Friday, October 25th marked the start of the English Springer Spaniel Field Trial Association's 89th annual field trial in Howard NY. As the parent club of the Springer Spaniel I was eager to run Ginger in the amateur stake of this trial to be held on the 27th. So the car was packed, the GPS set, and on Saturday we started our journey through upstate NY. We reached our hotel in Troy NY 6 hours later, where we kicked off our shoes, and relaxed with a pizza and some beers.
Rising early the next morning we made our way to the trial grounds where we changed into appropriate clothes, gave Ginger a quick stretch, and joined the gallery in the field. Set atop a hill, the grounds offered stunning, though intermittent due to fog, panoramic views of the surrounding farm land. Thick wet cover made seeing the dogs work a little difficult, as did the rolling terrain that had dogs sometimes working above you, and at other times below. Before we knew it the dogs and the gallery had made the turn at the wood line, and were heading back. About that time I realized that Ginger and I would be headed out with the next group of dogs, We'd drawn the 9th brace, and the field was passing, and dropping quickly.
Gathering Ginger I made my way slowly out, keeping well behind the gallery, and the commotion of the flushes, gunshots, and other dogs to keep Ginger from getting too worked up. When the time came we made our way to the front, and marched out to the judge. We were running on the right hand side of the course which sloped down hill from the left to the right with enough elevation change that we could only see the heads of our bracemate's handler, and judge. The wind too, blew steadily across the course from above us. The judge and I quickly made our introductions, went over his instructions, and Ginger's lead was slipped off.
No sooner did I cast her off, and I knew something wasn't right. I'd cast her down wind, to our right, and she took off like a shot in that direction. But rather than going out a bit, and switching ends to quarter back across in front of me, she kept going. I was forced to blow a whistle on the first cast; not good. Even worse was the fact that for whatever reason Ginger decided not to handle. Sure she came around, but rather than coming across in front she shortened her turn, quartered a couple times in front of the gun, then checked our back trail. Something wasn't right. So at the judges suggestion I hit the whistle a couple of times, and got her back in front where she belonged. Now we could make our way down the course, as she'd started quartering properly, using the wind, and even showing her self to the gallery on casts to the left.
It didn't last long. We hadn't even made our way ( well, maybe just made) one flag down the course when Ginger made another long cast down wind. This time I didn't whistle her around as she wasn't terribly far past the gun, and she was most certainly making game. Her body language was unmistakable. I didn't expect a flush. We'd only gone a short distance down the course, and our starting spot was the spot the previous dog had flushed and retrieved his second bird. I expected Ginger to figure out that is was old scent, and come around across again. I was wrong, and Ginger made a hard move which produced a hen pheasant which flushed back down the field. A quick find is good, and Ginger stopped on the flush, watching the hen fly out down the course. I was liking it. The gun fired a shot, and the hen continued to fly, Ginger still steady. The gun fired a second shot, and still the hen continued to fly, Ginger still,.....SHIT! Yup. About a split second after the second missed shot Ginger decided she's get the bird for us anyway. The judge didn't need to say anything. I let slip an expletive I won't repeat here, and muttered the words "She broke" (no sense in denying it). The judge replied with a rather solemn "Sorry". I blew the come in whistle a couple of times, slipped the lead over Ginger's, and walked out of the field. We'd been picked up.
Now, one might expect that I'd be mad at the dog, but I wasn't. I'm new to trialling, but I'm not new to the dog world. Always expect the unexpected. I've also talked with a lot of people who've been trialling for a long time, and came to realize that this kind of thing happens to everyone. I think I'd be hard pressed to find a trialler who has never had the pleasure of being knocked out in the first series. This time it was my time. In fact I kind of looked at it as a kind of initiation into the trialling community. It would have been nice if it didn't happen at a trial that was 400 miles from home, but.... I've also notice that in most cases, when a series goes wrong the handler know something is out of sync the moment the dog is cast on.
I also learned a lesson about myself, and the importance of a pregame routine. Prior to our last trial, and hunt test I took Ginger out for a run away from all of the action to let her burn off some energy, get over some of the excitement, and to focus a bit. I didn't do that. I ran her right out of the crate, and for a young dog, she's only 2 1/2, it was probably too much for her to bear. Because of this I view the whole episode as my failure, and not the dog's.
With another trial experience under my belt I now know what I need to do for us to be successful. Sticking to a pregame routine isn't hard. In fact it's easy, and I won't skip it again. I've got a month until I get a chance to redeem myself at another trial. The application has been filled out, and it's going in the mail next week. The stakes are a little higher at this trial, as Ginger will find herself being reunited with her mother for the first time. And yes, they'll be competing against each other. In the meantime I'll do some remedial steadiness drills with Ginger (already started- getting her on local woodcock), and spend 10 day in Maine hunting grouse.