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Now that it’s September, Zara and I are only a few weeks out from running the NAVHDA Utility Test for the second time. We’ve been training on and off on various things since we didn’t pass last October. I thought I would give an update of how she’s doing and how I’m feeling about things now that we’re getting close.

Field Work

This is the area where Zara has made the most progress in the last year. When we ran the Utility Test last year, Zara was right on the edge of being completely steady to wing, shot, and fall. Although we had been working on steadiness for several years, without consistent access to live birds, I had trouble getting her completely steady. I had only introduced the e-collar a month before we tested. The morning of the test, I felt incredibly nervous about the field portion because I knew there was the potential for it to be a disaster. That was not the case, though. She performed better in the field that day then she ever had.

Since January, Zara and I have been lucky enough to belong to a bird dog club where we have access to pigeons and electronic launchers. We’ve been going there once a week to train, minus the two month period where we were quarantined due to coronavirus. Having regular access to live birds has allowed me to clean up her steadiness. Last year, Zara did not have a clear understanding that a bird flushing meant “whoa”/don’t move. I was relying on the verbal “whoa” command. Now, with LOTS of repetitions, she does understand that a bird flushing means whoa (thanks pigeons!).

I definitely feel more confident about field work going into the Utility test this year. At a NAVHDA training day a few weeks ago, she was completely steady to shot and fall, even in tough conditions where the grass was very tall. We are still working on the retrieving issues I mentioned in a previous post, but I’m hoping we can get that cleaned up in time for the test.

Working on steadiness with Zara using two pigeons in launchers. She is much more reliable than she was last year.

Duck Search

We’ve also made a lot of strides toward a solid duck search this summer. As I wrote in my post about duck search training, I didn’t have much of a training plan for duck search in 2019. We put out ducks and Zara searched for them. I wasn’t paying attention to the expansion of her search (or lack thereof) and was really surprised when she scored a 1 out of 4 at the test last year.

My main focus this summer has been on teaching Zara that the ducks don’t hang out at the shoreline and that she needs to just swim out 50 yards or so without relying on smelling the duck scent from the send-off point. She’s done some good duck searches which I think would earn a 4. However, I’m still not 100% confident in this area. If she smells the duck soon after I send her, she should be fine and search accordingly. But if there is no breeze and she can’t smell it, she may be unwilling to go out and stay out. Given that the duck search score basically determines our overall score (you need a 4 in duck search to get a Prize 1, 3 to get a Prize 2, and 2 to get a Prize 3), this is a bit worrisome. However, our chapter is having a training day this coming Saturday and hopefully we can get another good duck search under our belts this weekend.

Zara retrieves a live duck during duck search training

Zara retrieves a live duck during one of our duck searches this summer.

Duck Drag

I’m not really worried about this portion of the test, although I recognize that things can go wrong on test day. Zara has done a great job finding and bringing the duck back ever since I taught her to fetch last year. She does tend to want to parade around a little with the duck (see retrieving issue mentioned above) but we had the same issue last year and still got a 3 out of 4, which is okay for a Prize 1. Cleaning up her retrieving will help here too.

The end of a duck drag. I didn’t immediately correct Zara for veering off instead of coming directly to me because I was seeing what she’d do without any direction from me. Once I realized she wasn’t coming right to me, I started giving corrections.

Heeling/Remaining by the Blind/Steady by the Blind

I’m also feeling pretty confident about this portion of the test, although given that there are a lot of parts, there is more potential for things to go wrong. This is probably the area of the test that Zara mastered first. She’s always been good at the remaining by the blind portion, where the dog is positioned on the side of a lake and the owner goes out of sight and fires two blank shots. Heeling has been a struggle since she was younger, but she’s definitely stronger in that department than she was last year and we managed to get a 4 at the last test. We’ll probably do this whole sequence only one more time before the test, but I will continue to work on heeling almost every day.

We practice off-leash heeling a lot and I sometimes think she is better at heeling off-leash than on-leash. For the Utility Test, the dog can be on- or off-leash – it’s the handler’s choice. However, I will definitely keep her on leash during the test just to be safe. I’ve seen a dog bolt away from the handler during the heeling portion and I do NOT want that to happen!

Steady by the blind at NAVHDA training day

Zara and I practicing steady by the blind at a NAVHDA training day last year.

NAVHDA Utility Test – Overall Progress

When Zara and I ran the Utility Test last year, I was just hoping to pass. I believed she was capable of a Prize 1, but I wasn’t focused on it. People would ask me if I was going to train for NAVHDA’s Invitational if she got a Prize 1, but I wasn’t sure (a Utility Prize 1 is required to qualify for the Invitational). This year, I am really hoping for a Prize 1, because I want the opportunity to train for the Invitational. I know that she has the ability to get a Prize 1; it just depends how everything comes together on test day. I’m trying to stay realistic and do the best I can as a handler to prepare her and we’ll hope for the best.

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