable enough: get your dog’s attention with his name and call him back. But anyone who does hunt tests will immediately recognize the problem.

In hunt tests, the command to go out and retrieve is traditionally the dog’s name. And that’s how Cooper was trained. So what I essentially just told my dog to do was, “Go out! Come back!”

I was so discombobulated and so inexperienced, that I then made matters worse by repeating my mistake several times (I don’t know how many, but at least three, possibly four): “Cooper! Here!” And every time I did so, Cooper went out farther and then jumped back. Out and back, out and back.

Finally, Cooper couldn’t stand the contradiction any longer, and just went out and retrieved the second bird. All of this before the third bird was even thrown.

He brought that second bird back to me (he always brings back his birds), and at that point, the watching gallery (who were too far away to hear my mistakes), and the judges, and I, all knew that Cooper had failed. I just had to leash him up, say “Thank you, judges,” and walk off the test.

Everyone could see that Cooper was out of control, and later at lunch, I got a lot of very well-worn advice about how to get my dog under control and what I might be able to accomplish if I could just get that dog under control.

But it’s a team sport, and I am way more of a newbie than Cooper is. I’ve watched him in a lot of hunt tests, but I’ve only run him once.

Both of us need practice together, training us both on being steady and keeping ourselves under control.

———————

Even with the failure, there were some nice things about that test:

Cooper picked the most difficult bird to go out and retrieve. That second bird was the farthest away, and the dog had to run over some up-and-down terrain in moderately heavy cover to get there. Even with all the jumping around, he marked that bird exactly, ran straight out to it, picked it up, and brought it back.

And I am grateful that my dog actually wants to go out and retrieve birds. I watched some other dogs at that test who didn’t want to go out, or couldn’t find their bird, or who objected to picking up a bird once it was found. Cooper doesn’t have any of those problems.

Another nice thing was watching Cooper’s half-siblings run the test: Riki and Emmy are also Nova puppies. Riki passed his WCX  today. He’s got all the talent Cooper has and an accomplished handler. Emmy ran the WC test and failed, probably because she’d never run for Russ before, or even worked with him before. Even so, it was wonderful to watch her lovely line manners and her ability to mark and locate her birds.

Here’s a picture of the sibs:

Christine with Riki, Russ with Emmy and Cooper

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How to spend $75 in 3 minutes:

  1. Take your dog (whom you been training to be steady at the line for many months) to a Senior hunt test.
  2. Watch your very excited dog zoom out to the start line in nowhere close to the heel position.
  3. Call your dog back to the heel position at the start line. Tell him, “Sit.” Then tell him “Sit,” again.
  4. Watch the first bird go down while your dog jumps forward 4 feet.
  5. Watch your dog break and race out as the second bird goes up before the judge releases him to go.
  6. Watch your dog retrieve the second bird before it even bounces the first time.
  7. Watch your dog come back with the second bird and proudly deliver it to your hand.
  8. Leash your dog, say “Thank you, judges,” walk back to the car, and drive home.

For an additional $6, you can then pour yourself a very nice glass of McCarthy’s Single Malt Whiskey, even if it is 8:30 in the morning.

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The good news first: Today Cooper took his 2nd Senior hunt test, and he passed. 2 passes down, 2 passes to go.

Cooper's 2nd qualifying test: AKC Senior Hunter (Retriever)

Cooper passes the land and water tests

The land series was first. It included a walk up, a double with a 100-yard live flyer and a 50-yard mark, and then a 50-yard blind retrieve. By good fortune, we had trained earlier in the week for most of this scenario — dark brown birds flying through the air against a dark background of trees. Cooper generally does marking very well, so that added practice watching the fall against a dark background could only enhance a probably good performance.

And the blind retrieve was almost exactly the same as what we practiced: charging straight through tall cover to retrieve a duck he hadn’t seen fall. In fact, when it looked like Cooper was going to zoom in a straight line toward the blind retrieve, Russ decided to stop him and give him directions, just to show the judges that Cooper can take direction. What happened at the walk up at the beginning of the land series will show why.

That walk up was hard to watch. After all these years of training, at hunt tests, Cooper still does not have a controlled walk at heel — instead he dances out to the line, several feet out in front of Russ. And on a walk up, that can be a real problem. On a walk up, the handler and dog walk toward the line, and when the team gets there, the judge signals for the bird to be thrown. Only at the point when the bird is in the air, only then can the handler tell the dog to sit. The farther out in front of the handler the dog is, the greater the temptation it is for the dog to bolt out for the bird, and not wait to be sent. But fortunately, Cooper sat when told, and only went out when given the command.

Whew!

Then it was on to the water series: a double with a 80-yard mark and a 50-yard mark with a diversion shot, a 60-yard blind retrieve, and an honor.

I don’t know why Cooper does this, but he always seems to do at least one very dramatic thing at every test. It started with him jumping over the holding blind at the water series and then dancing to the line ahead of Russ. And it continued during his retrieve of the 80-yard mark.

The mark was thrown so that the a straight line to the duck would be very close to parallel to the shore. The dog would be sorely tempted to cheat by running along the bank instead of going into the water, swimming to the duck, and swimming back.

Cooper succumbed to temptation. Unfortunately for him, there was a log right at the edge of the pond. To stay along the edge of the bank, he actually had to crawl along and over the log, then jump into the water at the end of the log, swim to the duck, then swim back to the closest part of the shore. To avoid crawling back over the log again while holding the duck, he decided to run overland around the log and back to the start line. At this point, I was biting my nails. I could barely watch.

But then the rest of the water series went well — he did his 50-yard mark with the diversion shot just fine, nailed the blind retrieve, and managed to restrain himself from jumping into the water while he was honoring the next dog’s work.

Cooper survives the water test

And this gets me to the “survive” part. Like a lot of sports, hunt tests are dangerous. When you’ve been to several tests and no one gets hurt, it’s easy to forget that the outdoor fields and ponds are filled with danger. A not uncommon danger is logs in the water. Submerged or partially submerged log surfaces are smooth and slippery, and often partially broken off branches project out from such logs. Sometimes those branches are also partially submerged and can’t be seen, other times they are visible, but no one expects that the dogs will get near them.

beavers' work puts logs with protruding branches into the ponds

But obviously, Cooper got near them as he crawled along the log at the edge of the pond. He was OK because he wasn’t running full tilt when he got to the log. But another dog, a black Lab, wasn’t so lucky. The Lab ran at full speed and collided his upper chest right into one of those protruding branches. He screamed, turned around, and limped back to his handler, who scooped the dog up in his arms and walked quickly to his car and to the vet. Close-by onlookers reported no blood but the quick swelling up of a white hematoma.

Of course, bystanders discussed whose fault this was. Some said that the judges should have made sure well before the test that no logs or branches were anywhere near a dog’s possibly path to the duck — they would have said: Remove the logs or launch the duck so the dog’s path to its landing place doesn’t intersect with the logs. Others said that a handler should have been aware of the possibility of the log’s danger, and sent his dog in a line that would not intersect with the log, even if that line would take the dog away from the direct line to the duck.

After that dog was injured, a crew of hunt test workers and volunteer dog handlers worked together to drag the logs out of the pond. Too late for the injured dog, and too late to prevent Cooper from doing his log-crawling act.

But for Cooper, there was one small benefit. The injured dog obviously didn’t get his duck, so it was still floating out there in the water. Since we were still there watching, and since Cooper had already run, he was asked to be the “pick up” dog. After carefully checking that there were no more dangers in the pond, Russ sent Cooper out on one extra retrieve for the day.

And that’s all Cooper ever wants — one more retrieve.

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You might think it strange that a blog entry about my dogs would start with a story about a conversation I had with one of my college English professors. I was taking a written argument class, and with every paper, I would write myself in circles. I could see the validity of every point of view, and my papers reflected that. It seemed like I could never decide what conclusion I wanted to come to.

The professor finally took pity on me and said, “Patrice, just decide. It’s only a paper. You can always argue the other side later.”

So how does that fit in? Well, I’ll get to that in a bit…

If you’ve been reading this blog, you already know that Tooey’s performance in field work has been sometimes exciting and more often disappointing. So I’ve been thinking and talking — a lot — about what to think and then do about it.

Being in the grip of disappointed emotions, as I was after last weekend’s hunt test, is probably not the best time to be deciding what to do. I’ve noticed about myself that in this kind of situation, I can make rash, rushed decisions that I later regret.

But knowing that hasn’t stopped me from thinking around and around and around in circles about it for the last half week. Ideas that have occurred to me:

  • Giving Tooey back and getting a different dog with hunting drive. This is what some experts advise — when your dog doesn’t have the traits/temperament to do the job you want, get rid of the dog and get another one. But give my Tooey away to yet another home? — I don’t think I could live with myself.
  • Changing venues to obedience, rally, or agility. I think Tooey would like any of these — it’s just that I’m not sure I would like them nearly as well as field work.
  • Switching to spaniel work. I’m not sure this would be a workable choice since Tooey would still have to retrieve birds. But at least they wouldn’t be ducks. She has seemed usually happy to pick up chukars, pheasants, and pigeons.
  • Starting back at the basics with retriever work myself, including my doing a force fetch on her so that she will pick up ducks for me whether she really wants to or not. But I’m not sure I have the stomach for doing a force fetch, and I don’t think I want to force an oval peg into a round hole. She will happily go out and pick up bumpers, but not ducks.
  • Getting a 3rd dog, one with hunting drive. I know some folks successfully have 3 dogs, but I am pretty sure that would not work in my house, my work situation, or my marriage.
  • Trading dogs with Russ, so that I handle Cooper and Russ handles Tooey. I don’t know exactly what I think about this — I would get the field work experience, but I’d miss all the initial training experience. And besides, Cooper so clearly loves working with Russ.
  • Doing nothing, just having a pet. But I don’t want to do nothing with my very smart, sweet girl.

Seems like I’m having my same old problem of seeing every side and not being able to choose.

But, just as in my college papers, I can make one choice now and a different ones later. So let’s start defining some goals for my relationship with Tooey: I should be happy, and she should be happy. This pretty much means: having fun, learning new things together, having enough time to spend some with Tooey, and having fewer disappointments.

This eliminates the getting rid of Tooey, getting a 3rd dog, trading dogs with Russ, and doing nothing. Leaving changing venues, switching to spaniel work, or going back to basics on retriever work.

Of these, changing venues to obedience seems like the best option. Tooey likes it, which means she would be happy and that we’re likely to have some success. That will make me happy. And obedience work will teach Tooey and me how to work together and become a team. Which will also make me happy.

Plus, obedience can’t hurt anything I’d do it the future. Obedience will only support similar skills used in the field — going out, retrieving, sitting steady, coming when called, all that good stuff.

We can always do ducks or other birds later.

OK, that’s decided. Whew!

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Tooey failed yesterday’s Junior retriever hunt test. The failure didn’t completely surprise me, but what did surprise me was the almost complete lack of enthusiasm.

I could see that she didn’t want to go out to get that first duck. We started at the water. She left the line, stepped into the water, swam out for about 15 yards, and then turned around to come back. I told her to go get her bird, and since she was still swimming in, I then turned my face away.

At that point, she decided to turn around and get the bird. When she got it, I gave her a happy, “Good! Here! Good job!” She brought the duck back to about two feet away from the line, dropped the duck, and wouldn’t — would not — pick it up again. Finally the judge excused us.

We’ve been working on picking up and holding wet ducks, so I knew that dropping and not fetching up the wet duck might be an issue.

But I was very surprised at her reluctance to go out. I thought that we’d been making strides in building enthusiasm. And for the past couple of weeks, we have been going out to a couple of different training fields with ponds, and she has been happy to leap into to water, fetch up the bumper, and come straight back in. She’s been so eager to go out that she’s been whining when we get close to the training field, and whining at the practice line to be sent, both on land and water. So eager that she’s even been willing to pick up icky wet ducks.

It’s as if there is something about an actual hunt test environment. It amps Cooper up so high with the desire to retrieve that he’s on the edge of control. With Tooey, it just seems to deflate her — it happened with me yesterday, I could see it at the two hunt tests I attended that Butch took her to, and I could hear it in the descriptions that Butch gave me of the tests I didn’t see.

Or maybe it’s the ducks. Hunt tests always have ducks. Our practice doesn’t always have ducks. It isn’t easy to get ducks to train with — the last two we had finally became too decrepit. I cut the wings off and will band them to a dokken until I can get some more ducks.

I don’t know what I’m going to do now. She’s scheduled for another hunt test in a couple of weeks. I have about 12 hours to scratch her from the test. I’m thinking about what to do…

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Bev Higgins, of Parkdale Kennels, called to tell me that Tooey ran a perfect Junior hunt test today. What made it even better was Bev’s description of how happily and enthusiastically Tooey worked for all four marks.

I wasn’t there (darn it!), so I have to report what I was told. The facts will probably be mostly right, they just may not be in the right order. And no pictures, either.

The weather in Anderson, California for today’s Lassen Retriever Club hunt test was warm, with no wind (thank heavens). She was again handled by Butch Higgins, her trainer. There were, as usual, two series: the morning’s land series and the afternoon’s water series.

The land series included two birds, one of which was a live flyer. Both birds came down at about 100 yards. For each of the two single marks, Tooey apparently marked the fall, went straight out to the bird, and came straight back. Bev even described her as having “stepped on the bird.” That’s a common hunt test phrase that means the dog nailed it: going out to exactly where the bird landed and not having to hunt around looking for it. What’s even more perfect is that Tooey did this twice. Oh, good girl!!!

Bev said that this made Butch so happy that he did a small little dance at the line watching her come back with the second bird. (I would like to have seen this…) And when they were done with the land series (I’m guessing it was the land series), he even let her jump up on him so he could “love her up.”

The water series also included two marks. It sounds like both birds were thrown from a peninsula that went into the middle of the pond. The first bird was launched for a 75-yard mark into the water (I think). The second bird was hand-thrown for a 50-or-so-yard mark toward the shore of the pond. Really lucky dogs got a second bird that fell into the water with a big splash (which makes it easier to see), while unluckier dogs got a duck that fell onto the land at the edge of the pond. Tooey’s second bird landed in between, so there was a little splash.

And she did it again. Went right into the water, swam briskly to the duck, grabbed it up, and brought it right back. On the second bird, she did the same — and what’s great about this is that she resisted the temptation to get out of the water and shake off before fetching the bird. Tooey just grabbed it up, turned around, and swam back to Butch.

One of these four marks (I don’t know which one), Bev even said that Tooey came back with her duck, sat prettily into a perfect heel position at Butch’s side, and raised the duck up to deliver it to him.

A perfect hunt test. And Tooey’s first orange ribbon!

Good girl, my sweet Tooey darling! Let’s hope for/pray for/wish for/meditate on another ribbon tomorrow.

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This weekend, Tooey was in two Junior hunt tests. She didn’t pass either one.

I wasn’t there. They were the two Marin Retriever Club hunt tests held in Corning, California, where she was handled by Butch of Parkdale Kennels. I’m not clear on all the information, but these facts seem clear:

  • In both tests, she got all four of her birds. But on Sunday’s test, she was slow and had to be coaxed into picking up one of the water marks.
  • The weather for both tests was extremely windy, winds 10-20 mph with gusts up to 30 mph. In the water, this radically changed the position of the birds from the time the dog saw them fall into the water to the time the dog actually got to the bird to pick it up.
  • For Saturday’s test, her mood seemed good, and she was enthusiastic. On Sunday, she apparently seemed sort of down.
  • Butch was really surprised that she didn’t pass on Saturday, but agreed that her performance was lackluster on Sunday.
  • On Saturday, she got a round of applause from the gallery.
  • On both days, she marked the fall of the birds nicely.
  • 15 of the 41 participating Junior dogs (and 7 out of the 15 handled by Butch) failed on Saturday. That’s almost a 37% (and 47%) failure rate. Seems kind of high for a Junior test. But, then again, I wasn’t there and one can never predict what a judge (or the weather) is going to do in any venue.

Butch’s conclusion: He planned to concentrate on water work this week, encouraging her to pick up the birds when she first gets to them. Apparently, on Sunday, she got to one of the water birds, and just kind of pushed it around, only picking it up when Butch told her to.

All in all, very disappointing.

But this is not the end of anything. She’s scheduled for 4 more tests this month, 2 of them next weekend. If Tooey passes all 4 of these these, then wonderful! — She’ll have earned her Junior Hunter title.

If she doesn’t pass, then we’ll start a program of working with her ourselves. That’s a strategy that Russ pursued with Cooper, and it worked really well for them. Of course, with Tooey, the plan will need to be different because she’s a different dog with a different set of ideas about what’s important, but Russ is confident that we can do it. And I trust Russ.

But no matter what, we’ll get her home soon in a couple of weeks and create a happy life for her and all of us.

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Just over a year ago, Russ and Cooper were practicing for Cooper’s first hunt test by going out for their first “picnic” hunt test put on by the Oregon Hunting Retriever Club. That time, they were working hard at maintaining control. Getting Cooper to the holding blind on a loose leash was next to impossible, and getting him to stay in the holding blind without being restrained was even more impossible.

But at this year’s picnic test? Look at that picture below. No collar. No leash. Just sitting, focused on me, and waiting for the command to heel out of the blind.

waiting in the holding blind

At last year’s picnic test, Cooper was a rocket doing “single marks” — watching one bird fall, going out, picking it up, and returning with it. In that case, the field was flat, no cover, no corn, no tufts of grass.

This year, he did a double — watching two birds fall, going out, picking up the first one, delivering it, then coming back into the heel position to be sent out after the second bird — and then a single. The test also included a patch of corn field between us and the area of the fall. The first problem this presents is that the corn is taller than Cooper, so it can obscure his view of a bird’s landing spot.

Second, we were placed so that Cooper could have run around the corn field to get to the bird (the left edge of the corn field is just barely out of the left side of the pictures below) instead of straight through it. For actual hunting, it doesn’t matter so much, but for hunt tests, it does matter. Straight through an obstacle is best.

I was worried, but I needn’t have been. Cooper was a rocket again this year, going straight through the corn to the bird, and straight back. Three times — once for each bird.

watching the first bird fall

watching the second bird fall

Another little distraction for me was that I had to shoulder the gun while the bird is flying through the air. “Shoulder” as in bring it up to my shoulder as if I were going to shoot it, and “gun” as in the wooden, shotgun-shaped stick. (Not that it would have mattered to most of the birds — they were already dead.)

waiting to be sent

Last, there was a blind. Well, what can I say about this? Cooper is still learning to do complicated blinds, and this one was complicated. The dog had to go through a marshy patch of taller-than-Cooper corn, reeds, grass, and muck. Then, the idea was to get into the pond, swim across to the opposite shore, and pick up a bumper he hasn’t seen fall.

To do this, the handler has to tell the dog where to go, using commands and whistles. And the handler’s timing and choice of commands has to be matched with the dog’s habits and skills.

Cooper has been practicing blinds a lot longer than I have, and he’s been doing them with Russ. So I just didn’t know what to do when, and Cooper got lost. Oh well.

So, we changed it up so that I had to direct Cooper to a bumper floating in the middle of the pond, which he could easily reach without navigating a marsh first. That worked!

delivering the "blind" bumper

And last, the honor. If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that merely watching while other dogs get to retrieve has been really, really hard for Cooper. When we got to the honor station, Russ advised me to adopt as my mantra, “No bird. G-o-o-d no bird. No bird. Good no bird…” And it all came together. Cooper stayed in place while the other dog retrieved.

Good dog!

staying in place, honoring the next dog's retrieves

What a difference a year (and a lot of work) makes.

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It’s a big jump from Junior Hunter level tests to Senior Hunter level. It’s true that both levels include “marks” — the dogs watch (mark) ducks fall from the sky, and then retrieve them.

At the Junior level, the dog marks one duck fall, retrieves it, then marks the 2nd duck fall, and then retrieves that one. But in the Senior test, the dog is expected to mark two ducks fall, retrieve one (the “go” bird) and bring it back to the handler, and then go out and get the second one (the “memory” bird).

A second major difference is the “blind retrieve.” In that case, the handler knows where the bird is, but the dog doesn’t see it fall. So the handler has to send the dog out to the bird, using whistle and hand signals to tell the dog where to go.

A third major difference, especially crucial for high-energy, high-drive dogs like Cooper, is that all this work is done without any collar or leash. That’s not so important while the dog is actually retrieving, but it can be critical when the dog is walking to the start line and waiting at the line for the command to retrieve. The dog has to be under control, and the handler has nothing but his voice, whistle, and hand signals to control the dog.

This ties into the fourth major difference: the honor. This is where the dog who has just completed his set of retrieves sits and watches the next dog work. This is so hard for a dog with desire to work or with a competitive spirit, like Cooper. Not being able to do the honor was Cooper’s undoing at his WCX test last October.

So here are some videos of Russ and Cooper’s 1st Senior Hunt test. The land series was first, with a 75 yard go bird, a 60 yard memory bird, and a 50 yard blind retrieve. It’s hard to tell from the video, but the land had both reasonably dense cover and shallow bogs, so the dog had hunt in cover and cross shallow water both coming and going.

Cooper got all three birds and passed the land series. He actually did better than quite a few of the other dogs out there, going right out to the marked birds and back, with a minimum of hunting around. He succeeded at the blind with only four “handles,” and best of all, he was under control going to the line, during the honor, and leaving the line. All this allowed him to participate in the water series.

The water series included a 75 yd go bird, with the dog entering diagonally to the bank (hard for a lot of dogs), a 50 yd memory bird, and then a 70 yard blind. What made this series interesting was that the judges wanted the dogs to go back into the holding blind, carrying their second bird, and there deliver it to the handler. That is an unusual scenario, one that Cooper has not practiced.

He got both his marks: the go bird was a nice straight-out-and back. The memory bird was a little squirrelly, but okay. The 70 yd water blind is longer than Cooper has practiced — in fact, he hasn’t practiced any water work since last October. So, wasn’t entirely sure what he was searching for, or how far away it was. He came upon three sticks in the water, and grabbed each one with the idea that this might be what Russ wanted him to get. But at each stick, Russ signaled another “Back!” telling Cooper to keep going. Finally, he got to the duck, picked it up, and brought it back.

Last weekend, Cooper did a great job being a spaniel, flushing up birds. Today, he was a stellar retriever. Team Cooper passed their first Senior Hunt test and got the orange ribbon. Cooper needs to do that only three more times, and then we’ll be able to add SH (Senior Hunter) to his list of titles.

Russ, Senior Test ribbon, and Cooper

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On our second hunting trip with Rod and Renae out near the Potholes Reservoir in eastern Washington, Rod and Russ carried the guns, Renae served as guide and expert commentator, and I took pictures. Taking pictures is one area where hunting and hunt tests, at least the ones I go to, are alike. In both cases, I generally get pictures. And that was true on this trip, too. I’ll post more later, but this is one of my favorites of Cooper and Russ:

One of the biggest differences between hunting and hunt tests is that in hunt tests, you are guaranteed that there will be birds. The hunt test organizers go out and buy them, and then throw them for the dogs, so you know they’re there. Hunting is different. On this trip, Rio (Rod and Renae’s Irish Water Spaniel) flushed up only three birds: a hen (which you can’t shoot), and two roosters (which you can).

And then, in hunt tests, the birds are either pre-killed or shot for you by several experienced gunners. And the area of the fall is generally planned to be a place where a dog can be expected to be able to find the bird.

By contrast, on this hunting trip, Russ and Rod got a shot off each at one of the pheasants, and it fell into the cattails. Both dogs charged in to retrieve it (good dogs!), but after a lot of looking by both canines and all four homo sapiens, we didn’t find the pheasant. Probably it had gotten the scare of it’s life, and then recovered soon enough to run off into the heavy cover.

Lastly, hunt tests don’t generally involve a lot of hiking — some, to be sure, to get you and your dog to the line, where the hunt test starts, but not much. On this trip, we had miles of beautiful hiking through sage brush (smells SO good), tall grass, over rocks, around thick patches of cattails, and through low swampy areas, all set in the hilly ridges around the area. These are some of the pictures I’ll put in a later post.

I have loved these hunting trips — so different from my normal, urban, working-in-a-cube-farm life. I guess that’s something else that’s similar to hunt tests — I love them, too.

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Just when you think you know your dog, he likes to throw something fun your way. The WCX test this weekend had some known challenges for Cooper. Steady to the line off-lead is one. When going out on multiple marks, he has often stops and turns around to ask for help (popping), and when he is excited he resists pivoting at the line in the heel position to get a good look at additional birds going down into cover.

The land test for the WCX was a triple with pheasants (one a live flier). Cooper went to line off-lead and sat while scanning the horizon for the gunners. Because this test is run by field trial rules, the shooters are out in the field, wearing white jackets for visibility. After Cooper watched the first two pheasant go down, he turned and faced the live flier station. Upon his release, he bee-lined it for his first retrieve, delivered to hand, rotated to the next bird, ditto, and onto the third. Wow, that was easy. We walked back to the holding blinds off-lead and in the heel position. Is this Cooper?

Notice the loose leash. Is this Cooper?

The water test was a double retrieve, including one live flying duck. Our trip the line was again off-lead but with a noticeable increase in Cooper’s hyper drive. He resisted pivoting his heeling position to mark the ducks, but when the first shot went off, he spun, focused, and marked the fall. Unfortunately, the duck did not go down into the water and a “no-bird” was called. I put Cooper back on the lead and we returned to the holding blinds where we waited two more turns to try it again. Cooper sat in the blinds listing to gun shots and dog whistles, none of which helped him calm down.

The return to line was a bit tense on my end, keeping the boy in check with a lot of commands to “Heel” between the last blind and the line. But Cooper focused and it was two ducks up and into the water, and Cooper doing a double retrieve and delivery to hand. Woo Hoo!

The very last portion of the test is an “honor”: to step aside and sit calmly off-lead while the next dog runs the water series. Cooper started out well, watching two more ducks go up and into the water, sitting, butt glued to ground. So far so good. Then the working dog, a Flat-Coated Retriever, was sent to pick up his first bird, and that was the undoing of our WCX.

Just as the judge was coming over to say, “Honor dog released,” Cooper decided he could out-swim the Flat-Coat and get to the duck first. So off he went with another one of his dock-diving entries, breaking his honor.

Plus, the WCX rules state that once the action starts for the working dog, the honor dog’s handler cannot speak to the honor dog. I had to call Cooper back, but in doing so, I violated the rule of talking to my dog.

Working Certificate not-so-Excellent.

The photo shows Cooper in the final moments of his honor position, with me standing next to and at 90 degrees to him with my arms crossed, mouth shut. This is to distinguish my body language from my normal getting-ready-to-send-him-on-a-retrieve position. Mentally, I am shouting as loud as I can, “Sit!, Stay!, No Bird!” But if you look at Cooper’s expression, you can see that he is just licking his lips in anticipation of out-racing the Flat-Coat to what he thinks is his rightful bird.

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Cooper’s full name is now (drumroll, please) SHR Realta Rosario Cooper, CGC, FdX, JH, WC.

I can’t express how happy I am that Cooper passed his Working Certificate (WC) test this weekend, put on by the Northwest Flat-coated Retrievers Club in Monroe, Washington. I was also thrilled to be able to handle Cooper at the test. But before I go on, I want to thank Russ for doing all the hard work training up to this point, and for graciously encouraging me to do the handling on the WC this weekend.

It was a blast. First there was a land double. That means that two pheasants were tossed into the air, about 50 yards away, and over 90 degrees apart, where they landed in short mowed grass. Only after both birds hit the ground did the judge say, “Dog.” That was my signal to send Cooper out after the first pheasant.

The first pheasant was a bit difficult — the feathers kept coming out in Cooper’s mouth, so he’d drop the bird, spit out the feathers, and then fetch up the bird again. Not optimal — it would have been best if he’d simply grabbed the bird and brought it all the way back before spitting feathers. But this wasn’t disqualifying, so on to the 2nd pheasant.

The trick with a double is that the dog has to remember where the 2nd bird went down while he’s retrieving the 1st bird. Cooper went out straight to the 2nd bird, but then he hunted around a bit. Not sure what exactly he was doing out there. I suspect that he really did know where the 2nd bird fell, and just wanted to run around a bit before coming back. Also not optimal — if he’d gone over to hunt in the area where the 1st bird fell, that could have been disqualifying. But fortunately, he didn’t. After a couple of minutes of dinking around, he fetched up the 2nd pheasant and brought it back.

Then we rested, ate lunch, gave Cooper several opportunities to take care of his personal needs, and then, since Cooper passed the land series, we went on to the water series.

Getting Cooper out to the line is a challenge for me. He is so excited that he wants to pull me all the way out. He’s better for Russ, probably because Russ has worked with him so much more and has established some authority. (You can see in the top picture above that the leash is tight.) So by the time we got to the line for the water marks, which are Cooper’s favorite, he was wound up and pushing himself off my legs to get to the line quicker. The judges observed this, and make some comment about “those Irish Water Spaniels are so… mumble, mumble…”

But then, when they saw Cooper go after his first water mark (a duck), they changed their tune. “Wow!” one judge said, “That’s a photo op!” It certainly was — Russ clicked the camera just at the right second:

Cooper went out and got both ducks, swimming about 50 yards or so to each one. He’s a strong and fast swimmer, and brought both ducks straight back to me without running along any of the banks. Now, not “bank running” — that’s optimal.

Cooper got all 4 of his birds without making any disqualifying mistakes, earning his IWSCA Working Certificate. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have things to work on, like not spitting out birds, not dinking around hunting in the field, and walking calmly to the line.

But all in all, I had a wonderful time, we put a new title on Cooper, and Cooper got his birds.

(This same weekend, Russ ran Cooper in the more difficult Working Certificate Excellent (WCX) test. I’ll let Russ tell that story in another post.)

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One of the advantages of an HRC Started Hunting Retriever test and an AKC Junior Hunter test is that the dog can wear a flat buckle collar, and the handler can hold onto that collar at the line.

This prevents the dog from bolting when he sees the bird, instead of waiting until he’s been sent out to retrieve it. Some pros teach their dogs early on not to bolt. They feel confident that their dogs will stay put, so they don’t bother with the collar. Other, less experienced handlers are sometimes tempted to try the same before their dog is trained and ready to withstand temptation.

Russ, knowing Cooper can’t yet be trusted not to bolt, is not so foolish. But other handlers sometimes make a mistake, and that’s the story that the photo below would tell if I’d taken it just a half second later.

If you look just to the left of Russ’s left knee, just on the water side of the weeds, you’ll see a small arc of brown that’s leaving a wake in the water. That’s the head of a collar-less chocolate Lab who had bolted and was chasing after Cooper’s duck.

So here’s the story: At last weekend’s Lower Columbia HRC hunt test, Cooper and Russ were waiting at the line, with all three holding blinds behind them occupied with a dog and it’s handler. The gunner blew the duck call, the launcher launched the duck, and the duck landed in the water. At that, Russ said, “Cooper!” to send Coop out after the duck. Just a few seconds later, the Lab, having gotten away from it’s handler in one of the holding blinds, jumped into to the water and swam full on after Cooper, who had by that time already fetched the bird and was coming back in.

It could have been bad. The two dogs could have fought over the duck. But when the Lab got to Cooper, Coop simply turned his head and the bird away from the Lab, and kept on swimming in a straight line back to Russ. The Lab growled and tried several times to grab the bird, but Cooper simply turned his head each time and kept on swimming.

And even more amazing, when Cooper stepped up onto the land, he calmly came into heel at Russ’s left, sat, and delivered the bird, ignoring the Lab who was still trying to grab the duck, as well as the gaggle of judges, handler, and bystanders who were all trying to grab the Lab.

The judges were amazed that Russ seemed so calm. The Lab’s handler had been freaking out the whole time, calling and yelling at her dog to “Come!”, which the Lab ignored. Sadly, but understandably, the Lab was disqualified for the day. Cooper passed the test with flying colors.

And here’s the thing. We’ve been inadvertently training Cooper for this very scenario without realizing it. If you’ve read the post about our taking Cooper and Tooey to St. Louis Ponds, you might remember that Tooey loves to chase after Cooper while he’s retrieving bumpers from the water. He’s learned to outswim her to the bumper, and then keep it away from her while they’re returning to land. Having some Lab try the same maneuver was nothing new after Tooey’s shenanigans.

So the moral of the story? If the rules let you do something to your advantage, do it. Use whatever opportunities for training you can get. And then be grateful when it all turns out all right.

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That’s what Tom Quarles said after judging Cooper’s 4 runs today. That’s a real compliment coming from Tom, who is a long-time Irish Water Spaniel owner, pro trainer, and AKC hunt test judge. He also noted, as did yesterday’s judges, that we have A LOT of dog. If we can just get him under control, they all said, he’ll go far.

French Creek Ranch, Junior Hunt Test site, June 19, 2010

There’s something about hunt tests. If you read Russ’s earlier post, you may remember how well behaved Cooper has been in training — calm, controlled, and focused. Well, in hunt tests, he doesn’t lose the focus on retrieving, but he does lose his calm and control. He pulls on the leash, won’t heel, jumps around in the holding blinds, sits at the line only reluctantly, and would break at the line if Russ weren’t holding him by the collar. Fortunately, these behaviors don’t disqualify a dog at Junior Hunter level tests. But he will need to learn these lessons thoroughly before he can go on to Senior level work.

Even so, as you’ll see from the following video of Cooper’s 3rd Junior hunt test, he does a lot right on those abilities that AKC judges are looking for*. (I’ve indicated these abilities in parentheses.):

  • His head snaps around to the sound of the duck call or gunshot to mark the fall of the bird (marking).
  • When the bird falls into cover, like tall grass or bushes, he keeps using his nose until he finds it (perseverance).
  • He has a lot of dash and style when leaping into the water (style).
  • He returns to heel and delivers the bird to hand (trainability).

What he needs more work on are the calm control coming to the line and at the line (trainability). He also need to work on keeping his his head and body facing forward in alignment with Russ’s body, so that he can see the bird when it falls (marking), rather than just relying on the sound of the duck call, gunshot, or splash. You can see this issue clearly on the first water mark in the video.

Here’s the video of his 3rd pass, earned at the Umpqua Valley Retriever Club Hunt test in Glide, Oregon. Unfortunately, due to operator error, we didn’t get good video of his 4th pass, (judged by Tom Quarles and Don Aker) which qualified him for the official Junior Hunter title. We did get some good ribbon pictures, though, which you’ll see at the end of the video.

*You can see these standards by going to AKC Rules and Regulations page, clicking Retriever Hunting Test Rules, downloading the PDF, and going to Chapters 4 and 5.

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