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Wren and our Journey

Thank you Milly for this wonderful write up with ups and downs and truths

My current lab Wren is the third lab and 4th dog that I've trained with Kirkbourne. She's now 5.

Her breeding/pedigree and health testing were carefully planned and chosen pre birth and she was a very easy pup to train in terms of manners and heelwork. She was and still is a high drive fast paced dog and was slower to mature compared to the two previous labs I've trained. The main challengers started when retrieves were introduced and involved a few issues.

1. She would burst forward with speed and spin then carry on as if no spin had occurred.

2. If the dummy was on flat ground she would push it along playing with it instead of cleanly picking it.

3. She would pick the dummy up like a cigar by the end, invariably it would bounce up and down on her return run which was fun for her and then she would try and throw it up at me, all very fast and messy.

4. If she felt unsure she would freeze on cast off.

Each problem needed an individual solution tailored just for her. One to ones with Darren confirmed that in his opinion as a handler I wasn't doing anything to cause these issues but we needed to find solutions.

1. Spinning – we initially tried different cast offs. My usual cast off was to line the dog up, one leg takes a step forward and the hand next to the dog was then placed by the side of her face pointing in the direction of the dummy. The first trigger for excitement for her was the step forward which created an impulse in her resembling a runner on the starting blocks, then the hand by her face built up the excitement until the verbal command to go was given and she span.

Darren suggested different cast offs to see if they helped.

Standing away from her and giving a verbal command to a seen dummy didn't help, she still span.

In the end after trying a variety of things we found changing a number of things helped and I had to learn a new way to cast off.

Taking a step back on line up instead of a step forward seemed less triggering to her excitement levels as was using the hand furthest away from her face and having the hand flat/horizontal instead of vertical also helped.

If she did spin Darren suggest I try and stop her verbally with a 'No'.

I was doubtful this would work as she was so fast but in reality she was very responsive and did stop when asked. She was then recalled and lined up again and only allowed the retrieve if she had a clean out run. Using these techniques the spinning on cast off thankfully resolved and is now a distant memory.

2. Pushing the dummy along the floor – This happened less as she matured and as retrieves became longer and harder. She will still occasionally play this game if the retrieves are short and on flat ground but a verbal reprimand reminds her not to. She picks game cleanly so no concerns with that.

3. Picking the dummy up by the end like a cigar – We tried the usual removing toggles from dummies, taping down canvas ends etc but what really helped were a set of cylindrical dummies with fur in the middle. This encouraged her to pick them in the middle. These dummies and maturity helped solve that issue.

To improve delivery to hand I taught her a command for putting an item in my hands. Starting with items in the home, slippers, nyla bones etc I would hold my hand out and as she gave me the item I put a verbal command on the action – 'In', then gave the 'Dead' command when I wanted her to release the item. This then transferred to dummy's outside and improved the delivery.

4. If she froze on cast off the key was to make the exercise easier by simplifying it or by walking closer. This helped her confidence.

She had an introduction to cold game with Kirkbourne and to dummy launcher and shot in a structured safe way with no issues identified.

Then Covid hit us and group training ceased but we continued alone and she trained alongside my elder dog which proved valuable for teaching her to honour another dog retrieving. Bronze Train to Win was completed by video due to Covid.

When restrictions allowed we returned to group training in the intermediate group and eventually she was chosen to try out for 'Team Training' for the Kirkbourne Challenge. Having been through this training 3 times before with previous dogs I relished the opportunity to push her on and initially all was well. She soon began to struggle though and as the retrieves became more challenging the old insecurity of 'freezing on cast off' returned or she would cast off and then stop and ask for assurance and handling. Seeking advice from Darren he watched her perform and recognised that she was not coping with that level of training at that time and we moved back into the Intermediate group. There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a step back if the dog needs it and we started the process of rebuilding her confidence and trust in the intermediate group.

We then progressed to a personalised training plan over a number of weeks that ran alongside the intermediate group and her confidence grew through a combination of these events, efforts and consistency.

Last year Darren decided a month before the team competition to put together a group of dogs to enter the competition with not necessarily the intention of being placed but to gain experience for the future, we were chosen to be in this team. She performed very well over the weekend and was chosen by the team to complete some difficult and challenging retrieves including blinds. She did very well in her role although one challenge we identified was that despite successfully getting her out a long distance to one blind she didn't pick! When asked what the retrieve was it was a rabbit, something we hadn't trained for but will rectify in the future.

Positives – She has the best 'Stop' of any dog I have trained, she nails her bum to the floor and looks to me for the next direction.

Same with recall, she responds fast to recall and also has a nice fast return with dummy or game.

She handles nicely for me and I can usually handle her to an area for a blind.

Last year we entered an any aged AV cold game test and although she wasn't placed she made the final 6 dogs which pleased me. She wasn't and isn't 100% silent at times and did emit a little whine as the cold game was thrown out, she's steady but that whine in a KC test would be an eliminating fault and I think it's caused by her high drive, she struggles with impulse control and does win in terms of she does not run in but clearly is excited. Interestingly she does not whine picking up, probably because she knows she will retrieve.

She has picked up now for 3 years and last year I started her on runners in preparation for my other lab retiring. Her first runner was carefully chosen and picked on a walk up day with Kirkbourne at the Aske Estate in North Yorkshire. She started on hen pheasants then progressed to cock pheasants.

This year she has progressed from retrieving runners she can see visually on the ground when picking up to runners that have entered a wood and are then unseen, that used to be the job for my elder dog but she now has the easier retrieves and Wren has the longer more difficult ones.

In summary Wren has been 'quirkier' to train than my other labs, slower to mature and Darren has had to come up with some innovative solutions to the quirks and problems we have encountered along the way. I have had to adapt some of my methods and have learnt new skills from training her.

This year we completed the Silver Train To Win Award and now train in the Advanced group. We pick up on a nearby shoot and she will replace our older lab on the foreshore and marsh for Wildfowling.


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