Preparations for this year’s gun dogs exams were well underway, but Belgian lockdown restrictions meant an anxious wait for those in training, as Rudi van Kets reports.
Who among us could ever have imagined that this year would turn out so strangely? That coronavirus has forced us to the realisation that we are powerless against the invisible.
We take the advice of our governments and virologists to heart and make the best of every situation. Let us hope that soon a means will be found that protects us and that we can resume life as we once knew it – although it will never be like before.
For the second year in a row we had a group of seven dogs that were prepared to do their gun dog exams at the beginning of March and the end of April.
Seven passionate trainers signed up to take what we call the TA test. In January 2019 the seven received some theory lessons; during these lessons we explained how to lay tracks for the dogs, what to pay attention to, preparing shot sights and much more.
The dogs that took part came from many different breeds. There were Hanoverians, Bavarian Mountain Hounds and Slovensky Kopov, who all had the correct papers; Pedigree FCI.
They had already taken part in their socialisation test. The age of the dogs varied from just one year to two and a half years. They also provided proof that they already had nature surveys on their record.
Because of our previous experience we knew we had to do certain things differently from the first year. A plan was drawn up by the association to accompany the trainers with their dogs to the tests.
We know from experience that the months before the test can be stressful months. This stress can cause too much training or incorrect training with the dogs. We definitely wanted to avoid this. That is why we proceeded with adapted and intensive guidance.
The test itself consists of four parts. Two of these parts are critical. The moment you fail one of the critical parts, your participation in the test is over, and you can only take part again the following year. One of these critical elements is passing the tracking element of the test.
How did we get on? We applied a variety of training methods and practiced every part of the test. Some exercises were already being performed perfectly after just a few attempts, especially the shot test.
This is the first element of the official test. Here the dog should not respond to the shot, just sit or lie down. The slightest reaction from the dog will reduce the total points scored.
The tracking element of the test must meet a number of requirements. The track must be at least 1200 metres long and should be 24 hours old. The trail must have been made with the hooves of a wild boar. Further the track must have three 90 degree turns and three reference points that the dog must indicate.
Finally, the person who is tracking with his dog must find the shot site. This is located at an angle of 90 degrees and at a maximum distance of 35 metres. The shot site may contain a patch of hair or skin. The dog must find the shot site within 10 minutes.
While tracking there are also a number of rules. The dog may be recalled up to three times – this means that the dog has left the track by more than 30 metres. The examiners will call the hunter and have him resume on the track.
After three recalls you fail, you have to stop immediately and cannot continue with the test. The dog must indicate each reference point and the hunter must also report to the inspectors. Any reference point not found, or any recalls will cause you to lose points.
It is only natural that this is the most important part of the entire exam. This part is also the most important for the future work of the dog. It goes without saying that it is the most stressful part of the test.
For the third part of the test, you must demonstrate that the dog can lie down for 20 minutes in the same place. The fourth and final part concerns the pendelsau.
The dog must bark at a wild boar, keep his distance and make sure that the boar stays still. In reality, this part should ensure that the hunter can give the final shot to an injured, yet still alive, boar. There are several videos of this part on the internet. This provides more clarification than my summary description, so I suggest you look them up.
It is quite a task to give the dog and the hunter perfect training. It takes time and effort from many people. And more than that, the dog has to be able to work in different situations.
By this, I mean the factors that we have little influence on; the weather and other wild life. Warm weather requires great stamina and concentration from our dog.
Rain certainly does not harm our tracking, especially when it warms up afterwards, but excessive rain can damage the track so that our dog has to concentrate more. A very important part is resisting the temptations that may exist along the trail – fresh game tracks crossing the laid track, churned in places by wild boars.
So we left nothing to chance when giving our students the opportunity to train in as many of those listed situations as possible. Exercises took place at various locations.
This year we went to a hunting area in Germany for a weekend where there was a lot of game, especially wild boars. This two-day event was an eye-opener for some of our attendees.
A training weekend in the Belgian Ardennes was also organized. Here the tracks were churned by wild boars and a deer jumped up in front of the dog.
There was a lot of temptation to go astray. The training ground in the Kempen was a Sahara area with dry acidic soil. Another adjustment for many dogs – nothing was left to chance. And when everything goes smoothly, the training runs well.
But with the date of the test approaching, there was the sudden news that we must all be in lock down. A period of compulsory stay at home. All scheduled competitions were cancelled.
With the news of the coronavirus we had to cancel our dates and move them to July and August. All we could do now was hope that the government measures imposed had their effect and that our test could go ahead in the summer.
The site where our tests take place is located in the Ardennes. It is a place with open woodland plots. It is an ideal location because the inspectors can observe the dogs well.
Training together was also not an option at the start of the announced measures. Each participant in the test tried to practice as best they could by themselves and to keep us as in the loop as possible so that we could make adjustments by telephone.
After weeks of waiting, we were finally able to inform the participants, judges, and the B&Bs again that the tests were allowed to take place. But we would have to to the imposed ‘Covid Event Scan’.
This involved contacting the Federal Health Department, Local Authorities, the Department of Nature and Forest. They all had to give their approval. We received a green light. Hopefully these were the last steps.
After many long weeks, everyone was looking forward to the start of the first tests. On 12 July four members were ready to perform with their dogs. The dogs were checked, papers were checked, their track number was drawn and we could finally start. A healthy dose of nerves was clear among all the participants.
The dogs could start the first part; the shot test. They were placed in a row at a distance of 25 metres. A shot was fired. No reaction whatsoever from the dogs. Everyone passed.
The second part consists of following the tracks. Who has which track is determined by lottery. I have already explained the form requirements of this part.
At each of the tracks we could perceive temptation, there were pieces churned, a nearby cover with presumably game in it. It was always exciting. We noticed that despite all our efforts some hunters were simply able to read and control their dogs better.
If they manage to find the piece of game that made the tracks, the test is essentially over, and another part awaits them that many hunters do not look forward to – laying down the dog. The inspectors have the free choice to assign the hunter a place in the forest.
This place is clearly visible to them so that they can observe the dog. The dog must remain in the designated place for 20 minutes, alone, without its handler. The handler must move out of sight and wait until he can pick up his dog. This part went smoothly for the remaining participants.
So finally we reached the end – the pendelsau. This year we had chosen a fenced plot with a young plantation of pine. This meant the dogs could work without a leash. The second advantage of this almost one hectare plot was that tracks could be laid from different directions to the pendelsau. The final part of the test went perfectly for the remaining participants.
I just want to mention that the second exam day took place in August. On this day it was terribly hot. Seven dogs participated in the test, four participants in July and three in August. Five of the dogs passed their test.
Three dogs won a first prize, one a second prize and one a third prize. Unfortunately, two dogs failed. One of the dogs was called back by the owner, after which he himself decided to end the exam. The other dog was called back three times and thus failed.
So we had two successful days. We have seen good dogs at work and have become a bit wiser ourselves. Despite the difficult period and strict requirements, everything went safely. We can now only hope that things keep improving for next year. Stay safe.