Gentlemen, Let 'Em Go

A Novel of Field Trials


    Tom Word

    Copyright Reserved

    (Standard of the National Bird Dog Championship)

The dog under consideration must have and display great bird sense.  He must show perfect work on both coveys and singles.  He must be able quickly to determine between foot and body scent.  He must use his brain, eyes, and nose to the fullest advantage and hunt the likely places on the course.  He must possess speed, range, style, character, courage, and stamina--and good manners, always.  He must hunt the birds, and not the handler hunt the dog.  No line or path runner is acceptable.  He must be well broken, and the better his manners the more clearly he proves his sound training.  Should he lose a little in class, as expressed in extreme speed and range, he can make up for this, under fair judgment, in a single piece of superior bird work, or in sustained demonstration of general behavior.  He must be bold, snappy, and spirited.  His range must be to the front or to either side, but never behind.  He must be regularly and habitually pleasingly governable (tractable) and must know when to turn and keep his handler's course in view, and at all times keep uppermost in his mind the finding and pointing of birds for his handler.  

    * * *

"What's an all-age dog?"
"Well, it's one that runs away . . . but not quite."

    Dave Rose, field-trial handler, c. 1895


    My name’s David Burch, and I’m going to tell you a story.  It’s the story of a burned-out surgeon, a worn-out bird-dog trainer and a farm boy—that’s me.  And the story too of Halifax Flip, an English setter who brought us together for an odyssey.

    I was fourteen when the story began; I’m twenty-two now, just out of college, trying to decide what to do with my life.  I’ve narrowed it down to two choices: writer or bird-dog trainer.  How well I tell you this story may decide which.
To understand the story you’ve got to know something about the world of pointing-dog field trials, for that was our world . . .

    Field trials are a cult sport, pursued by a small fraternity of fanatics.  They started in England about 1850.  The first American one was at Memphis in 1874--around there is still the hot bed.

    A field trial is a contest for pointing dogs seeking upland game birds by scent--quail in the South, pheasants in the Midwest, prairie chicken, sharptail grouse, Hungarian partridge on the prairies, ruffed grouse and woodcock in the Lake States, Pennsylvania and New England, chukar partridge in the Northwest.  The sport is bloodless, for the pointed birds are not shot.  Field trialers are ardent conservationists.

    A field trial is also a show--a trial dog is a performer, and so is its handler.  As Jack says (you'll meet Jack in the story), "Gun dog's a yeoman, trial dog's a showman."

    As in baseball, there are levels of the game.  The top trials are called the major circuit, about thirty trials held at the same times each year, starting in August on the Northern Prairies, then moving south, with quail trials in December and January in the Deep South, and the finale in mid-February--the National Championship--at Grand Junction, Tennessee.

    The adult dogs on the major circuit are called all-age dogs.  Like major-league baseball players, they are world-class athletes.  Handled and watched from horseback, they can take your breath away with the speed and grace of their running, the statuesque majesty of their points.  (Bird Dogs instinctively freeze—become a statue—when they detect the scent of game birds.  This instinctive reaction is called a "point.")

    Like race cars, all-age dogs perform on the edge--a hair's breadth from out of control, driven by a consuming instinct to find game.  And like race cars, trial dogs often suffer "wrecks" when in their exuberance they forget their manners or get away from their handlers.

    The dogs compete two at a time, drawn by lot as bracemates.  They hunt a prescribed time (usually an hour) over a prescribed course.  Huge grounds are required, for the bird dog can hunt through five miles of country in one hour.  After all entries have run their braces, the judges declare the winners:  a champion and sometimes a runner-up--or first, second and third in nonchampionship stakes.
Judging in field trials is entirely subjective.  The dog that points the most birds is not necessarily named winner.  The dog's hunting technique, rather than the quantity of its points, is key.  The dog’s performance is called his "race"—a race to find and point birds.

    Before dogs reach full maturity at about age three, they compete in puppy and derby stakes.  All stakes are open or amateur, depending on the handler's status (not the dog’s—the same dog often runs in amateur stakes under its owner’s direction and in open stakes with its professional handler in charge).  Purses are modest—a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.

    Clubs sponsor the trials, some as old as the sport.  The grounds are quail plantations, state wildlife-management areas, western rangelands.  The Northern Prairies are the training and testing ground for the dogs.  From mid-July through mid-September, trainers from all over the country work their strings on native game birds in the  plains country. 

    The Triple A league in field trials is called the shooting-dog major circuit.  The dogs competing here don't range quite as far as all-age dogs, but they are wide-going and splendid athletes too.  They are also handled from horseback.  Then come on-foot-handler trials, the fastest growing segment, including wild-bird trials in the North on grouse and woodcock.

    How does a dog win in a field trial?  It must hunt at extreme range with extreme speed, making bold, independent casts for far-off objectives or along edges on the course likely to hold game birds.  When the dog scents birds, it points with lofty style and awaits discovery by its handler or his assistant, called the scout.  The handler then flushes the quarry under scrutiny of mounted judges.  As the birds fly to safety, the handler fires a blank.  The dog must remain a statue.  If the dog will do all this with aplomb, it is called "broke."  Being "broke" is a great compliment to the dog, the big distinction between the field-trial dog and the ordinary hunting dog.  (Hunting dogs are usually just "country broke"--that is, they remain staunch until the birds fly, but then they chase.)

    Getting a dog "broke" and keeping it so is the daunting task of the handler.  The dog points by instinct--but it chases flying birds by instinct too.  Teaching the dog to subdue the strong chasing instinct is a never-ending challenge.

    Field-trial dogs guide the genetics of all working bird dogs.  As with race horses, a few great sires dominate pointer and setter bloodlines.  The lineage of all bird dogs goes back through field-trial winners to a handful of foundation sires from the turn of the last century.

    A boy can save enough from a paper route to buy a weanling son or daughter of a National Champion--that makes the sport democratic, at least at the start.  Campaigning on the major circuit is beyond the paperboy's reach, but many a great champion has been started by a farm boy.

    Fans follow the sport through a weekly journal, The American Field, founded in 1874, the oldest sporting magazine in America.  The Field also maintains the registry for working bird dogs and sanctions open stakes.  An umbrella organization, the Amateur Field Trial Clubs of America, sanctions amateur championships and loosely regulates the sport.  But the basic rules, set by tradition, have remained unchanged for a hundred twenty years.

    The sport is intensely competitive, at all levels.  Participants, open or amateur, approach the game with deadly seriousness; all play to win.  Their ultimate quest is the National Championship . . .

    Now, here is my story.

Chapter Two