April 27, 2012
Ever had your eye wiped by someone else's dog? You don't want to, believe me. It's humiliating! It almost happened to me on a recent trip with my dog to Tennessee, the promised land of dog training and field trials.
I grew up here and hadn't been back in 30 years. What better occasion to return than during a glorious fall for pheasants and a new seminar on gun dog training?
So Buck, my 2-year-old golden retriever, and I loaded on a plane and flew from "the land of no seasons" in northern California to the home of Duckhill Kennels, an hour east of Memphis. Our mission was to learn about a new gun dog sport taking hold in the South and Midwest: British-style field trials. This isn't a new sport, per se; it is the original model our American field trials were built on.
There's a new movement making it popular again, along with the British strain of Labrador retriever. These Labs are largely born with the behavior of delivering retrieved objects to hand, making it unnecessary to force-fetch them. They are also bred to be calm companions as well as peak performers in the field, according to Robert Milner, who breeds British Labs at Duckhill Kennel. And from what I saw of his 5-week-old puppies to 5-year-old adults, it's absolutely true.
The big attraction to these trials and British training methods, for me, was the lack of force training. No force to pile, force to water, force anything. For dogs bred to be highly trainable and good at hunting, like my golden, this philosophy says it's not necessary to use force. It's very believable after watching several British-trained dogs complete 175-yard blind retrieves through walls of 5-foot tall brush and woods, guided by whistle and hand signals, then stand at heel, steady as a rock, while they watch another dog work.
Even better, these trials are like a real pheasant hunt. You're in the field with your dog and competitors for the entire duration of the trial. You get more than one at-bat and get to experience the excitement of the flush, shot and fall — which are nearly always unpredictable. Some daylong trials will have a pheasant hunt in the morning with a duck and water trial in the afternoon.
We had a practice trial at Duckhill in early November to show us the ropes. It consisted of two pheasant hunts. Picture a pair of large farm fields bordered by tall brush and orange- and yellow-leafed trees. We only had three handlers and five dogs, but a real trial will have at least 12 handler/dog teams. We lined up horizontally behind a line of gun-toting locals eager for a chance to shoot some birds. Out in front was a Scotsman named Alex, clad in tweed hat and upscale wellingtons, with his prize springer spaniel.
As participants, we followed behind as the springer quartered the field. Suddenly, a cackling rooster burst into the blue sky, bolting to the far right. A couple shots crippled the bird, landing him in chest-high reeds.
This is an occasion for a good eye wipe. A dog's number is called and that handler must send the dog from their spot in the field to get the bird. If the dog comes back empty-handed — or empty-mouthed, rather — another dog is sent. If the second dog does find the bird, it's assumed the handler of the first failed dog is shedding tears of embarrassment. Therefore, the successful second dog and handler would then help wipe away the tears, giving us the term "eye-wipe."
On one occasion, my dog did come out of the brush empty-handed, but the second and third dogs didn't succeed either. Phew, talk about holding your breath!
It's hard to get bored at a British-style field trial. It's exciting when the bird's flush, and the retrieving scenario is different every single time. You may wonder how the dogs get judged fairly if the elements are different for each dog.
From what I understand, the core skills of the dog and the handler's ability to handle the dog to an unseen bird remain constant, no matter where the bird lands. And I believe the judges try their best to ensure each dog gets the same number of easy or hard retrieves.
The whole experience can take about two hours, all of which is spent in the field, with your dog, watching bird's flush naturally and shot for your dog to find and pick up. Meanwhile, you get to know the other folks competing and to share the whole experience with them. This is much better, in my opinion, than having your dog in the truck most of the day waiting for a turn to perform, which may take all of five minutes.
To me, a person totally obsessed with gun dogs and bird hunting, the British-style trial is heaven on earth. It didn't hurt that I had spent the previous week exploring the narrow country roads around Somerville, Grand Junction and Moscow, Tenn. — the small towns near Duckhill. This is an area ripe with gun dog history and activity, with the National Bird Dog Museum located there as well as Ames Plantation, the Mecca of pointing dog trials.
More than that, this is an area of timeless pastoral beauty. Fall colors against stark white plantation homes, deep green pasture fenced with white post and rail. It was as if time had stood still since generations of my father's family had farmed there.
He died when I was an infant, so I never knew him or much of that side of the family. But being there, I knew they had driven those same country roads and hunted those same fields and woods. It felt like I belonged. What a great place for the birth of this up-and-coming hunting dog sport.
Milner deserves a lot of the credit for developing the stateside competitions. It is still in its infancy and there have been a few bumps along the way the last two years. But now there are a lot more people and clubs involved in cultivating the new sport and the positive, no-force training methods that go along with it.
During my recent visit with Robert, he said he was working to develop an official registry for the sport and the dogs that participate. He said this registry will act as an overseeing body for the British-style trials, making sure the right rules are followed and that judges are properly trained.
In addition, this will make it possible for dogs who succeed in the trials to get an official title to put with their names to help guide breeding, much like American Field and American Kennel Club trial enthusiasts look for puppies born to dogs with field trial titles attached to their names.
I will watch with intense interest as this sport evolves. If there's anything as fun as hunting with your dog and pals in the field, it's got to be a British-style field trial!