No one is born a dog man.
The journey down the path that is bird dogs, horses, and field trials is well-traveled from those that came before us and was well-worn by those that came before them. From mentor to mentee, our sport is passed down much like a treasured heirloom. We carefully hand off traditions, trade secrets, and “ the way things are done” so that everything we hold dear is able to be gifted to the next generation that shows up with an affinity for the poetry in motion that is birddogs and horseback field trialing.
My journey was like many. My Father had a penchant for Ruger red label shotguns, english setters, and pointers. That meant I spent many crisp winter mornings in Kentucky shuffling behind my father, in coveralls two-sizes too big, anticipating the moment that the racing white blip on the edge-row horizon froze like a statue. Those moments undoubtedly set the course for my life-long addiction to birddogs. I’ve been blessed to have gained many mentors over the years that played various roles in furthering my pursuit in birddogs, horses, and field trials. Each one of them adding a new and exciting color to the palette that is bird dog knowledge.
I remember the first time hearing about field trials. It sounded like something from a novel, and in many ways, it is. I had spent some time working some gun dogs with my friend, George Hickox, and he convinced me there was more to all of it. A lot more. Unveiling all of the unknown began with George offering a place to lay my head and a horse to ride at his summer camp in Mott, North Dakota. I didn’t know it at the time, but that trip to the prairie with my trial prospects kicked open the door to the world of horses, field trialing, field trial dogs, and many people I now call friends and mentors. That all began because one person took the time to take me “Under The Wing.” That is what a great mentor does. They guide, direct, and shorten the learning curve. George did just that for me.
Anyone that’s spent much time training trial dogs will gladly tell you all of the places that they’ve messed up. That’s part of it! I distinctly remember calling my friend, Sean Derrig, of Erin Kennels at the end of last year with a plight for help, and quick! I was very proud of my all-age caliber setter derby out of Erin’s Wild Atlantic Way that I had raised from a pup, but as Sean later put it, “He is a whole lot of dog for your first trial dog.”
My setter derby, Rip, had won an open horseback derby stake that fall, but during many trials he didn’t mind going rogue and getting lost out the front and wasn’t finding birds in trials like he had done in times past. I knew I needed help! Sean graciously invited me to come down to his Covey Pointe Plantation to diagnose my mishaps and put my setter and I back on the right track. Within five minutes, Sean pointed out that I had little control over my dog, and he was mechanical around his birds. Sean isn’t one to sugar coat things, but he’s one of the best mentors and teachers if you can take the heat! After he pointed out where I went wrong, we went to mending the broken links in the chain. Sean showed me how to let the dog run free, but with a handle. My dog went from running wild, for himself, to running deep, with a handle and purpose. I quickly learned from Sean that this is the key to a top-tier, all-age dog.
Sean also pointed out the lack of bird finding was something of my doing. My setter was dead broke, but lacked the “fire in the belly” that I had seen before. This is where experience and mentorship come in very handy. By myself, I probably would’ve trudged along, keeping him dead broke and accepted the sub-par performance as the new norm. Sean did the opposite. He took my big setter out to the quail recall pen, let 50 birds loose, and allowed that big white and black setter to bump and chase as many birds as he wanted for an hour. It was amazing to see the dog remember THIS IS FUN! I had spent so much time worrying about bird manners that I forgot to remember the dog needs to be enjoying themselves to give you 100%. There’s no doubt if I didn’t have that guiding hand, I would’ve probably lost out on a nice trial dog. Fortunately, I didn’t. We came back from that trip and won two more horseback derby stakes and placed in both shooting dog and all age horseback stakes this spring.
I recently asked my friend, Tommy Rice Jr., pro trainer and winner of the 2020 National Shooting Dog Championship, about his journey, being “under the wing” of others, and his thoughts on mentorship.
“A good mentor is someone who will willingly give honest advice when asked, and someone who does what they give advice on in the field. I was blessed to have many mentors and be around the best in the game. I’ve been around birddogs all my life with my dad being a dog trainer for a south Georgia plantation. So, I learned the foundation there. With trialing, I worked for Jamie Daniels and was surrounded by the who’s who of field trialing. I was able to work alongside them, and I made it a point to watch how all of those guys did things, and when they did things in both training and handling. I tried it all, but I took things that worked for me and my style.”
The old saying goes, “There are a million ways to skin a cat.”
That is true as ever when it comes to training bird dogs, horses, and running field trials. The one common thread we have in this sport is that it takes a mentor passing down the tradition, experience, and “the way things are done” to turn new, aspiring dog trainers and field trialers into dog men and women.