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Training for the Irish Internationals

11/4/2005
Mike Stewart and Drake, Marty Newport and Bob, and Bill Gibson and Jet comprise the U.S. Gundog Team. 

Time is short for the US Gundog Team to depart for the international gundog tests in the beautiful Irish isles. We depart Houston, Texas on May 17th flying directly to Gadwick International, England. When we land we will be the first gundog group from the United States to enter the UK to compete in history

Let me briefly summarize a few of the training steps our team took in preparing to meet some of the best game-finding teams in the world on their own turf. Prestigious teams from Scotland, N. Ireland, England, Wales and the Republic of Ireland are preparing to give us the run of our lives at the International Game Fair in Des Moirnes, N. Ireland.

We have taken our preparations very seriously. Extreme value is placed by UK judges on game-finding and controllability — exactly the quality one would want in a hunting dog. Our preparations would correspond with a good, preseason tune-up program or preparing for our Wildrose championship so I hope you will find our thought process and training applications helpful in polishing your shooting dog.

The rules

First, in any game, you must understand the goal. Our team began with the end in mind … what the judges will want to see. The following are sections taken directly from the British Kennel Club rulebook. These are exactly what the judges will be looking for in 2005.

Section J(B) 3.a "Judges will be selecting dogs that pleases them most by the quality of its (dog) work from the shooting point of view. They should take natural gamefinding to be of first importance...."

Section J(B)4.g "A good gamefinding dog should not rely on the handler to find game. It should however, be obedient and respond to its handler's signals when necessary. Dogs showing gamefinding ability and initiative should be placed above those which have to be handled to their game."

Section J(B) 5.f Credit Points: "Natural gamefinding ability, nose, marking ability, style, quickness in gathering game, control, good retrieving and delivery and quietness in handle."

So there we have it — exactly what the performance standards will be expected and in turn, exactly what we should train for.

The training

The basics

We began by concentrating on the basics, things that would reflect negatively on our score, despite the dog's retrieving performance.

1. Quiet handling no shouting, use of the dog's name, talking in line or noisy whistles
2. Off-lead heel work with out any verbal reminders
3. Absolute steadiness — no creeping (no such thing as a controlled break!). Any movement and it's, "thank you very much..."
4. The dogs must be totally quite, not the slightest whine despite the distractions.
5. Handler's marking ability — knowing exactly the fall area, even if it's not your retrieve. One may be given a chance for an "eye wipe" if the first dog fails.

Dog's conduct

1. One command response
2. No peeing or ground sniffing, once called into line dogs must stay focused
3. Dogs must disregard other dogs/handlers in very close quarters — no sniffers
4. Any aggression is an immediate disqualifier — no problem with our dogs

These would be the same standards I would expect for a polished hunting dog as well and a polished hunting dog is exactly what the judges will be looking for.

Barriers

Next, we begin focusing on jumping barriers (fences to be specific). We have included split rail, stone walls and 3- and 4-foot net-wire fences. You can set up similar jumps using plastic mesh netting like you see at construction sites. It comes in a roll and it's mobile.

We are expecting a mark diversion with a bind further out over a fence into cover out of sight of the handler.

First, I run jumps as marks and set up so the dog will hit the fence straight — at a 90-degree angle. Next, we run the jumps as memories at various angles. A dog hitting a jump at 45 degrees will likely run the fence line. Teach the dog to cue on 'get over' when approaching a barrier.

Next, we handled with a cast (hand signal) over the jump using the baseball pattern drill and finally blinds over multiple fences.

Hunting

Hunting cover was a skill we concentrated on throughout the year. The nose knows.

First, we switched to using UK-style bumpers... exactly what will be used in Ireland. These are large canvas bumpers of various colors. We wanted our dogs to know what to look for. UK field trials use only live game that must be untouched by humans. In the off-shooting season no game may be used. Therefore, working tests are limited to using bumpers, so we train accordingly.

As handlers, we will likely be told only the general area of a blind, not an exact location. Also, we will often lose sight of our dogs in cover on both blinds and marks. Here is what we focused on in preparation:

1. Marking by sound, gunfire, falling bumpers, etc.
2. Drills designed to hold the dog tight in an area
3. Using lots of tennis balls in cover
4. Hunting cover out of sight of the handler
5. Practicing use of wind to locate bumpers
6. Holding a line straight through cover or obstacles to get to the fall area

We wanted to develop a balance of controllability and good hunting initiative. Put the gamefinder in the area and "hunt 'em up."

Style

My experience training in Ireland and at British trials has shown me that style and enthusiasm count... a bit of "panache." We were careful in our training not to over-handle to the point of inhibiting style.

Too many whistle stops and over-handling can cause the dog to run flat which would be a liability. We trained with balance in mind — clean lines, crisp stops, accurate handling combined with speed (enthusiasm) on the retrieve and aggressive, independent hunting.

Marking

Marking accuracy was improved by using tennis balls.

If the dog can pinpoint the fall of a tennis ball with eyes and/or ears, they can find a big bumper. We practiced for depth perception (distance), holding a line despite obstructions and not over-handling the dog.

The most challenging task for all of our dogs was to get them to hold the fall area and hunt close at distances. They are an enthusiastic bunt. A couple of quick passes and they began to widen their search too quickly. Why? Each is an experienced hunter and knows all too well how to widen their search patterns for running pheasants or wounded ducks.

Well, in these tests the bumpers won't run so we had to improve our dogs' ability to hold the fall area and hunt tight. Tennis balls in small patches of cover worked wonders as both marks and memories.

Tight diversions

We expect to see some long marks and blinds with very tight diversions. Our dogs must be able to de-select the diversion with a verbal "no" and line directly as indicated. I use my old trick of always picking up the short diversion myself after the retrieve. Drake — the official mascot of Ducks Unlimited — simply never gets one of these tempting marks.

One challenging drill is to select a fixed object as a point of reference. I used a fence post. Put a memory at 11:00 to the post and fire a launcher mark to 1:00. Send for the memory. I ran almost every blind or mark with some type diversion, both on either side of the line and across the line. I think we'll be ready!

Subskills

Other subskills we practice include:

1. Getting across water to the far bank (marks and blinds) using the command, "get over"
2. British-style walk ups with other guns and handlers in line
3. Flushed live game as diversions and off game
4. Marks falling as unseens in dense woods (use of ears)
5. Crossing under and through wire fences

Wheels up

The Irish will be looking for great hunting dogs in these tests. I hope our team will show them a few and represent the US well. The training objectives I have shared with you will serve you well in the development of your classic hunting companion because that is exactly what our UK friends will recognize... the same values you will want in your shooting dog this season.

I can assure the gundog community that our team will be proper ambassadors of the US sporting dog world and we will exemplify the essence of sportsmanship in our competitions and travels.

I will keep you in formed of the results of each event by providing reports at www.uklabs.com on the message board. Results will be posted as they occur directly from the UK. Visit and you will be absolutely the first to know of the results of each event.

We hope to see some of you in June when the US International Gundog team will appear with me for demonstrations at Ducks Unlimited Great Outdoor Festival in Memphis, Tenn., June 5 and 6.

Tally ho, mate!
Mike