Joy and Enthusiasm Mark Sporting Dog Trials

Joy and Enthusiasm Mark Sporting Dog Trials

By: Norma Bennett Woolf  Date: 01/8/2012 Category: | Canine Issues |

The day was more late summer than mid-fall. Dark clouds scudded the skies, dumped brief showers, and scrammed, leaving patchy blue sky behind. The temperature hovered in the 60s; a mild breeze cropped up now and again to cool sweaty brows.

The rolling fields of the Kentucky hunt club property were dotted with small patches of corn. Thick clumps of grass had keeled over, headed for the dormant season, and tall stems of goldenrod waved as the occasional breeze wafted through. Copses of shrubs and small trees broke the line of sight, making it difficult to watch the dogs at work. Nonetheless, the small gallery of onlookers moved quietly along a trampled path for a glimpse of the action as handlers moved into position with their eager dogs.

These were English Springer Spaniels, but they were unlike the other dogs of the same name that can be found in the breed ring at all-breed or specialty shows. Their coats did not gleam as if polished. Their tails were a bit too long for the ring, and their coats a bit too short. They varied in size and seemed lighter in build, but they were all muscle, and they were panting for a turn at the line.

This was a Spaniel trial, an event styled after traditional game bird hunts but fashioned as a contest for dogs and handlers.

The fields were seeded with farm-raised pheasants. Two dog-and-handler teams worked the field at the same time; whistled commands kept each dog in its own section. The dogs were frequently out of sight as they worked the thick weedy ground and corn plots, their progress measured only by the rustling of dried vegetation. They quartered in a zig-zag pattern until they scented a bird, then tracked it on the ground until it burst from cover. When the birds took off, the well-trained dogs sat, frequently out of sight of the handler, and waited for the command to retrieve.

Two gunners accompanied the dog and handler teams; the dogs retrieved the downed pheasants after the shot and brought them back to hand.

The hunt trial is the culmination of months or years of training and fine-tuning the instinct that drives the Springer to hunt and fetch. It is a test of skill that relieves the handler of the need to hunt, to prepare the game for his own stew pot, and it provides the comfortable company of dogs and humans in all manner of weather.


Why hunting dogs?

The bond between handler and dog is a thing to behold, a true partnership as has existed between man and canine since the dawn of time. Charles Fergus has written A Rough-shooting Dog, a beautiful book that explains the both the evolution of an individual man into a hunting man and the unfolding of that special relationship between a man and his dog. The book is a treasure, pure and simple, a tribute to the hunter-as-consummate-outdoorsman, an homage to the silken bond that develops between species when each understands the breadth and depth of the other.

Fergus describes his training of Jenny, Bald Eagle Generator, the Springer Spaniel bitch puppy who became his well-loved hunting partner:

"So many sights, sounds, and smells for a young dog to absorb. Jenny and I crossed the clearing and entered the woods where I tried something from one of my books. I kept walking in one direction until she lagged behind, distracted by a chipmunk burrow. I gave two pips on the whistle, turned, and struck off on a tangent. At the sound, Jenny threw up her head and, not wanting to be left behind, scrambled after me. We walked on, until a pile of bear droppings claimed her attention. I gave two more pips, changed course a second time. Again she turned and ran after me. Two pips, turn. Two pips, turn. Soon, the books said, Jenny would turn whenever she heard those two sharp sounds."

Scotsman Gerald Hammond also writes of Springer Spaniels and hunting in his books about dog trainer and mystery-solver John Cunningham. Titles include Curse of the Cockers, Bloodlines, Dog in the Dark, and Twice Bitten.


Other hunt tests and trials

The American Kennel Club has a host of tests and trials to test the skills of setters, retrievers, spaniels, Beagles, Basset Hounds, Dachshunds, and coon hounds. The United Kennel Club hosts trials for coonhounds, squirrel dogs, and dogs that hunt a variety of quarry from boars to bears.

Field trials are among the events that celebrate the partnership between man and dog, yet they are in jeopardy as animal rights activists and government agencies combine forces to limit the use of public lands for these activities. Unlikely as it seems that the money raised by hunters through federal taxes on guns, ammunition, and other equipment can be used to blackmail states into changing policies, it is nonetheless the sad truth that the US Fish and Wildlife Service has threatened to withhold payments totaling millions of dollars from states that allow field trials on public lands.

About The Author

Norma Bennett Woolf's photo
Norma Bennett Woolf -

Editor and Writer for the National Animal Interest Alliance.

All Authors Of This Article: | Norma Bennett Woolf |
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