The Gun Dog Notebook moves to become Field Trial Focused.
Forgetting isn’t as much a task as it is a process. It’s the degradation of significant instances that once seemed to light the world on fire, and which gradually fade away with the summer’s dust to the winter breeze. Forgetting is a cold act that eats away at the climate of happenstance, when great moments then become bone dry until they eventually are no more.
Literature is what allows us as dog men and women to capture what grand moments were like. Reports put us there when truly special dogs rose from the unknown, and compelling scribes remind us not to lament the eras of bygone trial dogs but to look forward to newer, better bloodlines. To lose sight of these moments becomes detrimental to the tradition that we work so diligently to maintain. By studying the moments that turned the gun dog into a class shooting dog we will better understand the relevance of the field trial and its impact on the modern pointing dog and its performance in the American Field. For those who were in the gallery, you must not forget the journey of these great dogs. For those who have never seen, it would be of great benefit to indulge.
“By studying the moments that turned the gun dog into a class shooting dog we will better understand the relevance of the field trial and its impact on the modern pointing dog and its performance in the American Field.”
A Bit of Field Trial History
To understand the American Field venue of field trials, we have to walk back to England in 1865 where The Kennel Club was the authority in judging and trialing sporting dogs for the benefit of the handler/owner and advancement of the breed. Those days saw many great champions within the English setter breed, with notable figures such as Edward Laverack being the figurehead to which our present generation of dogs are indebted.
Laverack asserted that his setters descended from a brace of dogs in his pedigree, Ponto and Old Moll, which he claimed to be the “Adam and Eve” from whom his kennel descended. R. L. Purcell Llewellin protested the validity of the purity of Laverack’s lineage and continued on with the developments with a volume of information dedicated to him from Laverack himself. From this information came the foundation of the most successful strain of field and bench dogs in the setter family.
It should be known that during the earliest involvements in pedigrees and breeding there were no stud books to facilitate the information. Many sportsmen bred their dogs principally for their service and not so much for their pedigrees. This fact along with negative practices of inbreeding led the Laverack lines to their demise, with dogs retaining their physical beauty and conformation but lacking in field abilities and nose.
Llewellin realized the need for stimulation in the Laverack and incorporated Duke-Rhoebe blood into his line. With the instant success of this cross, the Llewellin setter breeding became the vogue of the “Field Trial Breed” in England and very quickly caught on with the American public. With the importation of these new field trial setters, the American Field Trial circuit was dominated by the immigrant dogs. It was on October 8, 1874 that a Setter named Knight would win the first field trial held in the United States under The American Field, founded by Dr. Rowe. It was also imperative to keep careful genetic documentation of the champions of these trials, thus leading to the creation of the Field Dog Stud Book (FDSB) in 1900, which became the oldest purebred dog registry for sporting dogs.
With the surge of interest in field trial dogs, breeders would later carry over the blood of the English pointers to compete with the English setter. There were very unsuccessful early years of trialing the pointers starting with the Westminster Kennel Club (WKC) which was organized primarily for the improvement of the pointer, as it maintained elaborate kennels for the extensive breeding and rearing of short-haired gun dogs. At a time when authentic importations of pointers were few and far between, the WKC attempted to stimulate the pointer bloodline with a dog by the name of Sensation. It would later be discovered that the dog was less endowed than that of its namesake and far from perfect.
Although they were not successful early on at stimulating the pointer’s bloodlines for field trial success, through many other dogs they laid the groundwork for the St. Louis Kennel Club which was not discouraged by WKC’s investments.
In 1878, T.H. Scott came over from England with what was supposed to be the best England had to offer, a pointer named Bow. He was first shown in America at 4 years of age, and had won a first place prize, two seconds, and a third. He would perform adequately in trials held in America and was unquestionably one of the best imported pointers up to that time. With a handful of dogs competing in trials, the pointer breed would see itself moving closer to success. This included such significant dogs as Faust, owned by S.A.Kaye, a member of the St. Louis Kennel Club.
American Field founder, Dr. Rowe, would later credit a pointer by the name of Faust as the best he had ever seen in the matter of handling birds. It is apparent that a brief glimpse into the history of field trialing can take any trainer down the rabbit hole of developments, improvements, and failures on behalf of a number of breeders and clubs, and there has been a great deal of literature that follows the journeys of these dogs and many more.
What is necessary to know about field trialing is that at its core exists a longstanding history of individuals and organizations motivated to try their hand at the improvement of their desired breed for the primary function of hunting. As my good friend and great field trialer and guide, Paul Cook, of Alder Fork English Setters would say, simply put “field trials exist because of bird hunting.” It is the congregation of owners interested in campaigning class dogs and superior performances, trainers and handlers exhibiting many years worth of developments in a very rigorous training program centered around wild birds, and judges who have studied field trialing’s best practices in order to place dogs ranked first, second, and third, champion (CH), and runner-up (RU).
The American Field has a long history of challenging professional and amateur dog trainers around the country, exhibiting their dogs on a wide variety of this country’s wild and liberated game birds from the ruffed grouse and American woodcock of the Upper Peninsula, to the Plantation grounds of the Southeast, to the vast expanses of prairie land out West and into Canada. The trials have even gained popularity in Japan which recently hosted the 34th All Japan Open Shooting Dog Championship.
Through the exploration of American Field trial history and its past and present competitors, we can further understand how man has manipulated the evolution of the dog and challenged it to control the farthest reaches of its predatory potential. We have developed a refinement in the dogs of this generation that many of the original founders and participants of these trials could only dream of.
The New Vision of the Gun Dog Notebook Podcast
Through this platform, I would like to study these methods and dissect the inner workings of this world in order to pay homage to the great dogs and handlers whom I have grown fond of, and nurture the addiction of bird dog development by means of conversation, research, and practice. It is not simply about the methods and techniques used to properly “break” a class shooting dog, but it is about finding the stories within these individuals that connects us to a sport that appears very foreign to many bird dog owners of our generation.
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I have observed a propensity toward esotericism in the field trial culture, and a lack of understanding from those who operate outside the institution. For the sake of maintaining the tradition and culture of high class bird dogs, we must find a way to bridge that gap, to ask and answer the tough questions that lay dormant in the minds of the masses.
For me, it was a fascination with a photograph of two African American plantation bird dog trainers with snow white pointers standing on the back of a tailgate that drew me to the allure of the trial world. It was those same two gentlemen, Neal Carter and Curtis Brooks, who invited me to my first field trial in Thomasville, Georgia and showed me the way.
It has since been the likes of good men like Tommy Rice III who have welcomed me to continue my learning and development at this year’s National Open Shooting Dog Championship. The field trial world has its objections at times, but also has its openings and needs more interested participants. We need to encourage an understanding of various ways of thinking in regards to operation and training of bird dogs. Let us not forget the ways of old in order write our own new histories and form new friendships and mentorships which will enable this beautiful worldwide tradition to persist for another hundred years.
Durrell Smith is a 28 year old Georgia native, visual artist, wing shooter, and dog handler. While creating compelling ink and watercolor illustrations based on his field experiences and hunting dogs, he also runs a podcast called The Gun Dog Notebook, which can be found on iTunes and Soundcloud. Aside from hunting upland game and waterfowl, he participates in Hunt Tests with his Labrador Retriever. As a first generation hunter, Durrell seeks to learn and contribute to the community by connecting with visionaries and veterans within the bird dog community who are willing to share stories and knowledge about the various breeds, creating a bridge to welcome new and novice dog handlers to the gun dog community.