Here are a few pictures from this weekend's hunt test weekend out at Crane WMA near East Falmouth, MA. As mentioned before, we had split the weekend with the Mayflower GSP Club -- and I was the chairman for our test, so could only run Momo on Saturday, but serving as the ferry for the SH/MH judges on Sunday I got to see all the birdfield work as a bonus.
The pictures are in chronological order. And first of all, we get to celebrate the first successful step in Momo's next journey. He drew the first brace on Saturday morning -- and somehow miraculously the rain broke just long enough to run all the dogs. Saturday saw 1" of rain fall, although all told between 10pm on Friday and 8am on Sunday, it was pretty close to 2" of rain total. The short version of Momo's run was that he did everything he needed to. I would love him to stand as completely still as Jozsi, and will keep working on it with him -- but he ended up honoring three times (there was a backcourse find, then a missed bird in the birdfield, and then a final set-up), and did a beautiful retrieve. He now has his first leg of his Master Hunter title.
In a lot of ways, I have come to realize that MH is a rather zen experience. You obviously try to train your dog to the standard, but the standard is pretty tight and there are any number of variables that can cause a hiccup. Very few judges are looking to fail a dog, but the fact is that most of the guidelines are pretty spelled out. You can't control how birds fly, how prepared your bracemate is, and what the weather will be -- and the standard requires a minimum of hacking from the handler. And so, knowing that the dog needs me to be calm too, I just try to go with it. After trying to rush into Senior Hunter, I realize that rushing invariably does more harm than good and creates stress in an arena where your dog should be having fun. I am convinced the same is true when it comes to the transition from Derby to adult stakes for young field trial dogs.
The second picture is of our friends' GSP, Timber, returning with her bird to finish her retrieve -- and after honoring her bracemate, successfully completing the final leg of her MH title. Frank and Sam have done a nice job getting Timber all trained up. The third picture is of Mike running Kyler for her second succesful leg of MH, too... such a pretty point in this picture. Her run illustrated one interesting element of the SH/MH retrieve, though. Keep in mind that while they cannot handle the dog in any way, the gunners work for you, the handler; one of the judging criteria for the retrieve is that the dog has to retrieve the bird in a condition fit for the table. As the Guidelines spell out: "Mouthing is a serious fault in a hunting dog. A mangled bird is not fit for the table. Any dog which renders a bird unfit for consumption cannot receive a Qualifying score." (my italics) And so, what happens if a bird is blown apart in mid-air and already rendered unfit for the table? The following is not set down in the Rulebook, but in my experience is a fairly consistently adhered to practice amongst judges in the northeast, at least.
The onus lies with the gunners and you, the handler, to determine whether that bird is fit to be retrieved -- either because it was completely missed or because it was blown to bits. While every retrieved bird will be examined by a judge for damage due to a hard-mouthed dog, a gunner has the responsibility to alert the judges that a bird may be too heavily damaged -- and the handler an ability to express concern to the judge about the condition of the bird before he/she sends his dog. Because you may not have judges who are as concerned for the dog as Kyler did. Her first bird was cleanly hit and Kyler was sent for her retrieve. Uncharacteristically, she spat out her bird twice before coming back to Mike without it. He collared up his dog, convinced she had blown the retrieve -- only to have the judges ask for the bird, examine it, and deem it 'too dead'. She then got to go out again and make the point in the picture and make a perfect retrieve. The moral of the story is a) don't give up on your dog, and b) keep in mind how you can advocate for your dog through your awareness of the guidelines and rules.
With getting the best out of your good dog in mind, I am very pleased to see that, with the help of some friends, pro trainer Maurice Lindley has put up his own website, Steady with Style, that includes a downloadable training manual. Like Bill Gibbons and Dave Walker, whose websites are already on my blog-roll, Mo learned his trade from the legendary Bill West. If there was a single 'approach' to birddog training that I wish I'd known about before I started messing around with my two, it would be the West method. Our next puppy will get schooled that way. As I have said before, at this point, Dave Walker's Bird Dog Training Manual remains the book I go to -- although I was excited to see that Martha Greenlee is publishing a book of Mo's methods that is due out in December 2009.