My friend and I worked a trail in the grouse woods of Wisconsin. We left the trucks a mile back, and walked along the two-track while the dogs worked either side of the former logging road. The day was pleasant, but a bit too warm for the dogs. Temperatures in the 70’s were nice for hiking or swilling margaritas on a beach, but for working dogs, it bordered on hot. October in Wisconsin brought warm and humid, or thunderstorms, or snow and sleet- or all the above, on any given day. The combination of Ruffed Grouse, thick forest, abundant hunting land, and good friends kept me coming back year after year in October- the finest month of the year. I had Shack (NSTRA CH/GA REG. CH Flyboy Ace’s Bullseye (Brit/M)) on the ground, and he worked either side of the trail while we walked and talked. Grouse hunting consisted of a long nature walk interrupted by the frantic rush getting to a dog on point, followed shortly by the roar of wings as a brown or gray bomber launched off the forest floor headed for safety. Today was no different, and as Shack crossed the trail, I gave him a blast from the whistle and extended my arm, pointing at a stand of trees 100 yards off the trail. He glanced up and took off in the direction I pointed, as we returned to our captivating discussion about the merits of ejectors versus extractors. A minute later, my gps pager beeped, and I knew Shack was pointed. I turned and started walking with intention to the stand of trees, while checking my watch for his position. Sure enough, the dog was 67 yards away, on point. I learned, long ago, to move quickly to a dog pointing a Ruffed Grouse. Those birds will many times walk off under a point, until they reached a comfortable distance, and then the bird would flush away. We split up slightly as we approached, and my friend saw Shack first. He set himself up, said he was ready, and I walked toward the pointed dog, aiming for a point about 20 yards in front. The gray bird launched from behind a tree away from me, but it put him directly in front of my partner. It was a deadly mistake, as both our 28 ga. doubles barked at the same time. The bird tumbled onto the soft lichen floor under the planted pines. Shack was on the dead bird immediately, and made a good retrieve to my hand. I pondered the situation, and glanced up and my partner, “Nice shot!” I said, and I tossed the bird to him. “I’m pretty sure I was behind him. Besides, you shot just a split second in front of me. Your bird.” He agreed. And so it went throughout the day.
Because my dogs were primarily hunting dogs, they were accustomed to near total freedom when I turned them loose. That was the crux of my problem- now, after all that freedom, the bird dogs had to learn a few things. For example, Ruby, the Setter, learned to back on her own. Rocket, on the other hand, didn’t much care for the backing thing, so I fought to keep him on the other side of the field during a trial. Many a time, I did the “walk of shame” with my leashed Brit as we were summarily ejected for interference. When a bird flew out of bounds, they both would chase it. Then, I chased them into the woods and pulled them back into the field, reminding them all the while to stay in bounds. It was a constant battle. One I lost nearly every time. One opposing handler immediately understood the situation, and she would wait until Rocket saw her dog on point. Then, she would kick the bird near the judge, call safety, and watch my dog chase it out of bounds, while hers held steady. Then, she had the field to herself for at least ten minutes! It would have been easy to get frustrated and blame the judges, other handlers, the rules, everyone but myself. But, I knew it was me and my dog training. Over time, those two dogs were replaced by others and things got marginally better. Many dogs later, I conceived the plan to raise a field trial dog from the start. I would teach them the basics to be successful in a trial when they were young, when it was easy. All bird dogs, trial dogs or not, can benefit from field trial discipline. Field Trialing is not hunting. It’s a game. But, it's a game that teaches a dog fundamentals, boundaries, limits, and obedience. It teaches them to quarter, to watch for other dogs, other handlers, to ignore outside influences, and to put a maximum effort into finding birds right off the line. In deference to the handler who would have my dog chase a bird out of bounds, my dogs are also taught what “leave it” means, and a low, guttural “Anch! Anch!” sound means “you’d better turn around RIGHT NOW!” Every single command I teach for trialing is applicable to bird hunting. Yes, there are other things they need to know (leave the Javelina, cows, porcupines, and skunks alone, and don’t jump off 30’ rock cliffs), but a trial-trained dog can easily transition into bird hunting. The reverse is often, frustratingly, not the case. We have all seen it. My chosen field trial venue (The National Shoot to Retrieve Field Trial Association) is somewhat unique in that regard. It can be a life-long dedication to making a better bird dog. The result can be a multi-purpose dog, that can successfully field trial one day, and point Bobwhites and Pheasant in a Kansas wheat field the next. Visualizing what you want the dog to be and training for the field trial is a great way to start a dog on a lifetime of success in the field, whether on the trial grounds or on the prairie.