The time had come for our first test. You can read about the six exercises that we would be doing in the junior level test here.
Winn’s heat had started 10 days earlier so we had to miss our final practice before the test in which I had hoped to work through a couple of small issues that would mean the difference between a pass or a fail. I tried to make the most of our time confined to our house and yard which meant practicing “hold” with all of her articles plus a few fun items and pulling her jug around until I commanded her to give me her bumper.
We got up bright and early and hit the road on the day of the test. I was nervously excited and kept my expectations low, this was our first test and I was trying to think of it as a practice run. Once I knew how we performed in a test, I could work out any issues we might have in practice to get ready for the next one. I had entered three different tests, hoping we would be able to pass in one of them.
Check in was at 8:00. I brought all of our equipment down and placed it where the judges wanted it for our required equipment check, then I paced around waiting for the entrants meeting. Since Winn was in heat, a designated parking spot was set aside for us away from the test site and all of the other cars. We would be the last team to go, all of the other dogs would have their turn first without the distraction of Winn’s sexy time. (This is clearly stated in all of the rules so I knew what to expect even before we got there.)
As far as having a dog in heat, this was a great test to be at. There were only 6 dogs entered (many tests fill up with 20-25 dogs) so we would only have to wait about an hour and a half rather than all day before it was our turn. Everyone there was so nice, especially when they found out it was my first water test EVER. The woman in charge even brought a sun shade for us to drape over the car so that we wouldn’t get too hot while we waited.We were finally called and we headed down to the test site. My stomach was bouncing around with nerves, I was hoping we would do well and when I saw the scoreboard with no passing smiley faces I figured we were in good company if we didn’t. The head judge approached me and asked me if this was my first test. When I nodded, she reassured me that we all do this for fun and that at any time when she asked me if I was ready, it was absolutely fine me for me to say no. They would wait for us to be ready and I shouldn’t feel any pressure.
I was ready to get going and got right into position for the first exercise. Winn refused to sit, it’s not required but that’s generally how we start and I get her attention. The judge laughed and said she had great “standing heat” posture. We got through the Basic Control exercises with no problem (all of our rally and obedience training allowed me to not have to worry too much about this one) and were ready to move on.
Next up was the Single Retrieve. My first bumper throw was a dud and didn’t go far enough. Winn wouldn’t even go get it so I waded in, grabbed it and the next throw was much better. Winn approved and went right in for it, brought it back and placed it perfectly in my hand for me to grab. Whew, two down, only four more to go.For the Drop Retrieve, the stewards row out 50 feet with her life jacket and drop it on the far side of the boat. We have to wait for the boat to clear the area, then I point her to the life jacket and send her out to bring it back to shore. We stood on shore (she still refused to sit) and once I knew she had spotted it, I sent her out. It was all going really well until a HUGE horsefly appeared and started buzzing around her head. She started whipping her head right and left, up and down, trying to keep an eye on it and then she turned and charged straight toward me out of the water. I was able to grab her before she sprinted off of the beach (that’s an automatic fail and you must stop the test) but I could tell that she was freaked out. I wasn’t sure what I should do but the judge encouraged me to take her back out and have her try it again. I knew that was the right thing to do, I didn’t want her to now be afraid of the water so we went out together and when I was about waist deep she kept swimming on her own and retrieved her jacket. I met her back on shore and kept a good grip on her collar while we got ready for the next exercise.Take a Line can be a difficult exercise for a lot of dogs but Winn has been solid with it all summer when we’ve practiced. I hoped that she would be confident with this one and we could get back on track but as we stood on shore I had a really hard time getting her attention and focus. The judge encouraged me to take our time, get her settled and let her know when we were ready. I gave Winn some rubs and talked in her ear, she wasn’t fully attentive but she was better so I signaled that we were ready. She didn’t want to take the line at first, but when she did, she turned and started heading away from the water. I grabbed her collar and then once again, headed into the water with her to get her going. Once I was next to her in the water, she seemed to register what she was supposed to do and she finished up on her own and I met her back on shore.So far we had passed the first two exercises and failed the next two so we were not going to pass the test. You must pass all six exercises in one test to achieve the Water Dog title. We had two exercises left and I was thinking maybe we should just pull out since she was still nervous and looking for that terrible horsefly. I voiced that to the judge and she told me she would support whatever I decided but she encouraged me to keep going, Winn was doing well once she got in the water. In all of the exercises, once you let the judge know you are ready, you must have your hands off of your dog. You can’t touch them again until the exercise is finished and then you can grab their collar and gently lead them back to the set up point for the next exercise. If the dog leaves the beach, it’s an automatic fail and you have to leave the test. Since Winn wanted to bolt, I kept grabbing her so she wouldn’t leave the area. By putting my hands back on her, we failed the exercise, but we could still continue on with the test. It’s always a good idea to keep going even if you don’t pass an exercise because you don’t want your dog to think that’s how we do it. When she turned and left the water before completing her task (also a fail), I didn’t want her to think that was a good way to perform that exercise, instead I went with her and then she did what she knew to do and I met her back on shore and praised her that she had done a good job. Did I mention that I also had a severely sprained ankle? Chasing after Winn in the sand and the water without my full physical powers was painful, clumsy and not very efficient. I’m still amazed that I was able to catch her when she tried to run by me!
Tow a Boat was the next exercise and that one has given us trouble all summer. I knew going into the test that if we failed it would be on this exercise so I didn’t have high hopes that she would suddenly be able to execute it perfectly. She did seem more settled when I sent her out to the boat to get her bumper but she hesitated a little too long so I went ahead and entered the water with her to get her going (when I entered the water, you guessed it, that’s a fail). Once she got to the boat she changed her mind and continued to swim all the way around the boat and then headed back to shore. She was supposed to swim to the boat, take her bumper from the steward in the boat and then turn and tow the boat to shore. Instead, she looked at the steward again as she came around from the back end and then kept swimming towards me. The steward tossed her the bumper, Winn grabbed it for a second, but then spit it out and kept going. She hadn’t ever done that before so I called her to me so that we could get in position for our final exercise.
Swim With Handler is a sweet way to end the test. It’s the one exercise that we do completely together in the water and I really love it. She looked at me before we waded out and I knew that she knew we were almost done. She swam beside me beautifully for the required 20 feet, not too close, not too far and when I slowed down and said “around”, she swam around me, let me grab onto her and then she towed me in to shore. We ended on a high note and I was so proud that we had finished. Our first test was in the books! Yes, we had some mishaps that we couldn’t have trained for, but we kept going and she trusted me enough to keep doing what she knew to do.I was so relieved as I walked her back to the car. I got her settled in with her fan blowing on her, a fresh bowl of water and some of her favorite treats scattered around her and then I went to gather all of our stuff to get us packed up. I was sitting in the car with Winn, about ready to head home when the judge approached and knocked on the window. She wanted to let me know that she thought Winn was a very good working dog. She told me that the very best water dog she ever had approached the articles in the water in the same way that Winn had. She swims to the left of the article and then will turn towards the item to grab it before making another 1/4 turn back to shore. She said that’s not something that’s trained, it’s instinct. By doing that, she has less drag from the item as she turns to shore. I thanked the judge for her input, I couldn’t believe she searched us out, and she told me she looked forward to seeing us in future tests.
I was so happy driving home that day. Everyone was so kind, encouraging and supportive and I love that Winn and I are figuring this out together. She is an amazing girl and I think we have a really fun future ahead of us!
**For those that are wondering why Winn was in heat, there have been studies in recent years that recommend waiting to spay and neuter large breed dogs until they are 18-24 mos. old. The working theory is that hormones affect the growth plates and if this is done before they are full grown (which takes longer in large breed dogs), there is an increased risk of hip dysplasia, joint issues and bone cancer. I am NOT an expert, nor do I have medical training but am trying to make the best decision for Winn’s overall health and am trusting the advise I have received from people that I do consider experts and who do have medical training. I plan to have her spayed this winter, most likely with the minimally invasive laparoscopic procedure in which she will be getting a gastropexy at the same time.
You can read about these studies here and here, and for the sake of fairness, you can read another opinion from a veterinarian here that calls for more studies to be done before she recommends this for her patients. There are risks and benefits associated with surgery of any kind and I respect the right of every pet owner to make the decisions they think are best for their pets.