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Erziehung & Ausbildung


On field trials and Brittanies

Erziehung & Ausbildung

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On field trials and Brittanies
by Bill Thayne

Saturday, September 10th 2015.
The Scottish Borders - 9.30 A.M.- cloudy, warm and light winds.
This was my Brittany Libby's first field trial and my first field trial for more than 20 years. It was an All Age stake, a place in the trial was vacant and I took it.
11 dogs ran in this 12 dog stake. G.S.P.'s, G.W.H.P.'s, one Korthals Griffon, one Vizsla and one Brittany.
From my point of view there could hardly be a worse trial for me in Britain ! I'd asked the f.t. sec. over the phone if the ground was hilly but was assured it was not too hilly and that it was usual there to drive from one hunting area to another. It was a bit like that but not enough to save me from those hills.
The ground was hilly, sometimes rather steeply hilly and the cover was mainly ferns on the hill slopes and white grass and spike grass everywhere else. There was very little in the way of trees or bushes in the areas we hunted but when it was Libby's turn to hunt she was given a shallow gulley to hunt up and it had side to side and top to bottom, very thick and high gorse bushes as cover. I already knew to expect birds in there, the previous dog had just shown us that and the gulley was an obvious place for the birds to have ran to when they saw the previous hunts by the first dogs as they moved up the field and along the hill face.

Above: that's what a field-trial ground in Scotland looks like.
Title photo: Victoria of Talwater, called Vicky, was Bill Thayne's very first Brittany. She had a French sire and her dam came from Texas U.S.A. She won at Crufts and she won in field trials gaining the only award in the HPR Championships a Brittany has ever held and that was nearly 30 years ago. Vicky and one GSP were the only two dogs to make it through to the end of the two day long Championships. In Bill's opinion she had "hybrid vigour" since American brittanies had been separated from European brittanies for so many years. She could and often did outrun and out hunt most GSP's.

I was in trouble even before I cast Libby off to hunt. I'd had to climb the hill at a fairly fast pace and my heart was protesting.
I cast her off and my luck was "in" she didn't have to go deep inside the gorse to find birds, she pointed within 15 feet of me as soon as she was off lead. She was on the fringe of the gorse and standing on the gulley slope among spike grass , thistles and gorse." Get the flush" said the judge so I sent her in to flush but the bird had ran.

To digress for a moment: it was being remarked on yesterday by several people how just about every pheasant found this season is running from the point...or even earlier than the point. It happened repeatedly yesterday and it happened at an Open HPR trial up here on Friday too. No first places could be awarded as the running birds made "tidy" work either difficult or downright impossible. Are pheasants being bred differently or are other factors at work ?
Libby's bird ran but luckily for me the cover was so thick down in the little gulley it did not run fast or far. She followed it and the judge and I followed her along the side of the gulley for about 10 yards and then the bird flushed, closely followed by two other birds from deeper in the gorse.
A couple of shot were fired and a hen pheasant fell into the grass about 20-30 yards outside the gulley and further up the hill.

Libby had been down in the bottom of the gulley and could not have seen the bird fall from there so the judge had me recall her, then send her from the lip of the gulley for this blind retrieve. Libby began her retrieve O.K. but then swung round and pointed towards the gulley again. There were still birds in there and she was pointing them. Getting her "off" the point and on to the blind retrieve was not easy. It took me two commands.
Once she did go to look for the fallen bird she found it very easily but the point during this retrieve did make things look a bit "untidy." On a shooting day I'd have let her work out her point on the other birds before retrieving that fallen bird ......it wasn't going anywhere , but this was a trial and the other birds would be used for other dogs.
The judge told me I was "into the next round" and to put the lead back on Libby. It was the shortest hunt I've ever done ! It was all over within 3-4 minutes and Libby had only travelled about 40-50 yards off the leash most of which was the retrieve distance ! The judge then told me her next hunt would be on much more open ground as, obviously, he'd need to see if she could really hunt. I was quite happy with that .
Two dogs had been lost to the trial during the first runs for "bumping " I think but I was too far from the action to be sure. Once more the talk was of birds running causing dogs big problems. I knew I'd been lucky having all those gorse bushes holding the birds for Libby.
As soon as the trial began to hunt the next stretch of ground I knew I was in deep trouble. We were to walk downhill along a steeply sloping valley covered mainly with ferns. I was doubtful that my number would be called before the end of the valley was reached and I was even more doubtful of my ability to climb back up out of the valley. The valley ran out before my number was called so I then had to begin that climb . I only managed about a third of the distance and had to stop. I was in bad trouble by then. A quad bike came down to rescue me.
Eventually, once back on the more level ground on top of the hill, my turn to hunt Libby came again and 40 yards out in front of me was a sea of white grass and some spike grass. I felt much better seeing that but the 40 yards to reach that ground was very thickly covered with spike grass , bushes and gawd knows what else plus there was a ditch running through it. This time Libby "hunted" 20 feet and then pointed !
On judges instructions I sent her in to flush but, yet again, the bird had ran. Libby did a follow and we followed her through all the cover and over the ditch to the fence. Libby was about to continue her "follow" through the fence but the gun was not quite in position yet so I whistle pipped her to stand/stay. The field just through the fence was that lovely white grass but that stuff doesn't hide pheasants just as well as they'd like.
If the bird "held" just on the other side of the fence everything would be fine but if it ran the chances were very poor of ever coming up to it without it flushing out of range. With the gun now in position I sent Libby onwards again but no bird took to wing. I think the bird had possibly seen the approaching gun and had turned sharp left out in the white grass and had then ran like a bloody ostrich ! Libby followed on , took the sharp left turn and began her "follow" in that direction.
It must have been obvious to her that this bird was going to escape and she was not about to allow that. She went after it going at full pelt and didn't check her pace until the bird turned off again having reached sheep nibbled very short grass about 130 yards from me. I'd already made my choices. I could have called her off earlier in the follow and had her quarter the white grass looking for another bird to point ......that was the "safe" choice but I rarely play safe in trials ..... I sort of go for the throat ! I let Libby go about 5 times gunshot range out as she tore off after that bird in the hope she'd manage to "pin" it in another point out there.
That didn't happen. As soon as Libby came near the bird out there it at once flew off having no where else it could run to once onto the sheep nibbled grass. That was me and Libby O-U----OOT !
There was no 1st place awarded in this trial or in Fridays one. The same thing seems to be the cause of this ....birds that run and keep on running !
One of the judges had something to say about this at his little speech at the trials end. He said he felt the dogs were not going in hard and fast enough to deal with running birds , with one exception and he then pointed at Libby who, he said did this just a bit too well! My only disappointment concerning the trial is that because Libby got very little "exercise" during either of her record length, short "runs" she was as high as a kite. I'd like to have ran her for more than 3-4 seconds before she got a point !
The ground was excellent, it was just my bad luck to have to hunt just about the only thick cover there was there when my number was called by the judge.
It may not sound like it but I greatly enjoyed this trial. The countryside was beautiful and the company was excellent. I think that trial could be my last, it was obvious to me .....and to everyone else yesterday.....that my health isn't up to walking the hills. Ah well, at least I went out with a bang and not with a whimper.
The grounds for putting Libby out were that the guns could not get a shot at the bird .... I think. Certainly she was not going to stop or recall until she'd found that bird ! Once she was 50 -60 yards out and in full gallop after the bird as it ran (the bird could not be seen by us or by her) she was actually out of my control. By then she'd been walked on a lead for about 4 hours with only a 3-4 minute long hunt combined with retrieve to let her release her tensions ..... and her energies ! She'd seen birds flushed and she'd seen birds shot and she wanted some of that ! I've no complaints, I think the trial was well and fairly judged.
The judges did make one or two remarks on the trial that interested me. I'd felt that most of the dogs there were not hunting with either the range or the pace I'd have expected on relatively "open" ground. I'm pretty sure the judges felt the same way. Some large swathes of good ground were completely missed by the dogs as they hunted, some birds were on those bits of ground. We saw them get up from the gallery.
Back at the cars at the end of the day a handler was trying to be nice to me about Libby's high speed and long distance follow and bump. He felt she needed more or better stop to whistle training. He and a few others all thought the way to train dogs was to train stop whistle, stop whistle and more stop whistle before letting a dog loose on game.
I at once disagreed despite what had just happened to me and a couple of other older handlers also disagreed. It seems the younger generation of HPR trialers often have a parallel attitude to that which the younger generation of retriever trailers are often accused of. Too much control which is a possible cause of dogs being a bit inhibited as hunters ?
Another Scottish handler had one of the few dogs there that had actually looked as purposeful as I like to see. He said he wished he'd been able to see Libby hunt the open ground after seeing the speed she showed on the bird that had ran from her point. I wouldn't have minded seeing that myself !
I'd already told the English guy with the stop whistle fetish that I do the opposite to him . I don't train dogs to stop until they have taught themselves to "go." I don't think I will be listened to. I got chucked out didn't I ? I very seldom "play safe" either when training for work or when actually trialing. I paid the price for that yesterday but so did the folk who did "play safe."
I do not deny that Libby needs more stop whistle and more recall whistle training however. She is prone to taking the proverbial mile !
Now, an interesting question is this: should a dog be penalised for relocating on its own initiative on a bird that moved under the point? Or are they expected to be staunch until the handler gets there.
I asked that question 30 years ago at an HPR training/trialing seminar taken by a panel of 4 very experienced HPR people Louise Petrie Hay, Lord Joicey, and a couple of others, all now sadly dead). There was no definitive answer back then and there is no answer now either. Sometimes one thing works better than the other and if that thing is what happens to be a trainers main experience then that trainer will answer the question accordingly.
I think a bigger problem arises when a judge prefers the dog to be staunch until the handler gets there due to "aesthetics" if that is the right word.
In that judges opinion a dog that relocates on it's own initiative does not present such a pretty picture. I like pretty pictures too but even more than that I like to see a dog use it's own initiative even if some birds flush at extreme range or out of range.
I competed in an Open trial years ago during which my GSP went on point at the entrance to a large room sized alcove inside a small, unused rock quarry. As the judges and I approached the point we saw my bitch very slowly turn her head to face back towards her tail .....while the rest of her remained on point ! The judge was a "the dog must not move" fan so he at once said she had broken her point.
I said the bird she was pointing had doubled back past her to get out of the alcove causing her head to move around in an attempt to follow the bird. The judge disagreed and wanted her to produce the bird he thought should be in front of her. I refused to even try to send my bitch into the alcove first and I sent her to flush where she was now looking. Up got a pheasant which was shot and then retrieved by her on command. The judge warned me that if another bird was still in that alcove my bitch was Out. The alcove produced nothing at all when he stamped through it so I got a bit "above my station" and sort of insinuated he was just about illiterate when it came to reading a dog ! I give respect where respect is due and I had very little respect for that particular judge.
As usual however, the judge had the last word and I did not win the trial!
But to get back to our field trial: The water test yesterday was very testing. Since this was an All Age Stake the retrieve was a blind over water. Yesterdays water was a large pond or small loch high up in the hills. It was heavily fringed with reeds and the entry points were deep, oozing mud which many dogs do not like. The dogs had to go through the reeds and the ooze on command then swim fifty yards across the pond , then get through the far banks reeds and ooze to look for birds hidden about 10-20 yards further out and then return through the ooze and reeds again.
I thought this was bad enough but the natural distractions present were even worse ! Two pairs of swans occupied that pond, a pair holding each end as their territory. The dogs had to swim past the very interested swans ! Only one dog did not complete this test and I think it was the far banks ooze that defeated the dog and not the swans.
Since I began with the HPR breeds about 30 years ago some things have changed for the better but some maybe not. When I began the dogs were given a lot more leeway than they seem to be now. Things have now swung the other way .....maybe a bit too much ?
It is a big "ask" when a dog is supposed to hunt like a pointer on open ground and like a spaniel in thick cover and yet still point rather than just flush. It is also a big ask to expect a "Jack of all trades" dog to retrieve to near retriever trial standards.
The cat crawling style is something my GSP's did better than my brittanies. Brittanies lose patience if that goes on for too long and then they often do what Libby did yesterday ! My first Brittany somehow came to realise that charging off 50-100 yards after the bird did not result in the bird being shot. She changed her tactics to suit while still showing her Brittany impatience. She adopted the practice of running in a huge "banana" to get around and past the running bird and then she hunted back in towards it and me.
When she did that it often gave me a "driven shot" at the bird and I hit it often enough to make doing things in that way rewarding to her. I wish Libby would hurry up to learn that trick but since I never shoot pheasants over her she never gets enough experience to handle running birds in that way. I'm stuck with a dog that tracks at my very slow pace and then gets fed up with me being unable to keep up so she does the hundred yard sprint thing after the bird just for her own satisfaction in having finally flushed it !
She works with what she's got and she's got the speed of a rally car while I've got the speed of a snail . It's a mismatch but that's life . We still manage to quite like each other ......it's a bit like being married !

Above: Bill Thayne with a 9 month old G.S.P. puppy.

I got my first HPR (A Brittany) to help me find enough game to shoot for my field trial labs to retrieve. They needed the "walk up" experience for trialing and the moor I had the shooting on did have pheasants, partridge , snipe etc. on it but in such small quantities that hoping to just walk over the ground and encounter game to shoot was a false hope.
I had my mates on the moor with their field trial spaniels but they did not hunt widely enough or freely enough to find game. I got myself a Brittany and very quickly became hooked on HPR work . I stopped trialing the two labs and both of them had won two day, 24 dog Open trials and trialed the Brittany instead.
I have never regretted doing that. It opened up realms of scent and wind appreciation that I didn't know existed. It also taught me things about game behaviour that I hadn't known before.
It also taught me that brittanies are not the easiest of breeds to train ! GSP's are easier and it is the GSP I recommend to anyone who asks me which HPR breed to buy.
If you want an easy life get a GSP, if you want to stretch your abilities as a trainer get a Brittany. I usually buy a GSP immediately following a Brittany. It gives me a chance to recuperate but it doesn't grow my hair back on again !

I love the Brittany breed because it is one of the most huntingest breeds on the planet. Brits are very natural hunters and pointers , so much so that developing the breeds retrieve instinct can be a problem. Very often they will happily retrieve fresh shot game but aren't in the least bit interested in dummies or even cold game. Libby has done quite a bit of dummy blinking in her time !
The expectations many people have of the HPR breeds are maybe a bit unrealistic . As I said earlier ......"It is a big "ask" when a dog is supposed to hunt like a pointer on open ground and like a spaniel in thick cover and yet still point rather than just flush. It is also a big ask to expect a "Jack of all trades" dog to retrieve to near retriever trial standards."
If I hunt a spaniel then I either hold onto the whistle like grim death or almost permanently wear it between my lips. Spaniels need your full focus all the time as they hunt. HPR ranges plus the fact that they point, means that some of the time you can relax a bit and not start to get twitchy on the whistle until the dog is about to go right over the horizon.
At those sort of distances however Libby is virtually self-employed. She'll turn on the whistle only if she wants to. If she thinks there may be game out where she is then I could whistle the dawn chorus for all she cared. In days of yore I used to chase out there after the disobeying Brittany or GSP and damn well make them turn or stop but those days vanished along with my teeth and hair.
Libby loves treats but she loves hunting even more so I am somewhat stuck when she chooses to disobey. I'd even consider using an e-collar at it's lowest level to gain more obedience but Libby won't hunt with any kind of collar on .....she goes on strike or even runs back to my car to sulk.
I tried using a belled collar last year just to know where she is among cover ....she ran back to my car and would not hunt until I removed the collar.
She is an awkward, self centred and determined little cow!
This will not be popular among many spaniel owners but in my opinion if you are a rough shooter you would get more shots with a really good HPR than with a really good or even with a F.T.Ch. spaniel. Unless the ground you shoot over has a lot of very thick, nasty cover that holds a lot of game.
I never have been able to afford to shoot really good ground with a lot of game on it. Like most other rough shooters any ground I've had has been almost barren of game and in most places did not have what I would call really thick, nasty cover. HPR's find far more game for me than any spaniel I have ever owned ....or ever seen on the places where I can hunt or hunt and shoot game.
I have 3 spaniels and I let them hunt wider than most handlers/hunters would and yet the one HPR I own produces more game for me than all 3 spaniels.

All photos (c) Bill Thayne
Text (c) Bill Thayne 2016


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