The Handler’s Job
When you handle a dog in a grouse trial, other than the obvious objective, which is to win, you need to have a plan. It is your responsibility to know the course you’re going to run on and have in mind where you want the dog to be at various points. You need to be able to anticipate major changes in direction and also know where the regular bird locations are. Most of the venues we run on have courses that have been used over and over and are well known to most experienced handlers. Even though you have a plan, you have to also be flexible enough to go with the flow. If the dog is on the right and you think there’s a bird on the left don’t stop and hack it in to try and put it in a birdy spot. You want the hour to flow and you want any bird work to come off that flow.
Once you turn the dog loose you have to concentrate on the dog 100% for the full 60 minutes. Don’t chat with the judges, the other handler, the gallery, or your scout. It’s when you let your attention wander that the dog often stops and then you’re not sure where it is. One of the hardest things for handlers to do is SHUT UP. In the heat of the moment many handlers just can’t help keeping up a meaningless shouting of commands that the dog is often obviously ignoring. If you can hear the bell and it’s to the front there is no reason to do more than occasionally remind the dog that you are there. Wild Apple Jack’s winning performance in the 2007 Grand National was a perfect example of this as evidenced by Ryan Frame’s write up on his brace that appeared in The American Field:
“Tehaar’s Elvis (Hughes) and Wild Apple Jack (Doherty) were loosed on Lonesome Ridge. Jack went big and laid to the front with little handle required. Elvis checked back close three times early and then laid out in the cover by 12. Both carried themselves well, the pointer checking in from the distance. Neither handler said much from 20 to 40 but both dogs worked well forward and in the cover, handlers stopping to listen now and then. When seen both were going well and very stylish. Jack’s bell was missing forward at 40 and he was found well forward and right, pointing back [towards] the course. He looked good and had a grouse pinned neatly, the dog never wavering at the flush or shot. He continued his big going, easy handling effort, through the swampy stuff and into the bigger woods. Elvis continued well to the front and when seen looked good. We ran out of course at 54 and turned left down the dirt road. Shortly after Elvis dug into the right and stopped near some evergreen trees. He was a picture and a grouse flew out to his left, all in order. Both dogs finished well down the road. At this point, according to the judges, Jack and Elvis bumped out Maxima.”
You want to at least act like you have total confidence in your dog to do the right thing through the hour. You have to believe the dog is going to find a bird and that you will be able to find the dog. Although some judges frown on it, you should caution a dog on point once or twice when you find it. You should flush with confidence and authority assuming that the bird is there – but make sure you have the judge with you and that you don’t fire your blank gun in his or her face when the bird goes. Believe me when I tell you it doesn’t go over that well. If you don’t produce a bird in a reasonable amount of time confidently send the dog on to relocate even if this is not one of your dog’s strong suits. If your dog doesn’t back well and consistently, try to go forward and draw your dog away from another dog on point. Even the most reluctant backing dogs can be force broke to back and should be. However, in cover dog trials you have to worry about it less then in a released bird trial where dogs are usually going to be pointing out in the open.
You also have to be objective about your dog’s performance. If it does something that you obviously know has taken it out of contention the judge shouldn’t have to ask you to pick up a dog. If you’re not sure of how the judge viewed something ask him or her, I’ve never known a judge not to be upfront, sometimes brutally, with a handler when asked during a brace. If you’re not “making money,” show some consideration to the judges and your bracemate and put the dog on the lead. Your entry fee was to give you a chance to win not for a guaranteed hour of training time. Your training should have been done in advance of the trial and should not be done on the course at the expense of the judge’s time and effort. Although there are times when the best thing to do is tell the judge you’re picking up and then correct your dog for whatever breach of manners might have occurred.
Picking a scout who knows your dog, knows the course, and knows what to do when out away from the judges is also important. A good scout can be a real asset. At the same time a bad scout can cost you a championship. No scout is better than a bad one. I did not have a scout for at least two of Jack’s championship wins including the Grand National win described above. When your dog goes on point well away from the trail, you need to have a good line. Try to stick to it and send your scout out at to one side or the other. It seems like some people are much better at estimating the distance, but when they don’t find the dog right away it’s usually that they didn’t go far enough. That’s what happened at the Amateur last year. I had a really good line on Jack when the bell stopped at 50, but he was probably 30 yards farther away than I thought originally. The alder run he was standing in was so dense we had to get almost right on top of him to see him. That was one time when the scout was invaluable. Mike Flewelling remembered finding another dog buried in the same spot a number of years earlier when the course had come through differently.
Bracemates can be a help or a hindrance both intentionally or unintentionally. If you have a running dog and your bracemate is a closer working dog with a big bell you’re in trouble. If your bracemate goes too fast and or yells all the time, it can detract from your dog’s performance. In the Grand National brace reported above Jack and Elvis complimented each other. On more than one of Jack’s championship placements the bracemate picked up or was picked up and Jack had a good part of the course to himself that meant that both judges were present for his finds and saw a high percentage of his hour.
The best field trial dogs that ever ran still lost far more often than they won, go with a plan to win but don’t be a jerk when things don’t the way you think they should. Remember that you may have to run under that judge again in the future or be braced with them when your dog finally is getting it done. There are myriad ways to take out your bracemate and the last thing you want is to antagonize someone to the point where there looking to get even.
Check back later for the next part on training for cover dog trials.