In the autumn of 2016, I could only participate in two measly trials, and in one of those there were no birds to be found, although the dogs tried three times. Complete misery. So last autumn I made sure to make up for that! Thanks to my bonus dog Kat, I’ve had the chance to take part in four Winner’s classes, one being the Swedish National Championship. Tassla and I participated in five Open classes.
With every trial, I’ve learnt something new. On most of the trials I’ve also experienced something new and found myself in situations I’ve never been in before. I’ve learnt more about hunting during this autumn than I had over the previous four years.
One thing I’ve learned is how incredibly challenging hunting with spaniels can be. I’ve been to trials where ALL the entered teams were disqualified (!). On many other trials, with between 12 and 17 entries, perhaps two or three dogs placed. You really need to be skilled! Of course, you need to have a very well trained dog as well. And you really need a bit of luck too, or at least not to be down right unlucky. Our disqualifications have probably been a mix of ”dog not well trained enough/unexperienced handler” and some ”bad luck”, I think. Because I really don’t feel like I’ve been lucky. I’ve had to learn the hard way. Which in all honesty hasn’t been that hard, I’ve had a lot of fun learning. That said, I still believe in the saying ”the more I train, the luckier I get”.
I tought I’d share what I’ve learnt by simply going through our lessons and how I’ve tackled them, one by one, when we’ve come across them.
TRIAL N0 1, TASSLA: Trying out rain gear…
This first trial of the season is like a test for raincoats. Not only is it CONSTANTLY pouring down, but there is a gale blowing too. All the pheasants escape to the forest and it is tough finding them at all. Tassla has to start the trial by retrieving a bird that’s been shot (and that we haven’t seen be flushed nor fall). She does a great blind retrieve, picks up the bird, comes in with it and… lets it go two metres away from me. I am so surprised that I cue ”take it” and back up – like I would have in training. And boom – we are disqualifed. In 15 seconds flat. A new personal best! But we are in good company this time: everyone is disqualified. We end up just standing there laughing, soaking wet and thoroughly beaten up by the wind.
LESSON: You are not allowed to encourage the dog to pick something up that she’s let go off. A general piece of advice is to basically just SHUT UP J as much as possible and only use the whistle when you really have to. The judge said: ”I would have let you go if you had thrown yourself to reach the game”.
SOMETHING ELSE THAT I LEARNED: It’s a good idea to let the dog encounter hot game more recently than last autumn, otherwise weird behaviours that never show up in other situations might surface… It would at least have been a good thing if I’d been a bit more meticulous with training with cold game. I went home and threw us into a crazy campaign of working on deliveries with (cold) game. The bird needs to be pushed into my hand!
TRIAL NO 2, WITH TASSLA: Pheasant inferno and perfect steadiness
The first hunt, mostly in tailwind, ends with her flushing game far away from me, but Tessa is steady in her sit. Unfortunately there is no shot. On the second hunt, there is an insane situation where Tassla behaves superbly even though I get pretty stressed out. Flush, shot and I then send her to retrieve in the thick field of beans. And apparently, every pheasant in the county is in that field, because at least 20-30 birds take off, one by one. It feels like at least 100 birds… Tassla respects all of them, she sits down both on cue and on her own accord, I re-direct her, more birds take off, I direct her again, yet more birds take off. Finally I direct her to go left, which she does perfectly and finds the shot bird. She ALMOST delivers it all the way to my hand. This time I have learnt my lesson and throw myself after the bird. But Tassla has handled the game too roughly running towards me through the field of beans. And we are out, disqualified: Tassla has broken the game…
LESSON: Not enough training with handling game during the last six months makes her tendencies to chew on the game resurface in stressful situations. We went home and worked on holding, carrying and retrieving game every day for a couple of weeks. I need to make sure not to get sloppy with continious training with game!
Something else that I learned: For about a month before the trial, we had been training on grounds with a lot of game and Tassla had been heavily reinforced for sitting in an inferno of birds taking off around her. That training really paid off!
TRIAL NO 3 WITH TASSLA: The perfect flush
Tassla starts out great in thigh high reed phalaris and hunts well with good speed. After a while, she flushes two pheasants at the same time and sits like a statue as they take off. Both pheasants are shot and Tassla makes a perfect mark on one of them. She sits PERFECTLY STILL with her eyes trained on the area where the bird fell. She’s holding up one paw as the judge discusses with the shooters regarding where the birds have fallen, etc. Finally, I get to cast her. She nails it, runs towards me at full speed and YES! pushes the bird directly into my hand. After that we just need to hunt one other small area, leading up to a road. I try to keep her in hand but she finds a pheasant straight away. She flushes it, jumps like a kangaroo three times before sitting down nicely and steadily while the bird is shot. And so we’re disqualifed. You’re not allowed to jump like a kangaroo…
LESSON: Her steadiness as the bird flushes is still not quite solid. The very intense situation, flushing two birds and then having to sit around and wait for so long before retriving (self control is demanding!), probably made the next situation a bit too challenging for her. Her bouncing before sitting down resurfaces in those situations. All I can do is train more. She needs more experience so that she doesn’t get overwhelmed. I also need to stick to my criteria for her behaviour as the bird is flushed.
Something else that I learned: I knew this before, but she really is great at marking. And when she’s finally in a sit, she’s steady as a statue. And I was so pleased that all the work we had done to fix her deliveries paid off: she didn’t chew the game and she brought it all the way to my hand! She has all these really nice foundation skills, I just need to remember to refresh them and also pay attention to that some of them need more work than others.
TRIAL NO 4 WITH KAT: We go on to the second round
The hunting grounds were fantastic with varied and lovely terrain. However, we get to start out in a field with sunflowers, two metres high. In tailwind. This was a really scary start – I couldn’t see Kat or even hear her because the sunflowers rattled with every movement I made. I couldn’t even see the shooters. All I could see was a wall of sunflowers. But my little Kat worked like never before and oriented herself after my directions as well as she could. There were a few times when she didn’t hunt thoroughly in the sunflowers, but we got through it all okay.
The first hunt is a long one and we hunt through forest, thickets and ditches before we finally get to retrieve. A little less than half of all the teams go on to the second round, and I’m overjoyed to still be in the mix. But we go on to face a real challenge. One of the shooters all of a sudden shoot a passing bird, just as Kat is by his feet. He doesn’t make the shot, but Kat is thoroughly convinced that there must be a bird in the direction that the gun was pointing. However, she somewhat reluctantly begins to hunt after my directions before I lose control and she goes out of hand to find the bird (that isn’t there). I have to run out to get her.
LESSON: I learned so much and on so many levels. I became very unclear and hesitant in the situation where we were disqualified. The judge was from Great Britain and I wasn’t quite sure of his instructions – did he mean for us to keep hunting and did he mean that I should send her to retrieve? I hadn’t marked where the bird (which is important even if the bird isn’t shot!). I have to learn to ASK when I’m not sure of something and then I have to give my dog CLEAR instructions on what to do. During our next hunt I trained Kat to leave marked birds and keep hunting with me, and she solved it brilliantly.
Something else that I learned: I learned a lot from just watching the other teams. The teams that were disqualified were experienced and competent handlers with experienced dogs. One was disqualifed for recalling the dog after flushing without being asked to do so by the judge. This day of hunting made me really understand how much waiting a trial for spaniels can entail. In the middle of full blown hunting you need to be able to put your dog on hold, without putting it back on leash, while the other team dog for example retrieves or just finishes hunting her part of the grounds. Then you need to go straight back into hunting again, just to put on the brakes again a minute later and wait while they for example exchange a dog in the other working team. Some teams were disqualified for dogs making noise during all this waiting. There was a dog that broke the game; there were dogs that ran in after flushing or after the shot had fallen. In other words: Anything can happen to anyone!
TRIAL NO 5, WITH KAT: Bad day, tired dog and grumpy handler
Back in the bean field, but this time with Kat. A long hunt in tailwind – which Kat finds a bit difficult – and where she has to really struggle with her short legs in heavy terrain. Her hunting gets weaker and in the end, a bird takes off to the side of us which the judge consider a miss on our part (she was ahead of the bird, to the side of it).
LESSON: For the very first time, I didn’t agree with the judge. Naturally one has to just suck that up, even if I did sulk for about two minutes (I tried hiding it and of course still said a polite thank you and shook the judge’s hand). As a handler you don’t see all the things that the judge sees and you can misread a situation. I was told to go to the left which left quite a big gap between Kat and her team dog on the right (you could almost fit in a third dog between them), and there were birds there. If I had more experience, I might have understood that risk and asked if I should cover that ground too or simply have tried to do so. But I was busy trying to get Kat to go deep enough in the tailwind. Challenging!
Something else that I learned: Sometimes the combination of grounds and wind doesn’t suit the dog you have or your dog on that particular day, and sometimes it’s very well suited. That’s just the way it is.
TRIAL NO 6, WITH KAT: Swedish Championships! Brilliant Cocker spaniel in big drama
My first Swedish Championship and Kat’s second. And we have managed to hit peak performance. We’re really working together and Kat is hunting like never before with me. She’s daring and brave, with good speed and a lovely form. She really pays attention to me and my signals. I’m also on the offence and feel quite in control of what I’m doing. When Kat flushes I’m a bit too quick to use my whistle and since Kat isn’t really in contact with the bird when it flushes, it’s like I see the bird take off before she does and she turns a bit towards me first. I’m not really sure of how well she’s marked it, but send her to the area where I’ve marked the fall. I have to direct her a lot, a great many birds take off when Kat is out of sight, I have an Irish judge that hissing instructions in my ear ”left, left, call her back, left again”, and so on. OH THE DRAMA! But she can’t find the bird. In the end, they bring in our other team dog to see if he can find it, but no luck there either. The judges walk out and find it about 15 metres away from the grounds we were instructed to hunt, on the other side of an electric fence (the electricity wasn’t on) and in the ”wrong wind” so to speak (it was a tailwind). Both dogs had considered the low electrical fence (there to keep the foxes out of the pheasants’ feeding grounds) as a wall that they couldn’t pass. Unfortunately I didn’t even see the fence and thought that the reason that she wouldn’t go right was that the bird had run backwards to the left.
LESSON: Go home and train the dog so that it crosses all kinds of fences and barriers without having to be told to do so.
Something else that I learned: Had I had more experience, I might have thought ”she’s been everywhere but to the right. Maybe I should send her there?” Even if the judge kept insisting on ”left” – she’d been there numerous times – I could have asked to send her to the right.
But this was so much fun!
TRIAL NO 7, WITH TASSLA: A bloody ditch in Skåne
Tassla’s arousal level is far too high from the moment I get her out of the car. I don’t have a good feeling about the trial and I have a headache. Even if I’ve taken breaks during our 300 km long drive down to the trial to let her burn off some steam, she feels like a pressure cooker. We are the second team to start and unfortunately she watches the other dog work and makes noises both at the flush and at the shot… If we hadn’t driven so far, I would have loaded her back in the car at that point and said our goodbyes. But instead we start out in a ditch that feels more like a gorge and is about three metres deep. At the bottom there’s a small stream. Tassla works so hard, she slides down into that stream, falls into it, struggles to get back up, and after a couple of tries she clearly shows that she’s had it and does not want to go back down. She wants to hunt ahead of us instead. I completely understand. The smooth feeling in our hunting is gone and I have to work against her, instead of with her. Finally she just looks up at me and gives an angry bark. And that is not allowed, and so we’re disqualified.
LESSON: Tassla is not a dog that makes noises while working. In her entire life she’s barked twice while hunting, and both of those times have been when I’ve insisted that she’d do something that ruins her lovely hunting in areas where she doesn’t think there’s any game. If I work AGAINST her, she can get frustrated. She’s a sensitive individual and I need to find the balance between working WITH her and still be able to ask her to do things that I want. Normally it’s not a problem to ask her to go hunt in brushwood, etc. But if I continue to ask her, over and over again, when she tells me ”there’s nothing there”, I can see the resistance build in her.
Something else that I learned: This area was too difficult for us. When the dog needs to climb rather than run and hunt, we lose interest in the task at hand. That’s just the way it is!
TRIAL NO 8, WITH TASSLA: Wild boars everywhere
We’ve been through a lot during the season, but this was the strangest thing. Tassla is in really great shape and I’ve managed to keep her arousal level balanced while we’ve been waiting our turn. She begins hunting beautifully and almost immediately we walk into some kind of reed, about two metres tall (what is it about me and plants that are two metres tall?!? I always seem to end up with that!). We are supposed to go around to big thickets and naturally, I lose sight of Tassla all the time. But she responds well to my whistles, and goes into the thicket when I ask her to.
So we exit the reed and Tassla comes out a bit after me, CRAWLING out of a bush. The judge and I stop short and I call Tassla to me. She’s not happy at all. We can’t find anything wrong with her, but I immediately decide to drop out. We really don’t understand what’s happened. Until one of the shooter’s say: ”She’s not afraid of wild boars? It reeks of boar here”. I take a deep breath. And yes, it really does REEK of boar! But I’ve never seen her act like this before, and feel that it’s better to be safe than sorry. Back with the crowd, a great many people tell me stories about dogs that have acted really weirdly and that have become really troubled and afraid working in areas with the scent of wild boar. The dogs have quit hunting, turned around, etc. I had no idea about any of this. Tassla is her normal self five minutes later.
LESSON: Wild boars are scary, if you ask Tassla (and she’s quite right…). What do I know, she might even have run into one in there? We couldn’t see a thing in the tall reed.
Something else that I learned: I had a plan for keeping Tassla’s arousal level down when we were waiting our turn. I’m very pleased with how well it worked! She was quiet and didn’t go as high as she’s done on a number of occasions.
TRIAL NO 9, WITH KAT: The diploma
A little while after the Swedish Championships, Kat and I are ready to go for another Winner’s class. It’s a magical frosty day and hunting at its’ best: beautiful, a decent amount of game, nice company and lovely dogs. Kat does her part. She starts out in style and flushes game almost straight away. On the way out to retrieve she flushes yet another bird and offers a sit. She comes back in with a nice undisturbed bird. After that she fades a little bit in the hunting (I’ve been focusing on getting a bold hunting style with Kat, but we’re not completely there yet), but we move ahead a bit before we get to switch to the next judge.
Our second part is really long, and on top of a long and tough hunt (I’m so afraid of not covering all the ground that I keep really active 😉 ) it also includes a challenging situation with a stream. When Kat flushes again, the shooter half-misses and the bird flies over a three metre wide stram and into a small field with bushes and shrubbery. Kat has to swim and then hunt for a really long time, but she doesn’t succeed in finding the bird. In the end I have to recall her. She swims back to me and then has to sit for TEN minutes while a person walks around half the field we’re standing in in order to get across the stream, trying to find the bird. We are the last team to go, so there are no other dogs to come in and look for it. But the person can’t find the bird (making it a job for the picking up dog) and we’re finally allowed to continue.
I feel really sorry for Kat who has so sit and wait all wet in the cold. She does really well though (my brave little dog!) and hunts well even if it’s pretty challenging for her. The meadow was really waterlogged and frozen over, and she really has short legs… She hunts as well as she can in the bumpy terrain. Over by the stream she flushes a bird again, but nothing is shot. We hunt for a couple of more metres, and then that’s it for the day. We are one out of two teams that make it that day, and Kat gets a diploma for her good work and I am ever so pleased.
I really worked hard during this trial and kept all my previous experiences and knowledge at the back of my head the entire time. Trialling really demands a lot of focus from me! I am completely knackered afterwards, I just go home and sleep, haha. But it ia a really nice experience to last throughout an entire trial and to work as intensily with my dog. It really ia success through hard work.
LESSON: I learned a lot about judging today. The judges said that Kat had done her job, but that they had wanted to see her being more proactive and they also felt that she should have found the runner. I found their scoring wise and understandable. The winner of the day basically did everything perfectly and I could see the difference between our two performances.
Something else that I learned: This trial really pulled together everything I’ve learnt during the autumn. I basically knew what I was doing J This was one of the most challenging things I’ve done, but also the most fun.
It’s been an autumn full of learning. I’ve had SO much fun on the way! Even if we have been disqualified a lot, I’ve been feeling happy after bascially all the trials because I could really see the nuggets of gold that we took with us from each one. So many things have to come together at a trial. My opportunities to work on what we need the most are limited. We need training on grounds with game and having limited opportunites to do so is a really big challenge. And I’ve come to understand that everyone gets disqualified sometime. I’m really content with some of the stuff that surfaced that I wasn’t happy with at the time – I’ve been able to improve on ir for the next time. There hasn’t been ONE challenge or ONE issue that’s been the reason for us being disqualified, I would probably not have been happy that being the case. I ended the season with joining a couple of hunts with both Kat and Tassla, and I was pleased with them there too. Now I need to work on details before next season. Maybe we can get awards more often then!
I also got to be the shooter a couple of times. I shot my first bird which I then cooked and ate. It was the first time I ate poultry in 34 years, but it was so good that I hope to shoot more this autumn. My goal with my shooting in 2018 was to begin hunting with Tassla, and I got to do that for the first time already in January (supervised). Oh my, that was difficult! But so much fun. I had to let go of Tassla to TRY do my job as a shooter. She did really well, but her reaction to the fact that I was the one doing the shooting was hilarious. She looked almost shocked! (Tassla likes to hang out with the shooters, given the opportunity.)
I’m now going to work on details of the retrieve and casting, and we’re going to attend a lot of fun classes. I’m also going to try to keep improving as a shooter. We’re looking forward to yet an exciting autumn!
Let’s end this with a short video of Tassla working on hunting in April (we’re allowed to train hunting with ICKE-EFTERFÖLJANDE JAKTHUNDAR until April 15 here in Sweden). We started out in a headwind and then we had both tailwind, headwind and a bit of sidewind because the wind swept when we came in amongst the trees. I’m so happy with how she’s becoming more skilled in her hunting! To me, she’s the best dog in the world!