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Half a billion dollars is a lot of money by anyone's standards. The Rolling Stones pocketed that much from their most recent world tour, and Wisconsin sports enthusiasts feed the state's economy by that much in a year. It's also the amount U.S. hunters spend each year on their dogs. Because a good hunting dog is such an investment, it's safe to assume that a big portion of it goes into the three "T's" of gun dogs — training, testing and trialing.
A well-trained hunting dog is a valuable partner, helping in the search for game and retrieval of the harvest. Dog training and participation in hunt tests and field trials keep both hunters and their canine companions in shape year-round, and maximize opportunities for spending time in the field.
Dog owners don't have far to look for tools to help train their dogs to hunt. Books, magazines, websites and videos abound, all claiming to be the easiest, most effective or quickest way to assure your best buddy won't let you down in the blind. You can pay a professional trainer, or join a dog club and go through an established training and testing program on your own. If you're of a more competitive nature, field trials may be the thing for you.
Any good training program begins with the basics, and for dogs that's good socialization and behavior at home, beginning with housebreaking, learning their name and basic commands like "no" and "come." Gradually, dogs are introduced to new commands, birds, guns and running with other dogs. Bird dogs are ultimately expected to be able to walk to heel, come when called, sit or stay when told, track a scent, search for game, point, remain steady to flush and shot, retrieve on land and water, and be mannerly around other dogs.
Gun dog owners may also choose to participate in hunt tests or field trials to fine-tune their training efforts. These events are designed to simulate actual hunting situations and provide a measure of a dog's performance, either in relation to a set of standards (hunt tests) or compared to other dogs (field trials). In human terms, a dog that excels in hunt tests is like the high school senior with a high SAT score; a field trial champion is the valedictorian.
The world of hunt tests and field trials is a virtual alphabet soup of dog chow. Hunt tests are conducted under the auspices of the American Kennel Club (AKC), the United Kennel Club (UKC), Hunting Retriever Club (HRC), North American Hunting Retriever Association (NAHRA) and North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA). Field trials are conducted under rules and regulations established by AKC, UKC, the American Field's Field Dog Stud Book (FDSB), National Shoot to Retrieve Field Trial Association (NSTR), and the Wisconsin Championship Hunting Series, affiliated with the National Bird Dog Challenge Association (NBDCA).
The AKC sets rules for tests and field trials for the pointing breeds, retrievers and spaniels. The UKC's field trial rules cover the pointing breeds, and its HRC affiliate governs hunting tests for retrievers. NAHRA hunting tests are only open to retrievers, but NAVHDA tests are open to 27 different breeds. Field trials conducted under the auspices of the American Field or NSTR are for pointing breeds.
These national organizations establish the rules, scoring systems, titling procedures and registries, but the trials are actually conducted by local, regional or state clubs. In Wisconsin, dozens of clubs conduct tests and field trials statewide, almost year-round.
The North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA) is a national sporting dog organization with Wisconsin at its epicenter. NAVHDA's focus is on training and testing, as opposed to competitive field trials. "The program is principally twofold," explained Victor Connors, past president of NAVHDA International and founder of the Wisconsin River Chapter of NAVHDA, based in Dane County. "We have an educational program to guide and assist enthusiasts so their dogs will be well-trained hunting dogs before and after the shot in the field and marsh. We foster and promote ethical hunting and conservation of game.
"Secondly, we focus on hunt testing to improve the versatile breeds by promoting selective breeding of the best to the best."
Just what is a "versatile hunting dog?" NAVHDA's website lists 27 breeds, some with easily recognizable names like Brittany spaniel, German shorthaired pointer and Irish setter, and others with more continental names like Bracco Italiano, Cesky Fousek or Pudelpointer. More importantly, the term describes "a dog that is bred and trained to dependably hunt and point game, to retrieve on both land and water, and to track wounded game on both land and water." The NAVHDA system keeps performance records on dogs that go through a series of tests geared for puppies through mature dogs, and makes these records available to breeders and buyers.
NAVHDA chapters — of which there are four in Wisconsin, with some 450 members — sponsor training and four kinds of tests. Dogs compete against an established standard rather than against each other, and are awarded Prize I (highest), II or III honors. The natural ability test evaluates a young dog's inherited instincts — nose, search, tracking, pointing, water, desire and cooperation. The utility preparatory test is a two-phased measurement of a dog's development midway through its training. In the water group, the dog must do a water search, walk at heel, show steadiness by the blind and retrieve a duck. In the field group, a dog is tested on searching, pointing, steadiness on game and retrieving. The utility test is the most challenging and assesses the fully-trained dog in all aspects of hunting on water and in the field, before and after the shot. The final invitational test is designed to evaluate an exceptional hunting dog for superior ability, versatility and obedience in a variety of hunting situations. Qualifying dogs earn the title "Versatile Champion."
From tests to trials
Wisconsin field trials are of three types — pointing dog, retriever and spaniel. Dogs generally compete in amateur or open (professionals allowed) stakes, depending upon the status of their handlers, and in various categories according to the dog's age. Rules specify everything from how running order is decided, to the number of points awarded for placements, and what to do in case of bad weather. Pointing dog trials can also be either horseback or walking trials.
Charlie Blackbourn, Edgerton, of the Four Lakes German Shorthaired Pointer Club put it all in perspective when describing pointing dog field trials: "The events themselves are competitive hunts held under strict rules and regulations set forth by the respective governing bodies. In addition to satisfying the competitive nature of the participants, the trials provide a showcase for the hereditary ability and the level of training obtainable in these various breeds. These dogs are the stock behind the dogs that we choose as our hunting companions and provide us a more efficient method of finding and harvesting gamebirds. This decreases the number of cripples that are lost, decreases the amount of random shooting that is done and therefore is a conservation and safety factor in the field."
Blackbourn explained that horseback field trials are timed events of 30, 45 or 60 minutes. Pen-raised birds, purchased by the sponsoring group, are planted on the course in areas where wild birds would likely be found. The dogs are run in braces of two. The handlers, judges (usually two), scouts (one for each handler), and the gallery are all mounted on horseback. The dogs are released and allowed to run the course, guided by voice commands of their handlers. The gallery, scouts and judges stay together and traverse the course at a slow pace. When the dogs are found on point, the gallery and judges are allowed to slowly ride over to the area to observe the birdwork. The handler dismounts and flushes the bird into flight. The dog is expected to exhibit the level of training required for that particular event.
"The judges evaluate the dog's ground performance, how it acts around birds, its style on point, and its retrieving ability (if required) and score each dog accordingly. Walking trials are run in a similar manner. Most field trials are held on public land though there are a small number of privately owned field trial grounds. A walking trial requires at least 200 to 250 acres while a horseback trial with a 30-minute course would need about 500 acres," Blackbourn said.
Besides more tangible qualities, dogs are judged on a range of subjective qualities as well. Hunting retrievers, for example, are judged on hunting style and desire, including such traits as sportsmanship, attitude and intelligence. Judges look for dogs that are happy and enthusiastic, that work with their handlers confidently as a team. If it looks to a judge as if a trainer has intimidated or pressured a dog so that it shows fear or uncertainty, the trainer will be seriously marked down or failed.
Hunting retrievers are also judged on how well-controlled they are — including marks for manners, obedience, steadiness, response to direction and delivery – how good their nose is, and where a shot bird falls.
A matter of policy
The Department of Natural Resources oversees Wisconsin's dog training and trialing regulations. In the 1930s, the State Game Farm at Poynette began a cooperative effort with the Wisconsin Association of Field Trial Clubs (WAFTC), an umbrella organization of 30 sporting dog clubs that offer field trials and training opportunities statewide. The game farm continues to provide member clubs with pheasants and quail to support training efforts.
"In the mid-1970s and through the '80s, hunting ethics became a priority with the Natural Resources Board," says Dave Gjestson, then DNR's liaison with WAFTC. "The board endorsed a policy encouraging hunting dog training and Dr. Don Didcoct (then WAFTC president) and I helped write a dog training book in 1977 that was the basis for clinics set up across the state. By 1984, more than 7,000 students had participated."
Bob Nack has been director of the State Game Farm since July 2006 and is currently the WAFTC liaison. Nack said DNR no longer conducts formal training clinics, but not because the sport is no longer popular.
The dog training arena has really taken off since the program was first set up," he said. "Many of the groups have become well established and now hold their own dog training classes and seminars."
The Natural Resources Board policy strongly encourages the use of well trained hunting dogs in the pursuit and retrieval of game and directs the department to designate and manage state-controlled lands for the purpose of training hunting dogs.
The department provides two types of field trial and training grounds. On Class 1 grounds, field trials are allowed year-round, except during hunting seasons. Class 1 grounds are designated at the Richard Bong State Recreation Area, Kenosha County; George W. Mead Wildlife Area, Marathon County; Lower Wisconsin River wildlife area — Mazomanie Unit, Dane County; Kettle Moraine State Forest – Ottawa Unit, Waukesha County; and the Pine Island Wildlife Area, Columbia County. Class 2 grounds are any other DNR lands designated on a dog training license approved by a local wildlife biologist, as long as the activity is consistent with property master plans and management objectives.
Dog trainers and trialers must purchase licenses for $25; training licenses are good for three years and field trial licenses for one. All expire on December 31. A bird dog training license allows the trainer to release captive-bred quail, partridge, pheasants and mallard ducks under specified conditions. License holders must have the license in their possession while training, train only on the designated properties, tag all birds that are designated for the trial, and treat the captive birds in a humane manner. The banding is done prior to release and prevents trainers from killing wild birds. The trainers also can't possess any unused bird bands while they are training in the field.
A bird dog trial license allows all participants to engage in an organized field trial sanctioned by a local, state, regional or national dog organization. They have similar restrictions as the training license, except that captive birds don't have to be marked before release (except for mallards).
Nack said under a Memorandum of Understanding with the WAFTC, the Poynette Game Farm provides clubs with old hens from the pheasant breeding stock.
"In 2007, we provided 500 hens in the spring and 270 in the fall," said Nack. "WAFTC takes care of distributing them to the member clubs. The one difference between the birds we provide and others that clubs purchase from private game farms is that ours can't be shot and any that are left over after the event must be released into the wild."
Trials bring some challenges
Field trials are increasing in popularity in Wisconsin. They offer opportunities for improving hunting dog breeding, sportsmanship, camaraderie and outdoor recreation, but they are not without their challenges. At the Richard Bong Recreation Area, where 1,200 acres of the special use zone are dedicated to Class 1 field trial grounds, managers try to balance this field activity with demands from other users.
Marty Johnson, the local wildlife biologist, explained there are field trials scheduled at Richard Bong every month from January through September. "Intermixed with them, we have activities with model rockets, model airplanes and sometimes hang gliders on the runway," said Johnson. "Then in the middle of the dog training grounds we maintain an ATV loop, which has to be closed when training or field trials are in progress. On top of that, there's pheasant hunting from mid-October through December 31, which takes priority over everything."
Johnson said that in 2002, Richard Bong saw 3,260 dog training, testing and field trial participants in 40 different events throughout the season. The Ottawa field trial ground also gets extensive use and Pine Island normally has about 20 to 25 formal field trials in an average year. The Mead and Mazomanie grounds don't see quite as heavy use, but still host events steadily from April through September.
"In recent years we've gotten better at addressing the needs of conflicting user groups. We have a meeting in January of representatives of all the groups where a calendar of events is set up. Maybe one group only needs to use a portion of the special use zone, like the retriever ponds at the western end, and another group can use another portion the same day."
Each Class 1 dog training ground has a "grounds association," or friends group, made up of dog clubs that use the properties and help with maintenance and special projects. In 2006, the Mazomanie Grounds Association surprised DNR managers with an extraordinary donation.
"Over the years the association has helped us out with several projects on the field trial grounds, with volunteer work days to clear brush, purchase of a few loads of gravel for a parking lot, that sort of thing," reported Bill Ishmael, DNR's area wildlife supervisor. "We had been discussing for years a contribution toward a fence along the edge of the trial grounds to keep the dogs from running onto the busy county highway. In the spring of 2007, we were delighted when the grounds association in a matter of a few weeks purchased the fence materials, lined up volunteers and equipment, and constructed nearly 3,800 feet of woven wire fence in one weekend. The project cost $3,800 and involved about 250 volunteer hours, plus about 40 hours of donated equipment time."
Jim and Pat Gleash, Madison, have been active in the Southern Wisconsin Pointing Dog Club, the oldest bird dog club in the state, since 1967. Their three-day national trials, held at Pine Island Wildlife Area on Memorial and Labor Day weekends, are open to all pointing breeds and attract field trialers nationwide from the Dakotas to Mississippi and Florida.
Pat Gleash recalled that the Pine Island grounds association was instrumental in clearing, dredging, planting and putting in bridges on the property.
"We're still the ones who do the mowing and maintain and clean the buildings," said Gleash. "But it's worth it because we all love the sport. I wish you could see one of our weekend trials, with the kids riding their bicycles, riding their horses, playing with the puppies and going down to the river to fish or catch toads. It's a real family affair with a big picnic on Saturday night and fiddles playing into the night."
Most clubs do their part to assure their sport doesn't become a thing of the past, with special field trial youth stakes and youth training and testing programs. They all promote good sportsmanship, safe hunting practices, ethical treatment of animals and a wholesome family atmosphere, assuring there will always be a place – whether in the blind or under the kitchen table – for the well-trained hunting dog.
Kathryn A. Kahler crafts feature stories about outdoor activities and environmental topics from Madison.