Let 'Em Go
A Novel of Field Trials
THE AMESIAN STANDARD
(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
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
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
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
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.