Saturday, August 7, 2010

here's to trial dogs

With Jozsi still in AZ for the remaining six weeks of dog camp, and with the field trial season coming upon us here in the northeast, I wanted to share a few historical gems about why trial dogs are in many ways the pinnacle of the bird dog world. I am not trying to recreate the 'why trial dogs can't/don't/aren't hunting dogs argument' because, frankly, I think it's something of a disingenuous argument akin to saying that a squash racket makes a useless tennis racket (and vice versa). I was going through several classic books yesterday and came across a few sentences that also help illustrate this relationship. In the precursor to his Field Trials: History, Management, and Judgement, Bill Brown (the editor of the American Field) stated succinctly:

The field trial conception of the ideal bird dog is well defined, rational, sound. To measure up to field trial standards a bird dog must possess speed, range and style. He must be endowed with stamina and a good nose. He must display initiative; he must manifest method in his negotiation of the terrain. He must exhibit character, animation, independence, intelligence. His work must be incisive, merry. He must show intensity and steadiness on game. He must handle. The ideal bird dog, in short, is the finished product, a high-class, thoroughly broken performer which excites constant admiration by the excellence of his work. -- William F. Brown, The Field Trial Primer, (American Field: Chicago, 1934), p. 9; my emphasis

And who would doubt that a truly broke dog, willing to stand steady-to-shot, who will stop-to-flush, and honor her bracemate without command, is both an asset and no less appealing to the hunter in her class and style on birds. Incidentally, the picture above is of Leon's Star in full flight -- as you can tell, a great little dog full of personality and energy. While we have gotten used to the idea of a three-hour National Championship (because for pointers and setters, beyond the two-hour mark working relatively open fields for quail is where the dogs of the highest athletic prowess shine through), I did come across a provocative comment that I hadn't considered before when thinking about some of the differences between successful hunting dogs and trial dogs. As renowned trainer, handler, and judge, Elias Vail put it:

The dog that can “go all day” is not a convincing proof of field trial material. The question is “How much can he show in a comparatively short time that he is down in public competition?” -- Ella B. Moffit, Elias Vail Trains Gun Dogs, (Orange Judd: New York, 1937), p. 182

On the one hand, the point is that the trial dog has an intensity that the hunting dog may not and need not, at least in terms of the demonstrated performance that is required for trialing. On another hand, that intensity also has practical application. As Howard Lytle wrote in his own celebrated training book:

This thing of pinning game, especially certain kinds of game such as the grouse or the prairie chicken or the pheasant, is most successfully accomplished by quick, decisive action – speed arrested so suddenly that the game’s only inclination is to squat before the onslaught… A dog that rushes to his game and then suddenly applies the brakes doesn’t give his game a chance to think and plan out a method of evading pursuit. -- Howard Lytle, How to Train Your Bird Dog, (A.F. Hochwalt: Dayton, OH, 1934), pp. 190-1

I have to admit that I am eager to see the final version of a picture taken by Nancy Whitehead that I was lucky to see last fall in a proof version. If there was a picture to illustrate Lytle's two previous sentences -- a quick decisive action and sudden arrested speed -- it will be 'The Slam.' Put slightly differently, while hunting we may get to see the almost sublime moment that our dog goes from liquid to solid, from hot, dynamic motion to absolute stasis, but in a trial hopefully everyone else will see it, too. Unlike hunting, trialing is by necessity a public activity -- even if the only three other suckers that see it in the inevitable driving rain are the two judges and your bracemate. As Horace Lytle wrote elsewhere in his book:

And when the thrill of your first win surges through your very soul, it will mean many, many times more to you that than any mere private shoot can ever possibly mean. The latter may some day begin to pass from the picture; but the vivid memory of your first field trial win never will fade. -- Lytle, p. 176

Wins or not, I can tell you that I remember Jozsi's two best runs clear as day. I also remember judges' compliments even when he's been picked up early -- and I would still take flawed genius over passing mediocrity any day. To be fair, I also remember Jozsi's first hunted bird -- and a fair number of the various assorted finds and retrieves on grouse, woodcock, and pheasant that Momo has pulled off with aplomb. But the fact is that the trial format with its fixed time and standards makes it possible to remember the narrative flow of an entire 'event'. Each bird find is a paragraph, framed by bold, deliberate casts to cover; placements and ribbons add exclamation points. In conclusion, as Horace Lytle states:

For after all is said and done – and all beliefs to the contrary notwithstanding – the ideal field trial dog is the gun dog of your dreams. Notice I use the word “ideal.” Not all field trial competitors fulfill the meaning of the word; hence not all of them would make good gun dogs. -- Lytle, p. 171

Why is public performance necessary? Because it is the process of judgment that identifies the strongest dogs in the breed -- and by 'strong' I mean the genetic sum of intelligence, strength, and courage that Frank LaNasa has written eloquently about. The best analogy I've heard for describing the necessary relationship between field trial dogs and hunting dogs is between Formula 1 racing cars and every other car: few people have the time, money, or expertise to really drive a Formula 1 race car (and while you could drive it down to the shops, the amount of groceries you could really bring home is limited), but every regular car on the road has benefited from the technology developed for Formula 1 racing -- steering, suspension, tires, etc.

However, and this is a strong 'however', trialing identifies the strongest dogs in a breed and in their specific game. While every litter will have a cross-section of abilities -- and not every puppy bred from a National Champion at Ames will turn out to be an all-age champion -- if one is looking for an energetic, stylish dog to hunt grouse, one probably shouldn't be looking at dams and sires that excelled in wide-open prairie trials. However, once one has narrowed down the particular game that one enjoys, it behooves us to think about pursuing a puppy from parents that have succeeded in that particular game - -but which are also the product of a long-running, objective breeding program. I have a good friend, too, who will never trial his dogs, who only occasionally breeds outside his own pool of vizslas to ensure genetic diversity but does so to dogs he has seen and admired -- whether they had field trial paper titles or not. He prides himself on having raised 8 generations of Master Hunter-titled dogs, dogs which will he will guide with throughout the season in front of clients -- and which will turn in a finished performance that will leave those clients hopefully more than merely satisfied. My point is simply this: his dogs also have to turn in a public performance and that to ensure his success, he breeds to the best dogs he's seen that demonstrate similar kinds of inspired, public performance.

Much of the friction between 'hunters' and 'trialers' is the result of ego getting caught up in an unclear distinction between ethics and aesthetics. Jim Tantillo has written a great, succinct piece about the difference between these as it is mis-applied to 'hunting ethics.' Although we might mistakenly frame an argument in terms of 'better,' 'superior' or 'best,' the vast majority of the time what we are describing is our preference for 'how' a particular game is played. (W.B. Hyrum has a great related piece at the Foster Award site on genetics, how we create self-fulfilling prophecies, and how our language fails us.) As an example, I have several of Brad Harter's great National Championship DVDs, but if push came to shove, I would probably have to say that as awesome an all-age performance as Gary Lester's Snowatch turned in in 2008, I would probably be more at home with horseback shooting dogs. The best dogs for me are not the best dogs for Colvin Davis. And so, as the new trial season comes upon us -- whether we run All-Age American Field setters, NSTRA Brittanies, or AKC vizslas -- let's be grateful for the great dogs ahead of us and keep an eye out for the best ones to come.


Rod Michaelson said...

Great write up. Just got back from Austin, Texas and the hill country that surrounds the capitol of Texas. Hot and a bit muggy. Got home to the cool Pacific breeze and now off to walk our Chloe in the hills.
Bailey is ready to pack up and head to the high desert of Eastern Oregon for a month or more. We shall see if he qualifies for the Nationals at Fort Robinson.
Quite the fast lane I have found myself on. One day our paths will join up for a short while as we watch our dogs do what they were breed to do.


Scott said...

Well said Andrew. This particular "meditation" on bird dogs is one of my favorites on this blog. This is the sort of dog stuff I think about regularly. Interesting piece.