Although Hamden Nursery is a 5+ hour drive from Indy(near Cleveland), I always enjoy the grounds here. Hambden are private grounds belonging to a local family who has generously allowed the retriever clubs use of the land.The foliage was rich with fall colors so the drive down was quite enjoyable as we listened to a book on cd(well the dogs were sleeping ) and the GPS barked out her directions.
I drove up early to get Keaton acclimated to the surroundings early with some pretest training at the grounds on Thursday. I met Tara and her training partners at Hambden . We set up a land and water series that the master judges from the previous weekend had put together for their test.
The Land series was a triple down a narrow field with all the marks progressive further out and angled back. A double land blind was angled past the road. It was to be run through a slot of trees, and across the ditch. The first mark was the longest and most difficult to visualize as we used a thunderbird launcher. This launcher is a propane fueled launcher that pops off black and white bumpers that look similar to a paint roller. Her bumpers did not have streamers which made it even more difficult. All the dogs put up a hunt on those marks.
The water series was a double with the memory going right to left and landing on the land behind the water. The go bird was a land mark down a narrow strip from right to left. The water mark was a “cheaty” mark and the dog needed to get into the water . A cheater is a dog who runs around the bank into order to get the mark vs going straight into the water . It is often faster for the dog to run around the edge than swim out for a bird. Real duck hunters don’t care HOW the dog picks up the bird just that the dog finds it and brings it home. Hunt test handlers and particularly field trialers are “control freaks” so the line the dog takes to a bird may often determine if the dog returns to the next series. As one field trialer told us once ” If its an “over”, its “back” to the truck.
We had dinner in a little hole in the wall bar and the food was excellent. The following afternoon we met Tara at her home which is truly set-up for dogs.
She had a “permanent” double T field out with obstacles(logs) in a yard fully fenced back area. Within her t field are agility articles. The double T is an exercise that teaches a dog how to handle(take hand signals from a distance). It involves piles of bumpers arranged in a T configuration. The top of the t is “back pile and you run from the base of the T. It is called a “double t because at the t crosses you have 2 sets of over piles. The piles are “known”(i.e. you have identified the piles by either tossing a bumper to the area before first sending or with a white bucket or flag. At various points, you sit the dog with a whistle command and then “cast”(give your hand signal with or without a verbal command).
We simply ran the dogs on the t for confidence and exercise. We also did several site blinds(piles identified with visible pile of white bumpers) on water. Reagan got a chance to do some water retrieves in the pond through her lily pads and decoys. She had no problems.
Our test started saturday and our section had been set to run at the Reckert’s personal property who is a field pro. His property is not as pretty as the nursery, but suitable for a master test. The most interesting thing about this property is that the front pond is home to 50-100 wild mallards. They certainly played a role in distracting the dogs.
Our first series was a land triple on a piece of flat farmland with moderate to high cover. The marks were tight and the cover and flat field left little for the dogs to mark off of. Then you were asked to turn around and run a double blind. One parallel to the duck pond on land and past the far edge of the pond and one in the water past a point and up onto land on the other side.
The morning was particularly windy which made scent swirl and the “background noise of the wild ducks behind us was distracting. The shots and plain background scenery made it difficult for the dogs to identify the marks and many dogs were handled to a mark. I have always had difficulty being able to read Keaton when marks are tight or blind is tight to a mark. He often knows exactly where to go and I have sent him on poor lines many times. Poor guy, he keeps sticking with me.
I noticed that Keaton taking more time than normal on picking up his birds and then it happened-he froze on a bird! He had this glazed look in his eyes and held onto the bird. He wasn’t giving it up. I reheeled him, I set him up for another blind. He backed away. I was stunned . Who is this dog and where did my Keaton go? Finally, he released it and I looked at the judge in dismay. He had never even been sticky on a bird let alone clamp down on one.
The judges were willing to give us another chance and we got a call back for the second series.He done such great work on the marks and blinds in the first series and I knew that wanted him to do well.
I was very shaken up and I am sure my anxiety was apparent to my dog. The second series was a land- water double with 1 mark up on land falling behind a mound. The go bird was a breaking bird close and thrown right to left into the water. The water had a pretty big drop and the go bird land fairly close to the line of the land mark. They did not require the dogs to take a straight line into the water for the memory bird and few dogs did. Most skirted around the right shore to the bird.
The few dogs that took the correct line sucked into the old fall and had to be handled. Other dogs went too deep on the memory and got scent from the wild birds on the back pond. Always be wary when you hear”Its just a double”. Keaton gave me the first bird well-I was relieved. The second bird he put up a good hunt without handling but was sticky.
Then we had a land blind angled behind us throw a row of cover. Keaton took a nice line and got his bird with 2 quick handles. Then he froze again. It seemed like hours but finally he released the bird. They did not take us to the third series. The judges were as disappointed as we were.
It was nice to be surrounded by friends who were able to watch the performance and offer suggestions and words of encouragement. Friend and pro trainer, Mitch White recommended we use more birds in training,and helped us later in the day with some obedience exercises. A number of factors can make a dog sticky or freeze on a bird he said including stress or pressure of the test, a dog trying to control the game or even the way the ducks are processed for the test.
I suspect it may have something to do with Keaton being on antibiotics during the trial as he had developed colitis on the trip down . This antibiotic is very bitter tasting and has been known to produce neurological signs. Who knows, but I would find it hard to believe Keaton would try to manipulate the test at the line as he is normally such an agreeable dog.