Monday, September 15, 2008

Devon’s Junior Hunter: the making of a great team

Devon earned her JH this weekend at the Backwater Retriever Club test in Northern Indiana. The tests both days were challenging, but they were made very difficult by the weather conditions. While I don’t know the final numbers, I believe the pass rate for the two junior tests was between 50-60% both days.
I am so proud of what Devon did for me this weekend. She made the test look easy, and she was so obedient at the line she earned raving compliments from the judges. While some may think her success was based on instinct, and it was, it was also based on our hours of hard work at becoming a team.


It rained on the test site starting Friday morning, with heavy rain and strong storms Friday night, and then steady rain most of the morning. When we found the “land” and walked out to watch the test set up, we decided our first series can be considered a "hybrid" of land and water. By 8:30 a.m., the rain was standing 6 inches in the field with medium cover making it seem like a flooded rice field!

The first mark was an 80 yard shot flier, and the gunners were practicing shooting at the birds in the pouring rain. I saw two ducks hit the ground and walk away in the first four tries. However, they got better as they went. The second mark was about 60 yards on the back side of a small rise, so the dog couldn’t see the bird land.

The first test dog failed both marks, got spooked at the gunning station and refused to handle to the marks. We called for a second test dog, who had to be an old retired Master Hunter Chessie. This old guy made it look easy, which really scared me. We watched as the first three dogs failed the test, then retreated to our vans to watch in dry conditions as only one in the first 8 dogs passed.

On the first mark, the dogs had to break through two sections of tall cover and then go deep into the short cover for the mark. Most dogs were stopping at 65 yards as soon as they broke the second cover, because they knew the bird fell into short cover. These dogs who stopped short usually never drove deep enough in their hunt and never found the bird.

Devon was dog #40, and let me tell you she was not impressed with her wait! Last weekend she was in the upper one-third of the group and the first of our group to run. She ran before traveling mate Reba each day. However, she had a long wait after Reba ran this Saturday. She fluffed up her crate pad, buried her head in it as a pillow and occasionally shot me sidelong glances as I sat in the van as if to say, “Did you forget to enter me? How dare you leave me laying here! Did the check bounce? I’m embarrassed I have to lay here while all those other dogs get to play – how could you!” She’s such a princess!

We had six blinds going out to the line and the last four were in water above my ankles. As we got deeper, the water began to fill the inside of my Frogg Togg rain pants. The line we ran from was standing water up to Devon's belly. In fact, she almost started swimming and looked at me like, "You never go into the water with me." She was quite confused if this was a “land” or “water” mark. I was having trouble maneuvering myself because of the water around my ankles; it felt like I was walking with concrete blocks around my feet.

Needless to say, I didn’t ask for a sit from Devon at the line. I heard from others who ran before me that by about dog #15 there was a channel beaten down through the cover to the long mark. I was advised to line Devon up on this channel, and I did. Devon got the best shot bird of the whole day (according to the judges). The shot hit the bird in the butt and pushed it another 20-30 yards beyond where the other marks fell. This put it right on a road of short cover. The down side was as the 40th dog of 58 she had to angle off the beaten down path the previous dogs made and run through water that was at least 8 inches deep. Devon just nailed the line and got within 5-10 yards of the bird for a very short hunt. The judges were impressed and said so, as was I!

We had to walk around to the other side of a blind for the second mark. This ended up being a challenge because a) I had to fish Devon’s leash out from the bottom of my soaked Frogg Toggs because I missed getting it into my pocket and it fell all the way down my leg between my pants and my Frogg Toggs; and b) my Frogg Toggs were so waterlogged, they started slipping down from around my waist! So going to the other mark, I had Devon’s leash in my left hand, I was again slogging through water that was probably a foot deep and I had my right hand on the waistband of my Frogg Toggs holding them up so they wouldn’t fall off! I told the judges what my issues were, and they laughed and asked if I had something on under my Frogg Toggs! I assured them I did and I would not be mooning them on the second mark!

The 60 yard second bird over the rise of cover was cake for Devon and she again put herself within a 5 yard search area for the bird. The judges were both extremely complimentary of Devon’s marking ability. I’m thinking all the lining drills we’ve been doing has improved her marking. I’m doing a good job of lining her up where the fall will be and she’s marking it as it falls and overall doing a great job of running the line.

After we were done, we went to celebrate with Gary and Tana, Beth’s friends who we stayed with in the area, who were standing in the gallery. They had braved the rain and the conditions to come watch our test. As Gary held Devon, I unzipped the ankles of my Frogg Toggs, and water gushed out of them – at least I could walk again! Gary and Tana said, “Look, you’re retaining water!” We got quite a hoot out of that!

Over all, 37 out of 58 dogs passed land, which was a lower than usual pass rate for Junior. Of our group, Archie and Zoe also passed land. We were especially pleased with Archie since it was his first shot flier. Zoe’s bird wasn’t quite dead, which was its downfall. Its final flap pulled Zoe to it since she stopped short. Unfortunately, Reba (who ran #6) never got out to the 80 yard mark and ended her day early.

The water series was pretty straight forward. Both ducks landed in the water. The first mark was about 40 yards, but they had to swim against a strong wind to keep their line. Devon made it look easy and lined it going out and coming in. The second mark was a short bird 25 yards in front of them for a simple swim out and back. Devon again lined the bird and came into heel for a perfect delivery to hand. The judges were very complimentary of our work.

Of the 58 dogs that ran, 31 dogs passed the Junior test (52% pass rate). Unfortunately Archie had a brain fart on the first mark in the water. An intact breed dog, we think his mind was on a female coming into season. Zoe passed, so we had a 50% pass rate for the group. It put a damper on the evening meal, and we were all tired and still feeling the affects of the wet weather.

The rain let up Saturday afternoon, and we only had sprinkles Sunday morning. Devon was dog #55 of 57 entered dogs on Sunday (52 dogs ran, so I guess that made us officially dog #50 in the running order).

Our long mark was about 70-75 yards down a hill to a shot flier. The flier was landing in a circle of open cover or a triangle of heavy cover next to it. The gunners weren’t quite as good as the day before; however our judges made it clear these were “hunting dogs” and they were expected to bring back the bird no matter what. I saw about three dogs chasing down the ducks as they continued to run through the cover wounded.

Another Lab chased down his bird who was clearly alive and kicking when he brought the bird back. Unfortunately his handler lost her hold on the duck, and it flew off to the left of the line, the Lab in hot pursuit jumping in the air trying to grab the bird. He was called back by his owner, and the judge got the bird. As soon as the judge came walking back, the Lab ran out like, “hey, thanks for helping me out. That’s mine; can I have it back?” He was really disappointed when the judge said no.

The other thing both judges were insistent about was line manners and walking to the line under control, as well as delivering to hand. The dogs also had to walk behind the judges’ tent before you could clip the leash on them, so they were off leash heeling or walking with your hand in the collar. Devon has great line manners, but they’ve been slipping a lot since we’ve started trialing. We worked heeling in the blinds on the way to the line! Her delivery to hand is fantastic and that has stayed strong.

However, I saw two experienced/pro handlers fail when their dogs couldn’t deliver to hand. One was a jerk and took his embarrassment out on his dog. Too bad, because it was his fault for not proofing and training the dog well enough.

Unfortunately, as I moved Devon into the holding blind beside the judges’ tent near the line, a third dog had issues with delivery to hand. This poor yellow Lab dropped the bird and would not pick it up high enough for his handler, even though the guy said, “FETCH IT UP!” about 500 times. Since this is a force command for Devon, she began to get stressed from the man’s firm voice and the tension in the air. I looked at her and smiled and encouraged her softly, but her ears were against her head signaling stress. Finally after at least 2 minutes and a shared look between the judges that the team had failed the test, the man grabbed the bird off the ground and said, “I scratch!”

Wow, what a way for Devon and I to go to the line! I tried to get Devon to jump up and touch my hands, thinking that would release some of her stress. She wouldn’t do it (“Mom, we don’t do that in field work, only agility and obedience!”), but when the judge stepped into the blind to get my number, she turned and flung herself at him, thinking he stepped in to say hello and give her a duck! I quickly apologized, and he said not to worry he shouldn’t have stepped in on us like that.

In spite of all this stress in the last blind, Devon stepped up to the challenge on line manners. She heeled to the line on a loose leash. When I lined her up I said sit, and she instantly plopped her butt on the ground. I took of her leash without holding her collar, exhaled a deep breath, put one finger in her collar and called for our bird.

Thankfully, Devon’s bird was dead in the air. She ran the line just off to the right 5 ft, realized she was off and just as the judge next to me said, “come on baby find your bird,” she turned 180 degrees on a dime and pounced on her bird. I whistled her in and she came in on the line to compliments from both judges.

I was still a little rattled from the earlier stress, and I forgot to receive her to her second mark. She came into heel, sat and I took the bird. I could hear both judges comment what an impressive job she did. I thanked them, then said, “Devon, heel” and turned left to the second mark as Devon got up and pivoted beside me, then sat directly on the line I wanted. I again put my finger in her collar and called for the bird.

Devon lined the second mark perfectly and returned like a shot into heel for another perfect return to hand. I thanked the judges for their compliments and turned and heeled her off leash around the side of the tent. She was just brilliant, looking more like a Senior dog! One judge met me at the back of the tent and heaped praise on me and my dog for our line manners. He said she was the best mannered Junior dog he’d ever seen and he knew we had worked hard. He also loved the fact I had a big smile on my face the whole time we were on the line. Little did he know that was from years of training by Connor, my stress dog. It’s a conscience process for me to go to the line with a huge smile on my face whenever I compete with me dogs! I was just glowing with all the praise! We have worked so very hard on these things, and it was awesome to have a judge follow us out to sing our praises!

Of our little group, Reba did a great job on land, and she passed thanks to Beth’s great catching at the line. Zoe hunted for quite a while but never got the flier, which was odd. Archie’s flier was still alive when he got to it, and it jumped at him. He was really, really startled, and after returning to the bird three times and with much encouragement from his dad, Archie did bring back the bird. I thought this was a great training success, even though the judges didn’t carry him to water. Of the 52 dogs who ran, 39 were called back to water.

Unfortunately, before they read call backs, the remains of Hurricane Ike rolled in and it started raining – and it never stopped. They set up the water test, and Beth and I thought we’d grab lunch … only they were out of all food. Good thing we had some light stuff with us, like peanut butter and apples and power bars and slimfast!

We walked over to the water to watch the test dog, and I about fell over at how difficult the water marks were set. The first mark was a 60 yard channel swim, then the dog had to come onto shore, drive up a 4 ft. bank and find the bird in the cover on land – keep in mind it was steady to hard rain! The second “water” mark was a 35-40 yard swim, up onto shore, drive up another 4 ft. bank to find the bird in cover on land. Unbelievable! Not a single “splash” on two “water” marks.

Not surprising, the test dog failed. When asked if the dog had any title, the somewhat angry handler said, “Yes, she earned her JH last weekend, so this should be your perfect test dog!” One judge turned and yelled to the long gunning station to turn the angle of the mark so it landed on the shore. OK, that was better!

Now for the second test dog. He has two SH passes, and he nailed the first mark. However, it took 5 minutes of handling to get him to the second mark. Again the judge yelled out that gunning station #1 was set, but station #2 could move to the mark on the shore. The test dog re-ran that mark, but it landed in the water with a splash. Nope, she wanted it on shore. They re-angled the winger and it landed 2 ft. up the face of the tall bank into a thick patch of cover. The test dog got it, but the judge said, “Oh just put it down in the water and make it splash!” I thought the Junior gallery was going to break into the Hallelujah Chorus!

We were so far down in the running order, we sat in the pouring rain and watched the other dogs. The rain on the umbrellas was so relaxing; it was hard not to doze. On the first water mark the bird landed on shore, usually buried 3 inches in the mud thanks to the winger. With the bird in the mud and the rain on the water, this mark was impossible to see especially after the dog got in water. At least every other dog refused to go because they couldn’t see the ducks. I felt bad for the handlers and even worse for the poor teenaged gunner who was soaked through and had to walk out and pull that dead duck out of the mud!

This long mark was incredibly difficult due to the conditions, and it had rained for 3.5 full hours before Devon got to the line. I knew this would not be an easy water series and even really good dogs were failing. Even added pressure was the judges remembered her from land and said, “let’s show ‘em how it’s done” when we walked to the line! Wow, they were confident!

Devon’s first mark landed a little higher on the shoreline and didn’t sink in the mud. It was still pretty impossible to see with the dark wet duck on the muddy shore. She went in confidently and swam the line out about half way. However, she then angled left of the mark and shored up to the left of gunning station, when the bird was 30 yards to the right of the gunning station. She turned to her left on the shore, even more in the wrong direction, giving me the first fear of failure, but then immediately indicated she was going the wrong direction and turned back right. She ran behind the gunning station (and for the first time in her life didn’t stop to say hello to the gunners) and 30 yards beyond it and indicated the original test mark fall on the top of the 4 ft. bank. At this point one of the judges walked up beside me and said, “Come on baby come down the shore for your birdie.”

As if she heard him, she wagged her tail and did just that! I was so proud of her and called her into me. As she was swimming back, the judge told me the gunners nearly failed her by not giving her a loud enough duck call to start. He then said, they were talking and moving around in the blind while she was swimming out to the mark which caused her to pull left off the mark – well that explained that! I was watching her and not them! He asked if we had been entered yesterday, and I said yes; and he asked if we passed and I said yes again. I told him if she brought back her second duck, she would earn her JH today. I then told him she was my first field dog and he said I’d done a great job with her.

The second mark was supposed to be in the water, but due to the conditions (or God’s way of telling us we could do a harder test and I should not have worried), Devon's bird ended up 3 ft. up the face of a hill in cover. Well, I said this was going to be a true test of her abilities! As Devon was about one-third of the way out to the mark, the judge started complaining about the gunners again. I looked up and they were resetting the winger as Devon was swimming out to her mark.

Devon didn't notice the movement, but the judge was furious. Devon came out of the water just to the left of the bird (closer to the gun station so there may have been influence even if it wasn’t obvious). She charged up the bank and again searched the area of the original test fall, proving to me that she could have indeed done the original test and remembered all those set ups where we practiced charging the bank up a hill. She again realized it was down below her and came down the hill right on it and grabbed it up to high praise from me!

As soon as Devon picked up the bird, the judge patted me on the shoulder and said congratulations. I figured she still had to bring it back, but apparently he and his co-judge weren't worried about Devon returning the bird. As she started swimming back, the judge moved off to my left and started screaming at the second gun station. Not to be outdone, the other judge came out of the judges’ tent and started in on gun station #1. Devon was now about one-third of the way back with the bird watching the two judges scream at the gunners, and she just looked at me with wide eyes like, "Who are those crazy people next to you, Mom?" I smiled at her and told her how good and brilliant she was all the way in, and she was fine. She delivered her bird perfectly!

So that was how Devon earned her JH in two really difficult tests. I was really proud of her for that water series, because not only did she nail it, but she also proved to me during her search she could have handled the harder set up.

Unfortunately out of our training group, Devon was the only dog to pass on Sunday. Reba just couldn’t see her mark and wasn’t able to drive out to the long bird. She was in good company, because I bet half of the dogs that went to water failed, and they all failed this way. Devon and Zoe now have their JHs, and Reba and Archie will be going to Ohio in two weeks to try again. We’ll be with them in spirit!

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