Thanks to everyone for their comments after our success last weekend. Rickdio, incidentally, is Rick Diatolevi of Marrick Vizslas and treasurer of the CVVC. Bob and I watched Rick's Baci run in JH -- and watching her pattern to and fro from cover to cover from the very beginning of the breakway point was really satisfying to watch. Baci, incidentally, is the mother to Khumbu, brother to Ella, and the other half of the Team Vizsla -- Eastern MA chapter.
Having now completed it, here are a few thoughts on Senior Hunter.
a) There is arguably a larger gap between Junior and Senior Hunter than between Senior Hunter and Master Hunter. In JH, while two dogs are braced together, they never have to interact on the course; whereas in SH, dogs have to honor each other’s point. In addition to the honor, SH dogs also have to retrieve – and so while the four core scoring areas (Hunting, Bird-finding, Pointing, and Trainability) remain the same, the scoring areas now expand to six. By contrast, going from SH to MH, the dog needs to be able to perform the same skills, but with less guidance from the handler and with a higher degree of finish. The challenge of MH is paradoxically what makes it easy to prepare for. The standards are relatively clear and the expectations of the dog and handler relatively high.
b) Be aware of the rules. There is some ambiguity in the rules and a lower expectation than MH in terms of how a dog performs the skills it’s required to. The two examples that immediately come to mind are the retrieve and the honor.
For SH, “A Senior hunting dog must retrieve, but a dog need not deliver to hand in order to receive a Qualifying score.” (p.22) The AKC Scoring Guidelines then state that “In Senior, the dog is not required to retrieve to hand, but the Regulations do not specify how close is close enough to qualify. One or two steps would be generally acceptable.” (p.33) As for the honor: “In order to receive a Qualifying score, a Senior hunting dog must honor; a handler may give a dog a verbal command to honor. In order to receive a Qualifying score, a Senior hunting dog must see or acknowledge that its bracemate is on point before it has been cautioned to honor.” The ambiguity arises from the phrase ‘see or acknowledge’ insofar as it creates the opportunity for a handler to command their dog to ‘whoa’ as soon as it has positive visual contact on the pointing dog, whether or not their dog has made any indication that it might otherwise stop moving of its own accord. As was evidenced in our final leg, there is a not-altogether-unreasonable expectation on the part of some SH judges that some acknowledgement (like breaking step, slowing, etc.) be made by the dog before a command to honor be given.
If you are like me and don’t have a reliable second dog (and ideally a reliable second handler) to train with, then you sometimes you have to settle for the lowest qualifying denominator, ie. ‘whoa-ing’ your dog potentially as soon as it can see the other, pointing dog – with the understanding that some judges may want to see more and you are unlikely to score highly (and thereby make up any extra qualifying points you might have lost elsewhere).
c) Get your dog not just steady, but accustomed to distractions. Hopefully this picture illustrates the point. I am in the center of the picture with my hand raised in a 'stay' command. The chukar, incidentally, is about 3' directly in front of The Mominator. In the background you can make out (from the left) one of the judges, one of the gunners, and the other dog and his handler -- the other gunner and judge are out of the frame to the right. It can easily take 2 minutes for this entire circus to get itself situated before you step in and flush the bird. Also keep in mind that some judges will decide to arrange the gunners for you, others will expect you to do it (and only intervene if the situation looks potentially unsafe); strictly speaking, the regulations state that handlers are initially responsible for positioning the gunners. So you might find yourself giving instructions to humans, as I was, while your dog is also waiting for its next command. And it needs to just stand there while all this goes on around them. Train accordingly.
As ever, if you can, train for the level beyond the one you hope to qualify at. And see if you can find someone you respect to watch your heat -- that might even turn out to be one of your judges -- to give you feedback whether you qualify or not on what you might do better next time.
e) Be prepared for the unexpected -- and remember that the title means nothing to the dog, but your love does. This is to say that I was probably more nervous about finishing the SH title than my dog deserved me to be. It took us seven attempts to get four passes -- and even though there were parts of all three unsuccessful heats that miffed me, ultimately it all comes back to your responsibility and ability as a trainer and handler to train yourself and the dog to perform at a level that doesn't give a judge any other option than to qualify you.