The weekend had two trips in store for me both out farther west of me in PA. The weekend started out Friday night by attending Woodcock Limited’s annual dinner, it’s sort of the high-water mark of their woodcock weekend between a board meeting and habitat workshop. It may’ve well been the last one to be held in PA for a few years as there’s talk of rotating through a few different states. The meal was excellent
and prepared by the staff at the Nature Inn at Bald Eagle State Park. In between entrees and desert, most attendees were standing out on the patio listening and peering for glimpses of four singing male woodcock in a patch of cover stretching across the front of the inn (closed to hunting all year). The featured speaker was Tom Cooper who may be described as sort of a funnel that all woodcock studies anywhere in the nation pass through at some point.
Saturday didn’t hold a lot in store. It poured all day long. Pop got a bath, a finely-combed de-burring (as opposed to the normal post-run once-over), and his nails and feet feathering trimmed. -The purpose two-fold… the bottoms to prevent snow/ice build up and the the tops for a perception of speed under judgement. I don’t think many make a cognizant mental note about it, but overly furry feet sort of provide the perception of a slower working dog whether you’re actually watching them run or not. Furry feet only ever really seem to get “bad” enough during cold winters or inactivity (prevalent in old, retired dogs). In this case, Pop’s furry feet were subject to the cold. After all that “primping” he was fed his heavy meal mid-day, usually done in the evening, so he’d have plenty of time to empty out before his brace the next day. (No sense wasting time in the brace… catch that pun?)
Sunday came earlier than normal at 4:30 a.m, Pop and I weren’t on the road until 5:30. We hit snow on the way there and arrived just as the first brace began. As we were getting our bearings I missed the second brace as well. I walked the next four braces (3-6) and skipped the seventh to be ready as we were running in the eighth. I’d judged the stake our bracemate was in the week before, it had a big motor and got lost on a hard turn about 1/3 of the way in taking it out of judgment. I thought this pup would be a good combo for Pop. What I didn’t anticipate was the creeping pace, I let the other (Pro) handler take the lead and the pace we went
the first 1/3 of the run was about half the speed of all the other braces were walked. I pretty sure there was strategy behind it, his pup had a big motor and I think he may’ve been trying to let her burn out a tad so it’d shorten up and actually been seen a few times. Panic slowly started building with each step we take which was equally as slow in fact both judges were about on my heels. I’d been setting Pop up for a 20 minute (puppy-stake length) runs ever since grouse season closed so he wouldn’t putz and a sense of urgency would be built so he’d expend everything he wanted to while it was his turn to run and looked eager and forward from start to finish. I was worried he might shorten up at the end if we started to run over time.
The other pup’s bell faded off shortly after the start. Having the other handler “singing” (really loud, one of the reasons I let him lead) seemed to bother Pop and keep him short for the first minute or two, he got over it and stretched way out front. There was probably a 4-5 minute window where neither pups’ bell could be heard over the steady breeze that was blowing. About 6 or 7 minutes in, a call came over the radio to one of the judges that Pop’s bracemate had circled back to the starting point. This left the handler to slow even further and call back over to the pup’s direction to our left. At that point I stepped out in front and continued on at a normal pace, not to trying to leave purposely leave him behind but I had my own pup to handle and I had Pop far out in front even though I hadn’t been hearing his bell. The other pup, now being essentially out of judgement, had ended it’s handlers singing, something that I took up sparingly. I was listening for his bell which would turn up soon after out in front just left of center.
He continued to work out at that range, doing his job, so I continued only “singing” occasionally. About halfway through he came in tight on sort of an s-curve the gallery was on, while mid-curve. He moved to the front and side, which in that instant was the right thing to do, but when we finished the curve out it placed him behind and at that time he was running to create some separation. When I saw what was happening I had to blast a “Hey Pop!” (or whatever dog’s name I’m running) to get his (their) attention. He saw he was now behind and got back out in front rather quick. I don’t think that hurt him a bit. He puttered around in front a moment or two, which I think honestly was only until he realized what direction we were definitely headed, he stretched and stayed forward but wasn’t at the range he had began. Now he was in and out of sight but he was working back and forth in the pocket. Since he wasn’t as far forward there was an instant or two on a slight turn where he’d be to the side, a “hup!” was given to turn and get him back in front and in that regard he handled perfectly, moving the direction he needed to each time. I do believe he may shape up to be the nicest handling dog here.
His shortened range 2/3 of the way through wasn’t short enough to be detrimental, but it wasn’t memorable either as he was in and out of sight about 50/50 (still well out of gun range). Up until that point I felt he only really needed to show one more bigger cast the last few minutes to make a strong case for placement. To that point I had been handling him more than I normally do to make sure he didn’t get to the side or behind (handling in excess, something I don’t like to do as I think it tends to shorten a dog up), and it came down to a dice roll that ended up not panning out. The choices were either coaxing him (vocally) out front which would have possibly backfired and brought him in closer (the whistle blasts earlier didn’t do much to push him forward and I use a loud whistle, which overly used shrill whistles are about as annoying as the continual screamer-handler, I didn’t want that to have a potential negative conveyance on the judges so I ruled the whistle out.) OR leaving him be, not saying anything and hopefully he’d stretch back out on this own. It was in these critical minutes that he twice came back in from a mid-range cast stopping while looking back (within in the judges view) to see where I was, the second instance within shotgun range albeit in heavy cover… not how we needed to end. Had we started the brace at a regular pace this may’ve not had happened. – Perhaps I missed a small window to sing at that moment to keep him at that distance at least or possible push him out further. – So at the end we left the course not expecting a placement, it being a big field of 18 pups, it was just too large to expect to squeak out of the situation our last few minutes put us in. It was a scenario I’d be able to chew on and think of some possible solutions to on the way home, particularly when the interstate pace turned into a slow crawl (due to a wreck) on the way home. We still drove home feeling good about what we’d shown and will make a tweak or two. He’ll be run again, hopefully sooner rather than later.
At any rate it was gratifying to see two longtime, old veteran cover dog trialers place the same two pups at 1st and 2nd that I did the week before.