QUESTIONS! QUESTIONS! QUESTIONS!
By David A Fletcher; From December 10, 1994 AMERICAN FIELD, from dlb collection
It’s likely that I’ve got as much a legitimate right to write this article as anyone. It’s likely that I’ve got the experience and background to warrant putting this down on paper, yet I’m hesitant to say what I feel needs to be said without hurting some feelings, stepping on some toes, saying things that some people don’t want to hear.
I have a lot of questions about field trials running around in my head needing to be answered, need to be addressed with the intent to improve the “product”, the field trial pastime for the good of future generations of bird dogs and bird dog enthusiasts.
My baptism to major circuit field trials began in the early 1960s on the prairies of Canada when for a month at a time I would ride and report the major Chicken Championships.; I broke in when the likes of John S Gates, Jack Harper, Fred Arant, Leon Covington, Phil Brousseau, Howard Kirk, Herman Smith, Bob Lamb, Hoyle Eaton and others were in their heyday. They turned loose some great dogs, many eventual Hall of Famers, Safari, Rambling Rebel Dan, John Oliver, Rampaging, Little Frenchman, Gunsmoke’s Jewel, Flaming Star, Sugarshack, Red Water Rex and the legendary Riggins White Knight just to name a few.
Later that decade I was fortunate enough to be hired by William F Brown and sent week after week, month after month along the major circuit as AMERICAN FIELD reporter. It was a succession of plane rides, motel lodgings and horseback riding the braces all day. At night I was invariably pounding the type writer telling the story of the stake. Those were great days. I wouldn’t trade the experiences for anything in the world.
During my exposure on the major circuit, mainly to the open all-age dog, I came to love the way courage, stamina, the will to hunt, unquenched desire to seek game came to the surface, along with the ability to find, locate and point game supremely. In those years the riding pace of the gallery was very sensible; we had no gaited horses in Canada, so a flat walk was the order of the day. In the South the horses were gaited but the gallery pace was again very sensible. Even the scouting was sensibly conducted. In those days for the most part handlers would let a dog roll out, hunt the sides, come around in front on their own and resort to the scout only when it was apparent the dog they were guiding was not making any move out front where you could see him crossing. The scout would dig back to where the dog had last been seen hunting and on most occasions we rode to a point.
This is not to say that scouts did not ride down, heel and bring back to the gallery or shove out in front of it an errant dog. This happened but not with the frequency we see it today.
With the scouts acting as second handlers, herders, enforcers of dogs coming back to course, the following questions might be appropriate. Are there any really good handling all-age dogs today? If the scouts were used only to find a dog on point would many of the dogs turned loose in an all-age stake today ever handle back or would they run off? Are the things that are done to keep a dog on course motivated by showing the public the best dogs in the nation or by monetary rewards and purses? Are today’s all-age stakes so geared to huge running contestants that it is deemed part of normal procedure for scouts to turn dogs, herd dogs from backwards or get-away casts and bring them to course?
Other questions come to mind. Have we given placements to so many big running dogs that were kept on the course (and under judgment) by scouts over the years….dogs that might have otherwise run off and taken themselves out of judgment that we are today paying the price for the progeny of those early generations of bird dogs, progeny that like to run and don’t ever think of handling back?
More questions. If huge running is so much in vogue and has been for thirty years has anything been lost in the quest to breed bigger and bigger running dogs? Have we lost both bird sense and common sense while seeking the big run in the generations of bird dogs we have bred?
True there are perhaps less birds today THAN IN YEARS PAST BUT DO WE HAVE THE SAME PROPORTION OF GREAT BIRD-FINDERS IN OUR STARTING FIELD? I BELIEVE IT WAS THE IMMORTAL James M Avent of Hickory Valley, TN, who said: “The all-age dog runs away, but not quite. “Would a majority of today’s all-age dogs run away, completely, without the services of a scout to bring them back? Are they really focused on finding birds or are they great athletes just running through their country for the sheer joy of running?
Let’s move on to the Shooting Dog Stakes. I had the pleasure of witnessing a few years of great winning major circuit shooting dogs. To mind come some great ones: Little Diamond, Easy Mark & Easy Jed, two of the best I ever saw, Morganna Speckles, Collinswood Patrick, Smokepole, Barracuda. The list could go on.
Back in the 1960s the pace was slow, a flat walk at all times. Dogs were allowed to hunt the sides, come around and get in front and to hunt their country with much more thoroughness than the all-age contender. The fact that a dog came around on his own, showed and made contact with handler or handled back was a necessity. After all, these were shooting dogs and shooting dogs are supposed to handle. The biggest difference with today’s major shooting dog stakes in this writer’s opinion is the pace of hunting. Today the pace is much too fast and it is not just an occasional occurrence: it’s at almost every major event on the shooting dog circuit.
A couple of seasons back I happened to ride a day of the Michigan Open Shooting Dog Championship. The pace at times was furious. I couldn’t believe that a club and a set of judges would let this happen. One of the sections of the course happened to parallel a blacktop for a mile or two, a blacktop on which the dog wagon came along totally in view of the field trial gallery. That evening, after the day’s running, the dog wagon driver, quite spontaneously and without prompting, related to me that he had timed the gallery at 21 miles per hour several times during the running!
Why ride so fast handling a shooting dog in competition? Clyde Morton used to say that the walking horse would ruin field trials. Is it the improvement ion the gait of a field trial horse that’s responsible for the fast pace in today’s shooting dog stakes? I hardly think so but there has been a vast improvement in speed in which a gaited horse can cover ground. In years past the handlers held to a flat walk; they did not move up to the singlefoot, rack or running walk, or whatever one wishes to call it. Today I see a gait I call the walking pace which is at least twice and perhaps three times as fast as the old flat walk. It appears not at all uncomfortable for the rider. I’m sure what Clyde Morton was referring to was that if the handler of a shooting dog rode too fast the dog he was handling would be forced to pull away from some of the cover he was hunting out to the sides and get himself up front or the rider would leave him behind.
I’ve pondered this question of too fast a pace for several years, asking some of my most experienced field trial friends what they think. Harold Ray and Dr Alvin Nitchman both replied, “It’s the judges, they ought to slow the thing down….it’s their duty to set the pace.” Harold Ray relates, “As a handler I always look over my shoulder. IF that judge is too close up on me I just ride farther and faster. If he’s way back there and won’t ride up with me I drop back and work slower.” Peter Flanagan who chronicles events at Three Rivers Area at Baldwinville, NY and Bob Wehle who has also spoken about this relate that for years there were three, good, one-hour courses at the trial area. In recent seasons it has proven impossible to get three hours out of that same ground; in fact recently it has been just barely enough terrain for two hours. Is there any question that shooting dog stakes are operated at a much faster pace than they used to be conducted?’
In my mind there’s no question about the faster pace. The real question is why? Could it be that the dogs of the shooting dog circuit also like to run too much? Are they faster afoot? Do they hunt as much as they run? Do they behave more like all-age dogs in their use of terrain? Are handlers competing dogs that run fast to the front and want to break away from control? So many questions, so few answers.
There are a couple more places within the realm of the bird dog and field trial sport on which I would like to comment. Both are high on my list of great events. Both are walking trials. First, grouse trials deserve accolades. They are staged in heavy cover where a dog cannot be readily seen most of the time in competition. The dogs wear a bell so one can get some idea of the distance the dog is from the gallery and the direction he is moving. A tinkling bell is also a dog that has not stopped to point. This dog can be directed by voice but there is no way one can physically stop him from running backwards, peeling off too laterally or in fact running off. The ones that get in this kind of trouble eliminate themselves.
A grouse is a difficult bird for a dog to approach. A dog careless around his game or one with an inferior nose that won’t afford him a precise location of his bird will have difficulty getting a grouse pointed. Usually the best bird-finders, skilled enough to approach and hold a grouse, come to the top. You see the real personality of the dog in a grouse trial, not one who finishes his course only because he was controlled by a scout.
The National Bird Hunters events have been a pleasant surprise for this scribe. Basically these are wide, foot working shooting dogs that handle. These dogs are not underfoot; they get out there and approach the old way horseback shooting dogs worked their terrain. National Bird Hunters permit horseback scouting and it was this scribe’s fear that at his first NBHA trials the old “go get em and bring em back” routine of the scouts would prevail. Not the case. Scouts rode out furiously to see where the dog was and to call point but if the dog was going somewhere farther on, they simply relayed that information to the handler & let it up to him to get him back by voice or in most cases it was up to the dog to come back.
Hunt, handle, point birds, steady to wing and shot, back and retrieve. It’s a lot to ask from a foot handled shooting dog but the ones that top those stakes are wonderful bird dogs.
With a love of bird dogs that won’t quit and in love of field trials that should display the greatest dogs of the day, we’ll still look to those events to give us an indication of what dogs to use in breeding programs to produce future generations of bird dogs…despite the questions.