I’ll start this post by apologizing for the lack of content for the last two months. With that out of the way I’ll share the story of where we’ve been and why.
I’ve alluded to the fact that I’ve been doing a lot of training with Lily. Exactly a year ago I attended a cocker field trial in Minnesota and immediately knew this was a dog game I would be playing. From the beginning I took a different approach to Lily’s training than any dog I have had in the past. She received no bird work early in life, I worked obedience until we both were sick of it and I’ve utilized only positive training methods. This meant attempting to train to a finished level with no collars, and other than a brief 1-2 week period of utilizing the check cord, I didn’t even have a strap collar on during training.
Now, I don’t want to give the impression I’m anti-collar. Heck I have about a dozen of them, but I wanted to see how far I could take a dog without one. I cannot take any credit for this novel approach. When I decided on a spaniel I scoured the literature on British methods and learned as much as I could from these techniques. The biggest influence on this decision, though, was the time I’ve spent with Lily’s breeder Paul McGagh of Glencoe Kennels. I have spent a lot of time with dog people from all over the country, and I don’t mean this as a slight to any of them, but the times I’ve spent with Paul have been some of the most amazing dog training lessons I have ever witnessed. Paul truly has a gift when it comes with his relationships with these amazing animals and it was seeing this first hand that made me want to alter my approach with this dog.
Lily’s training has been a very positive experience and I feel it has forced me to learn, as a handler, more about the canine thought process. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that a number of these training sessions would end with me contemplating adding the collar to the mix in order to smooth out the process. And to be completely honest I can’t say we won’t go down that path eventually.
My plan had been to run her first trial the weekend of April 25 in North Dakota. The week leading up to the trial found us still struggling with steadiness to flush and so I elected to scratch her from the trial in favor of three days of training, with the hopes she would be ready for the Minnesota trial the following weekend. This proved to be a very wise decision as the switch went off for the little dog and outside of the rare break on a low-flushing bird she was bringing it all together like a champ. The Wednesday night before the trial we had a near perfect training session and Thursday I ran her birdless simply to work on control in the field.
Friday I loaded up the truck and headed to Minnesota to watch the first day of the trial in hopes of gaining some insight before our big run on Saturday. The day was filled with incredible dogs. A huge number of dogs were carried over during each series in the open. There was a puppy stake on Friday, smaller than Saturday’s, but with many of the dogs running both days I was able to see some of the competition. After the first two puppies had run I turned to one of the other spectators to inquire about these dogs’ runs and more specifically, what would have kept them from not getting called back in the open…his reply, “Oh, nothing, they would have done fine in the open.” This made me sick about Saturday. When I had first signed Lily up for these trials I thought puppy actually meant puppy; however, in spaniel trials it meant dogs that were under two years old. At 10 months old Lily was truly still a puppy, but the realization sunk in that she would be playing a big dog’s game.
Saturday morning’s alarm sounded much too early and I knew judgement day, literally, was upon us. The puppy stake is usually run after the first two series of the open. Two days of wind and somewhat dry conditions resulted in a number of dogs being dropped during the open, but regardless it felt like it was dragging on forever. Finally the last brace was ran and the trial broke for lunch. We were now about a half-hour from making our debut on the trial scene.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was nervous. It had been suggested by a number of people to take some Immodium with me, and while I didn’t have to resort to that I was pretty worked up. I watched the first couple of dogs run and then decided to get her out of the kennel. We were the last dog to run and so I thought having her out on lead for a while may help settle down her nerves…that proved to not be the case. The longer we waited the more anxious she got. I was beginning to think I had made my first blunder.
It was looking like we were going to start midway through the course and so we walked towards the line as the handler before us sent his dog into the field. His pup put up a bird early and it was dropped, followed by a nice retrieve. Blunder number two had just occurred as Lily intently marked the fall since she was so close to the shot. We followed the action up the course waiting our turn. After the pup’s second bird content the judges decided to head back to the beginning of the course for our run rather than to pick it up where the previous dog ended. By this time Lily was a wild banshee at the end of her leash and raring to go and I was going over every conceivable worst-case scenerio in my head.
After some brief instructions the judges allowed me to take the course. I hupped Lily, stroked her head a few times, told her she was a good dog, removed the leash and we were on our way. Immediately she headed for the area of the fall from the previous dog. I was worried we were in trouble as I could not whistle her out of the area. Blunder number three, in hindsight I should have just left well enough alone, allowed her to hunt it out and swallowed my whistle. As it was I’m sure I got dinged for some whistle refusals and lack of cooperation. After what seemed like an eternity she gave up on finding the bird and started hunting like the dog I’d come to know.
The first bird contact went like textbook with a retrieve to hand. The second bird gave us a run for our money. She put it up and immediately hupped. The bird caught the stiff wind and came right back at the judges and me, hovering over us for a few seconds before landing about two yards in front of me with Lily about 20 yards further beyond. The judge asked me to release her and the pup came charging at me like she was shot out of a canon. She hit the bird, rolled it on the ground before it took flight and she once again hupped, was steady to shot and made the retrieve. I handed the bird to the judge and leashed Lily up. Just like that our first trial run was over In my constant negative view of the world I spent the walk back to the truck dwelling on the first minute of the run as she hunted for a non-existent retrieve. I kept thinking, if only I had kept her away from the line longer, if only I had left her in the truck, if only I….if, if, if.
As I walked back with my head down everyone I met on the walk had nothing but compliments to give on Lily’s run. They were impressed with her style, her steadiness and of course her looks. Every time I brought up the start of the run it was dismissed as her just being a puppy and an insignificant part of the performance. The first few times I heard this I thought it was just people being nice to the rookie; however, the more I heard it the more I thought maybe we had a chance. As I shook off the negative thoughts clouding my judgement I had to admit that I could not have been happier with her bird performance that day.
With a mountain of work waiting for me at home I decided to skip out on the last series of the open as well as Sunday’s amateur. The four-hour drive home gave me ample time to reflect on the events of the day, and I knew I had been stricken by yet another addiction to add to my list. Regardless of the judges decision this cocker trial thing had gotten in my blood.
Later in the evening, after the truck was unpacked and the steaks were on the grill my phone rang with news that Lily had taken second. I couldn’t believe it. The little dog had come through. All the hours of researching breeders, the training books and videos and the endless hours of training had all come together.
For those of you who know me also know that I have a competitive side and I may have been known to note in the heat of battle that second place is the first loser. I like to think that in this case Lily had a first place performance that was downgraded by an incompetent handler, that, and had I won right out of the gate I may not have had the incentive to come back for more. Ok, maybe I’m making a little much out of a puppy trial, but we all have to start somewhere.
For a photo gallery look at the first two days of the trial check out the pictures HERE.