Tuesday, March 30, 2010

My Bird Dog Story- Installment Three- Trialing


Even after I was told Bo wouldn't make it as a competition field trial dog, I had hopes for him in NSTRA The National Shoot to Retrieve Field Trial Association (NSTRA) is a group of bird dog enthusiasts that compete with their dogs. Even though it isn't "real" bird hunting, it's a lot of fun as you go head to head against another dog and handler in an effort to find and bag birds! It started as an extension of the bird hunting season to allow folks to have an outlet to work their dogs in conditions similar to hunting, but rapidly grew into a venue of its own. Anytime serious athletes (dogs and/or owners) compete, the intent always morphs into something else. I was successful with my other dogs and they had the Championship label attached to their lineage now. I was hoping Bo would be my next NSTRA Champion, but a trainer let me know he probably was more suited to the hunt. Of course, professional and well reasoned advice is typically ignored when that advice is contrary to what you want to hear. I convinced myself "the experts", while normally spot on, missed the mark on their assessment of Bo. I figured he had what it took and forged (blindly, my wife loves to point out) ahead with my plans to compete. To be successful in the NSTRA game (and "game" it is), a dog must hunt with style and intensity, point like a statue, retrieve quickly and consistently to your hand, back other dogs (honor the other dog's point) with style and obey commands. I thought Bo had the makings of a great dog even though many thought otherwise. One lesson, hard learned, about bird dogs and bird dog men is that you never talk bad about another man's dog within earshot of the owner. Even though I never heard anything, I'm pretty sure there were a lot of behind the hand
comments about Bocephus. He sure wasn't that classic, big-headed setter you see in the Orvis Catalog- he was kind of scrawny and, when he pointed, his tail was not straight up- kind of curvy at the end. But the little guy was intense! When he locked up on a bird, he went rock hard in a flash. That was a thing of beauty to me. Many times over the years a judge would comment, "I love to judge Bo, Randy, but I hate to score him!" Meaning they had to cut points because of his low tail or low stance. I kept telling the judge, "That's the way he hit the birds- he froze- solid on scent, Judge! If it was me, boss, I wouldn't penalize him for his incredible intensity!" But they marked him down anyway. It was obvious he wasn't going to win any beauty contests. Bo and I came up with a plan- the only way to win would be to find more birds than anyone else. Bo could do that. "A bird finding machine, Randy, that's what he is!" I heard a lot while leaning on the truck bed at field trials laughing and scratching.

It took a year or two, but Bo earned his NSTRA Championship. He flunked out of puppy school, but I guess there was something in the scrawny setter that had to come out- something that he had to prove. He would whine and whimper while he was on the lead waiting for the birds to be hidden in the trial field. He knew what was coming and knew it was another chance to show me that he was ready for the call. Another chance to show me he had what it took to be the top dog in my kennels. At the line, he would be calm and cool, but when the judge yelled, "Turn 'em loose!", he became that "bird finding machine" on autopilot, following that nose, going full blast across the field, checking any cover and scenting the ATV the bird planter rode to hide the birds to follow that trail to the hidden birds. He became a different dog, a high-powered trial dog. I wasn't his master at all on the trial field. I was a co-worker, a partner; and I'd better not let him down. I remember, one day, I shot at a bird and missed after the flush. Bo had to chase it down and catch it to complete the retrieve. He ran two hundred yards chasing that quail, but he caught it and brought it back to my waiting hand. "Nice shooting, Knothead!" his eyes would say. And off he would go, looking for that next bird, leaving a somewhat chastened handler in his wake. 

One day, in one of the many National trials we entered, he was advancing steadily through the days-making the cut every time they had one (only half the dogs would advance after every run). He would find that one, last bird every time he ran and advance on points. This year, we were competing close to home, so after the first day, I drove home to spend the night in my own bed and to let Bo spend the night in familiar surroundings, as well. We have some "yard dogs" around the farm, a couple of, “mostly Labs" that have the run of the place. Somehow, one of the yard dogs, a big male Lab name Yellar, and Bo, got mixed up together out in the barn. Typically, I keep these two dominant males apart. I don't know how it started, but when I got out there one of Yellar' s ears was bloody and Bo' s right front leg was swollen and tender! I was hoping the nex1: day he would be better, so I cleaned the wound, gave him some antibiotics and pain medication and put him up for the night. The next day, his leg was swollen and he was limping around the pen. I loaded him up with the intentions of honoring my competitor with at least an explanation of why I had to pull Bo out of the competition. We drove to the trial grounds and got there about thirty minutes before the start of my scheduled brace. I was explaining to my opponent about Bo, when the Field Marshal walked up and said there was no one to fill my slot. Since we were running this trial with the "beat your bracemate" advancement rules, if Bo pulled, my opponent would advance without even running. I told him I figured he'd have to beat my dog, hurt or not, if he was going to advance to the third and final day- the Elite 8. I pulled Bo out of the box and led him to the line. He was limping a little, but he was game. I was hoping he'd have it in him to at least find a bird or two so we could leave with our head's up. Also, I figured watch him closely to make sure he didn't hurt himself any more. When the judge ordered us to turn the dogs loose, Bo took off like a shot across the field and nailed a bird about 50 yards out. It must have been my imagination, but the campaigner looked taller, straighter and even more intense as I walked by him to flush the bird and shoot it for the retrieve. He dropped it in my hand and took off again across the field looking for more scent. At the end of 28 minutes of this, jumping grass thickets and rows of sorghum and pushing into briars and around pines, Bo was beginning to limp. He had three birds on his card and had the desire, but his leg rarely touched the ground anymore- he ran along mostly on three. The judge wanted me to pick him up (meaning: pull him off the field and be disqualified), but there were only 2 minutes left in the brace and I asked if we could just finish it out. That way, my opponent could say he won fairly and completely and advance on merit. The judge, an experienced National Trial Judge, approved my request and we eased through the remaining minutes- enjoying the day and just being there in the big trial. We started with 128 other dogs and were in the Sweet 16. It was a good time to take our loss and head home. The judge called "Time!" and I clipped a lead on Bo and we started back to the start line and the truck. He couldn't put any weight on the leg now, so I picked him up and threw him over my shoulder for the last hundred yards or so. We got to the F-150 and I eased him into his kennel, checked his foot (swollen and tender but otherwise in pretty good shape), gave him some food and water and some encouraging words and cranked up the truck to head on home. I was driving past the scorer's table waving goodbye to the remaining handlers, when Rick, a good friend and fellow trainer, yelled that I'd better come over to sign my scorecard to make it official. I stopped the truck and jumped out to complete this formality and witnessed a commotion at the scoring table. Evidently, the three-legged Bo managed to beat his bracemate by the slimmest of margins- 1/2 of a point out of 600+ points scored! Bo made the cut on three legs! What a tremendous testimony to his drive, endurance and class..... the old knothead was in the Final 8 and made it to the third day in yet another field trial!

(Note: Bo was checked by a vet prior to running and after, also.)  

Next:  The Big Trial

(Another note:  I'm sorry about the editing.  I've worked over the years on this book and, during an upgrade, I lost the digital version.(!) So, I am scanning with Acrobat and using OCR, etc. )