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Posts Tagged ‘Utility Test’

The desired result.

What a weekend. Some news, I can’t share quite yet. But some I can:

1. The weather here has returned to spring-like, snow melting in rivulets at the low spot on each trail, and blessed daylight lasting longer every afternoon. I had to carry water today on our training runs.

2. It appears Manny and Buddy have worked through their dominance issue. We ran together in the glorious sunshine three times, finally getting up to the high spots I’ve been unable to climb when cutting the run times in half to rotate dogs. Not a speck of aggression … in fact, almost a return to Manny’s puppy-like curiosity at his great-uncle’s actions. Grateful thanks to breeder/trainer Jeff Funke and behaviorist Ed Bailey for counsel.

3. Watched Rick and Ronnie Smith’s “Silent Command” DVD and I am most happy with the initial results I’m seeing.

If you know the NAVHDA Utility Test, you know a dog must be steady to wing, shot, and fall. (A recent sad story from Illinois drove home the advantage of a dog that doesn’t bolt at the shot. Add the basalt cliffs we hunt for chukars to the test requirement and I’m a believer.) Getting Manny there after two seasons of chasing on TV will be a challenge.

But the half-hitch Rick and Ronnie espouse may as well be attached to a magic wand. Unlike the Smith’s neck-oriented “point of contact” for going with or coming to you (as they say), it is put to the flank for standing still – “whoa.” You may as well have nailed my dogs’ paws to the whoa table for as much movement as they demonstrated. I got a little cocky and hitched both dogs in a point-honor scenario and the magic rope solidified each without an inkling of temptation to dishonor the bracemate. This was also true on retrieves … each dog watched calmly as the other brought a pigeon to hand, and vice-versa.

I know better than to draw too many conclusions from a weekend of experimentation. But so far, thumbs up.

PS: Got to meet Dad/Uncle Delmar Smith at Pheasant Fest and had a good time reminiscing about the rodeo world, of all things. While we rightfully revere Delmar for his dog training insights, he may have become more famous with his recent National Public Radio appearance where he was noted for his work as a rodeo “gateman,” the guy who opens gate and sends calves out to their ropin’ destiny.

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Yah, but can he deliver for the test?

The check went out yesterday. We are committed. Manny’s NAVHDA Utility Test is scheduled for the weekend of Sept. 7-9. What a way to celebrate our wedding anniversary! (Thanks in advance, honey, for letting the dogs and me head north the next day.)

We in the west have fewer NAVHDA chapters than our compadres east of the Mississippi. So, we have fewer tests. But most of us are used to epic drives, and this will be no exception. We’ll test at my chapter’s home grounds, near Chehalis, Washington … five hours’ drive on a day when there are few state troopers pointing radar guns at you.

Advantage: I know the grounds pretty well. Disadvantage: The ranch was also the site of our Natural Ability train wreck a year ago. At least there is nowhere go but up.

The test grounds boast lush fields, a stretch of woods to test Manny’s ability to tighten his range in thick cover, and a tailor-made pond with plenty of brush to hide a duck for the all-important search portion of the test. The owner’s home overlooks the whole scenario from a tree-covered promontory, and you know he’s got to love watching so many versatile dogs, so often. I often sneak halfway up the hill on which his place reposes to watch other dogs course what may as well be a hunting amphitheater.

Every test is nerve-wracking. When you’re playing on your home field, the bar is raised another notch. Luckily NAVHDA is populated by supportive colleagues who love their dogs – and other peoples’ too.

Get in. Hold on. Fasten your seatbelt. Pray for benevolent judges.

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Where's the water, boss?

Believe it or not, here on the desert we have a lot of water. Irrigation canals, stock ponds, a few trout streams and if you head for the hills, alpine lakes. But finding a piece of water for the NAVHDA utility test? A tall order.

It’s gotta be a good acre or more in surface area, and swimming depth. But more importantly, it’s got to have a lot of brush, reeds and other cover for a swimming duck to hide in and a searching dog to work through.

Therein lies the rub.

The Natural Ability test required Manny to simply swim after a bumper twice. I sought, and got, permission to use a couple nearby ponds and even the puddle on BLM land held enough water most of the training season. But they reflected their desert environment (pardon the pun) in that they were sterile … no brush, no cattails, just a pristine surface. The “duck search” portion of the Utility Test requires ten minutes of aggressive work among the reeds and rushes, mainly swimming. That’s a lot of watery brush. Or brushy water. No self-respecting rancher wants that stuff in his stock tank.

I’m asking around. Got a few leads. One of my training club members has a line on a marshy patch of that trout stream I mentioned. A friend has a neighbor who built a “technical pond” for retriever training … whatever that entails, I’m hoping it has brush and I’ll get invited.

Google Earth might be of use identifying others. And other dog club members may be of help. I hope.

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The hoped-for goal ... keep your fingers crossed.

I’m not bragging. And I fear what I tell you next might jinx next week’s training. But every baby step forward is worthy of celebration around here as we head toward a fall NAVHDA Utility Test.

One key element of this grueling test is steadiness, not just to a flushing bird but to the shot and the fall. Only when the handler commands a retrieve is the dog allowed to move. As Manny’s enjoyed two puppy seasons of breaking at the flush this could well be our Waterloo. So, it’s the training priority these days.

This goal has so many benefits in the field, too. So like virtually every component in the test, there’s a practical side. Think about your own experience in the uplands: birds that flush over a cliff, wild flushes that you shoot anyway, bad shots and missed birds, an upwind crash that puts a bird in the air without a point … a dog that will whoa at those moments is a safe dog, ready to make a blind retrieve or hunt on.

So these days, it’s whoa training in all it’s manifestations. At the shot, at a long whistle, with a hand signal and voice. But also to the flush – my Real Bird Bumper, sticks and rocks, kicking around in the brush … and once the season is concluded, birds.

The bragging reference? We’ve had a strong week of training success, including today, which sums up the week: cross-country we went to avoid all the rude townies clogging our trails. Manny coursed the sage and bitterbrush prairie behind our place with one eye on me, the other on the far horizon. Over the course of the hour, I emptied a blank pistol’s eight-shot cylinder to repeated solid stops by Manny. Whistles at a distance, same result. Hand signals, stop. Combinations, more stops. A few retrieves to sweeten the pot were also preceded by one of the whoa signals, and deliveries to hand.

I’ll shut up now. No sense tempting fate any more. We are on our way.

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"Natural ability" he's got. Maybe even elegance. It's all the other stuff we need to work on.

“Easier said than done” is more than a clich√©. Just look at the NAVHDA test rules if you don’t agree. A dog that passes, let alone earns a Prize I in the Utility Test would be a worthy hunting companion anywhere, anytime, on any game.

And that’s the challenge. As the new year gets rolling, so do we.

Training, of course, is critical. This is not a test of fundamental “natural ability.” That train leaves the NAVHDA station at age 16 months.¬† From flawless retrieves to a civilized partner in the blind a dog’s gotta do it all, well.

But poise just as critical. A dog must be cool and calm when necessary, then kick in the afterburners when required. Add three judges trailing him, an oozing, loudmouthed gallery and gaggle of other dogs waiting their turn, and it’ll test any dog’s intestinal fortitude.

Manny was cool and collected from Day One. On his first visit to the vet, he occupied the high ground of the exam table like it was his own, lying down and crossing his front legs while surveying his new territory like a just-crowned monarch. But as with everything, only practicing for a test will be good practice for a test. I hope to recruit a crowd of helpers/observers.

Water is another story. Few of my wirehairs have had what some call “water love.” Partially my fault, as here on the desert it’s hard to find enough to become comfortable with it. The pup will swim the English Channel for a bird, though. In front of judges, we’ll see. And sustaining a duck search for 10 minutes will be as much an endurance test for Manny as it will be an emotionally wrenching ordeal for me. I almost lost Buddy to a long water retrieve a couple seasons ago and will do everything to avoid a repeat.

One of the problems that my career may have exacerbated is Manny’s steadiness on flushing birds. For two seasons on Wingshooting USA, he’s been allowed to break at the shot and start his retrieve. (No snide remarks on the quality of those, please!) Now, I’ll have to un-teach that, instead working toward rock-steadiness from flush, to shot, to fall.

There is an obedience component to this test as well. Steadiness at the blind in the face of multiple gunshots and dropping birds is one example. We have to walk – at heel – a little obstacle course. And our nemesis in the Natural Ability test was cooperation after Manny picked up a bird. He’s got to bring it right back, without passing “Go” or collecting $200. (As opposed to deconstructing it in front of three patient judges like he did last test.)

None of it will be easy. Dogs – and humans – have good days and bad days. I think I’m ready for the unavoidable natural and human-caused goofs that are out of our control. It’s the other ones I’ll be preparing for … And you?

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