A Wonderful Life
“Daddy always said, ‘Leave him alone. He’s the one with the nose, not you!’ ”
Knee-deep in late summer prairie grass, Fred Rayl is letting a young pointer prospect figure things out on his own. At this stage of the game, the pup is all instinct and exuberance. Rayl watches patiently. Suddenly, the pup catches a whiff to his liking, and the unmistakable light of recognition, age-old and inborn, fires his bright eye. He makes a couple of searching swings through the buckbrush, then snaps into point, and we glimpse the dog he might one day become: it’s the pose of a champion. The lone sharptail, an old bachelor chicken, departs with a volley of raucous complaints, and the image explodes as the pup takes off in wild pursuit.
“He’ll be back,” Rayl predicts. We follow his progress, squinting against the afternoon glare, and sure enough, a quarter mile out on the prairie the pup has abandoned the chase and is coming around.
“But, see that. He learned something there!”
The grin that breaks over his broad, sunburned face tells you Rayl is a man who loves what he does.
“I really do,” he admits. “The dog training life is a wonderful life.”
I ask for his story.
“It all started with daddy,” he says of late Hall of Famer, William F. (Bill) Rayl. “Him and his brother Allen Earl were hunters as boys. They always had good hunting dogs, and that was how they made their spending money up there in Athens, Tennessee.” Dressed quail, peddled for a quarter a piece to the local shopkeeper, kept the boys flush. Then Bill joined the service and his brother lost interest. The meat-hunting enterprise fell flat, but when Bill finished his tour of duty and came home, he found Allen Earl had kept an old bird dog around.
“Is he any ‘count?” he inquired.
Allen Earl didn’t know.
The next day, Bill grabbed his gun, whistled up the dog and set off across the farm fields to find out. The dog ran hither and yon, but Bill headed for a known covey spot. He walked the birds up and killed one.
“About the time daddy picked that bird up, the ol’ dog came running by, and daddy threw the bird out in front of the dog and shot his shotgun up in the air. He went over and picked up the bird and brought it to him, and from that day on that dog was broke, going down through there pointing, retrieving and everything!”
Bill Rayl was back in business. “It got to be where everybody would come out there and hunt with daddy and that dog. Otto and J.P. Kennedy were putting on a field trial down there at Athens, and they’d been out to hunt with daddy. ‘You need to bring this dog down there and run him in the trial,’ they told daddy. So he did, and lo and behold, he won first place with him, and that got him hooked!”
Bill trained dogs for a while in East Tennessee, got a lease in Canada for the summers and moved down to Georgia sometime in the mid-50s. Meanwhile, he had married Miss Jean and started a family. “My brother Eddie is five years older than me. I was born in June of ‘53, and they tell the tale that it rained that first summer they took me to the prairie, and a tornado came and blew the barn down. Daddy had to ride the horse seven or eight miles to the store to get milk for me, because I was nursing on a bottle. And I’ve never missed a summer on the prairie ever since.”
At the Rayl household, everybody pitched in. “From the time we were little bitty boys, we always had chores,” Rayl says. “That’s the way it was there with daddy. Even mama helped. She took care of everything when daddy was gone, and whenever we got up old enough, we helped her. It was just a dog-training house.”
“One of my earliest memories is, my mama used to drive the dog wagon up in Canada.” he recalls. “That’s when we had the horse and buggy. And because it was so cold, mama would wrap me up in a blanket where I could ride down there in the floorboards of the dog wagon while she drove.”
There was plenty of action and more than a few close calls for two fellows growing up in the dog-training life. “I remember one time I was about seven or eight, “he says. “Daddy had broke for lunch and had told us boys to take the horses over to the pond and water them. So we jumped up there and rode one and led one or two apiece. But the horse I was riding waded out in the pond and laid down. And then he started rolling and throwing me under the water. Eddie went to hollering, and I hollered back at him whenever I’d come up for air, ‘I can’t get a-loose, he’s a-layin’ on my leg!’ Daddy had to run over there and drag me out from under the horse to keep me from drowning.”
Luckily, boys have a way of thriving on such escapades. The Rayl brothers emerged from their youthful adventures unscathed, with a lasting love of bird dogs, and field trials and a strong work ethic woven firmly into the fabric of their lives. “Oh, there’s lots of good memories,” says Rayl, who eagerly traded his text books for the paraphernalia of a professional trainer upon high school graduation. While he worked dogs and campaigned with Bill on the all-age circuit, Eddie specialized in shooting dogs.
Fred, Eddie and Bill Rayl
Bill Rayl was a dedicated, hard-working man, up before daybreak each morning, sticking to a schedule that rarely varied unless a field trial intervened. “It was seven days a week,” Rayl says. “Even though we didn’t work on Sundays most of the time unless we were gone to a trial, daddy would still get up and go walk out there through the kennels.” That commitment set a strict standard and elicited the admiration and respect of his two sons. But after hitting a hard lick all week and kicking up their heels on Saturday nights, the boys looked forward to sleeping in on those rare Sunday mornings at home.
“Daddy’s thing about that was, he always raised a lot of puppies, and he would go out there at daylight on Sunday and turn the whole puppy pen loose. Twenty-five puppies would be going everywhere, and you couldn’t sleep a wink with all that mess going on. But that was daddy’s idea of a day off.”
Bill’s reputation for honesty, his warm, gregarious personality, and his deep love of bird dogs and field trials made him a favorite among his peers, and he made friends wherever he traveled on the field trial circuit. He went out of his way to bring people into the sport, to help them have a good dog. “Daddy was an outstanding individual,” Rayl says. “And he loved the field trial sport to no end. He could talk to somebody and convince them that they ought to come to a field trial, and he would help any way that he could. He always kept a big crowd around him, too. He had a knack of getting people together and everybody having a good time.”
Bill just had a kind of magnetism. People liked him, dogs liked him. It was a fortuitous combination. And when it came to dogs, he seemed to have a sixth sense that inspired unconditional trust and devotion in his charges. “He was one of those that could jump on a dog hard and in five minutes that dog would be all over him, wagging his tail.” Rayl explains. “He knew how to get on one when he needed it, and he knew how to praise one, and he knew how far to go with it.”
Rayl’s remarkable success as a trainer and handler of field trial champions may be equaled by his acumen as a breeder, for his effect in that regard has left an indelible mark on pointerdom. He was instrumental in establishing the bloodlines that put forth the great Hall of Fame dogs Evolution, Builder’s Addition, Fiddler and his celebrated scion, Fiddler’s Pride, and shooting dog sensation Little Diamond, along with a plethora of other notables.
Things began to click in a big way for Bill in the 60s with a dog called Highway Man owned by George Geoghegan of Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. “I’m not too sure Highway Man wasn’t his favorite dog all along, even through the later years,” Rayl says of the dog that sired Builder’s Risk and thus became the fountainhead of that important line. “He was out of a dog called Llano Man that Jack Harper had. Daddy had Possessed, and Possess, and Bill Possessed, and they were all champions. And then, of course, along in the middle 60s was when he got Endurance and then from Endurance we got the Evolution line of dogs.”
Bill always thought he would win the National Championship with Highway Man. It was not to be, but one shining moment at Grand Junction sticks in memory. Jimmy Bryan of the Ames Plantation used to tell the story that Rayl recounts.
“Now, this is what I heard, but it was told as the absolute truth: Highway Man was a statuesque dog on point and he would never let down, not even the blink of an eye after the birds had left. He had established point, and daddy had flushed and flushed and got nothing up. Went back to tap him on the head and send him on, but the dog would not move. So daddy goes out there and flushes again. Nothing gets up. He goes back and taps Highway Man on the head again, and this time the dog just turns his head from one side to the other, just kind of plants his head there, like. And daddy walks in front and out comes a covey of birds. And when those birds came up, everybody in the gallery went to clapping and throwing up their hats! And Mr. Bryan said it was the only time in his memory that a dog was applauded at the National Championship.”
Highway Man sired a number of good prospects in the 60s, and Bill had high hopes for two in particular: Highway Man, Jr. and Hi Man. Both died early, as first and second year dogs. It was not uncommon in that era to lose dogs at a fairly young age in spite of conscientious caretaking, and the Rayls suffered their fair share of casualties. “A lot of the old-timers will tell you, we went through a period there in the 60s and 70s where we lost several good dogs that probably would have eventually been great dogs. And we don’t really know why.”
The aforementioned Endurance had come into his own during this period with a number of major circuit all-age wins and was effectively crossed with a variety of bloodlines to produce some 50-odd field trial winners. The mating of Endurance with Miss Holmes of Riggins White Knight and Gunsmoke lineage proved particularly favorable, for it produced one of modern pointerdom’s most influential progenitors.
Evolution was whelped January 21, 1972. The Field Dog Stud Book registry shows A. E. And W. F. Rayl to be the breeders. Owned by Tennessee patron T. Jack Robinson, campaigned by the Rayls to a half-dozen titles in a career that was blindsided by speargrass complications, the prepotent “Hack” nicked successfully with 110 different dams to sire a total of 268 winners accounting for some 1,500 placements. He died March 9, 1985 at the age of 13, and was inducted into the Field Trial Hall of Fame in 1987.
HOF Ch. Evolution
A later breeding of Endurance with Miss Holmes yielded shooting dog celebrity Ch. Little Diamond, developed and handled by Eddie Rayl for owner Dr. L. G. Thompson of Vidalia, Georgia. Little Diamond was accorded the Hall of Fame scroll in 1983.
The mating of Highway Man progeny Builder’s Risk with Bearwallow Babe in the spring of 1973 was also a portentous one, for it produced the great pointer, Builder’s Addition, and established a nick that would result in more than a dozen winners, including the highly acclaimed Builder’s Free Boy. Dewey Mullins of Berea, Kentucky was the breeder of record; Bill Ball of Danville, Kentucky was the original owner.
Ch. Builder’s Free Boy
Ball sent “Boy” to Canada with Bill and Freddie Rayl with instructions to develop him as a derby. “He was a young derby, and he was not broke all that well when we came home,” Rayl says. The dog performed respectably that season, however, and they took him north again the next year. We had Chicago Fire, Builder’s Addition and Strongman. I worked Chicago Fire, and whenever Chicago Fire got distemper and died up there that summer, daddy said ‘You take ol’ Boy and work him now.’”
By the time Freddie and Boy won the International Pheasant Championship that fall, the pressures of campaigning both Builder’s Risk and Builder’s Addition were beginning to wear on Ball, and the decision was made to sell Boy.
A deal was struck at the Florida Championship in December that precluded leaving Builder’s Addition with the Rayls. Bill was not prepared to lose the dog.
HOF 1980 National Ch. Builder’s Addition
“Well, I’ll just write you a check for ol’ Boy,” he offered. Ball named his price and agreed. “Ted Baker and T. Jack Robinson were there at the trial,” Rayl says, “And daddy talked to them, and they bought ol’ Boy in partnership and kept him in daddy’s string.”
Many considered Builder’s Addition to be Freddie’s dog — he was responsible in large part for his development, had worked him and handled him to most of his wins. But when the time came to make a bid for the National Championship, the young handler deferred to the veteran and stepped into the scouting irons. “I had a thing with myself that I’d never run a dog in the National Championship unless daddy had won it first. And I didn’t.” Builder’s Addition had made a strong showing at Grand Junction in 1979 with Bill and Freddie helping each other. He came back the next year and won.
A consistent performer, Boy amassed nine titles in the course of his relatively brief career, earning four championships and five runner-up wins. The 1980 National Championship was his swan song. He died a few months later.
An abscess thought to be a grass infection had appeared in his side during the spring, and he was placed in the care of eminent Miami veterinarian, Dr. R. P. Knowles. By August, his condition was deemed sufficiently improved that he was sent on to the Rayls in Canada.
“Boy was not a dog that would ever quit. The only time I ever saw him attempt not to want to go, and he went even then, was up in Canada that last year. He had cancer, but at the time we didn’t know it.” Boy had appeared to be holding up well in the roading harness, but he labored during a workout in preparation for the Saskatchewan Open. Something was seriously wrong. In Winnipeg, he was diagnosed with a ruptured spleen, then spots were found on his lungs. They shipped him back to Miami, where Knowles removed the growths, but seven-year-old Builder’s Addition survived surgery by only a few hours.
Strongman, owned by D. C. Moses of Illinois, was another dog out of Rayl Kennels that would leave an impression on the pointer world in his own right as a champion and as the sire of Hall of Fame bird dog, Fiddler. Bill had done most of the groundwork with Strongman before passing him on to Freddie in Canada, but the dog was still a pretty good handful. “That was really a hard summer,” Rayl laughs, looking back. “Because I mean, that son of a gun was just knocking birds all summer long!” But Freddie met the challenge, and he won his first championship that season with Strongman.
“Strongman was a beautiful dog on point,” Rayl says. “He was a tough dog to break on his birds, but he was consistent, and he was a dog that would not run off. He was an exceptionally strong bird dog.” With his uncanny eye for matchmaking, Bill Rayl paired the pointer with a prepotent Endurance female called Blythe Ferry Flack. Fiddler was one of ten pups in the resulting litter, whelped June 16, 1976.
In Canada, Fiddler and a littermate quickly distinguished themselves as the most progressive members of the puppy set. Turned out of the pen each evening to run the big fields around camp, they soon began to seek broader horizons. “Our closest neighbor was a mile and three quarters away,” Rayl recalls. “And Fiddler and his brother got to wandering further and further until they got down to the neighbor’s yard and got in the chicken pen. Of course, you know the rest of that story! So we couldn’t turn him out any more.”
On the way home in the fall, they stopped in Solon Springs for the United States Chicken Championship. “Dan Bonaguidi wanted to know if we had any puppies by Strongman for sale,” Rayl says. “Daddy told him, ‘Yeah, we got two over there, but I want to sell ‘em to somebody that will leave ‘em with us.’ Dan said he would campaign one with us, and daddy said ‘Well, if you want one of ‘em I’ll let you have one for $500.”
“Dan was such a good man. He was a lot of fun. He liked to kind of stir things up in a fun way, and keep things going. So he slipped around for a day or two, and he asked Joe Bush, who worked for us then, ‘Which one of those pups is the best?’ and Joe said, ‘I kind of b’lieve the black and white one’s the best.’
Then he’d slip over and ask me, ‘Which one do you like best?” and I said I thought that black and white puppy was a lot better puppy. And he slipped around and got daddy. ‘Which one of those puppies do you think is the best?’ He’d go back and forth, and he got the same story pretty much out of everybody, so he bought Fiddler.”
Bonaguidi ran the pup on his farm near Monticello, Wisconsin for a few months before returning him to the Rayls to begin his formal schooling. He was a quick study, an easy dog to break, says Rayl. “But he would always want to run off on you if he didn’t find birds.” Rayl attributes that tendency to the summer of the chicken coop. “I always said that was the reason Fiddler would run off as bad as he did. I really do think that taught him, whenever we turned him loose, he had to go in there a mile and three quarters.”
Freddie had the primary responsibility for developing the dog and handling him in trials, but Bill and scout Joe Bush were never too far away. “I broke Fiddler, and I worked that whole line,” Rayl says. “The Fiddler dogs were my dogs to work, but daddy would help me, and I helped him with Evolution and all them. That’s how we did.”
HOF Ch. Fiddler
The list of Fiddler’s victories is not extensive, but his crown is embellished with some singular jewels. His two runner-up wins were gained in the spring of ‘78 at the Continental Derby and National Derby Championships. He won the International Pheasant Championship in the fall of ‘79 and performed so convincingly over the three-day span of the Quail Championship Invitational in 1980 that judges John O’Neall, Jr. and Barry Saunders did not name a runner-up.
“He was leading by far the first day,” Rayl tells me when I press him for details. “The judges told me how much they liked him, and to go out there on the second day and just try to have a good, even day. So we turned him a-loose, and you know that son of a gun had that knack where, if you didn’t find birds with him pretty quick, he’d line out and take off on you.” True to form, he took off. Rayl had outlined a contingency plan for just such an occasion with scout Joe Bush.
“I just knew he was gone. Then, here comes Joe, riding pretty fast out through there. I looked behind him and there come Ol’ Pete.” They caught the front in the final moments, and Rayl sent the dog around one big field, then another. “Up on a rise, I saw him when he hit the birds. He smelled the birds and kind of roaded up there and locked down. I called point on him and went out there and flushed the birds.”
“You’ve got a minute and a half,” John O’Neall told him. “You can do whatever you want to, but my advice is, if it was me I believe I’d just sit there and towel him off until time’s up.”
“So that’s what I did,” Rayl says. “And then we went out there the third day and had eight finds. And he did an awful good job all three days.”
It was as a producer that Fiddler made his strongest contribution to pointerdom and to the field trial sport. As noted at his induction into the Field Trial Hall of Fame in 1998, he sired 122 winners representing nearly 800 wins. Most illustrious of his offspring was Ch. Fiddler’s Pride, whelped February 9, 1979. Rosemary Warnicke of Booneville, Mississippi was the breeder.
HOF Ch. Fiddler’s Pride
‘Ol’ Joe’ found his way to the Rayls by way of Dan Bonaguidi, who had been impressed on first sight with the pup’s inherent qualities. “As usual, Dan was right,” says Rayl, who adds that Fiddler’s Pride possessed the most natural front-running and bird-finding abilities that he had ever seen.
Fiddler’s Pride won the Continental Derby Championship in 1981, and went on to prove his excellence repeatedly over the eight-year period that defined his competitive career, garnering a total of 24 placements that include eight major titles and six runner-up wins. He sired 84 winners, among them champions Fiddler’s Pride’s Iris and Melrose Buck. He died in 1992 and was honored by election to the Field Trial Hall of Fame in 1993, the first year of his eligibility.
The period from the ‘70s through the early ‘80s was truly a heyday for Rayl Kennels. “And it was all a tribute to daddy’s breeding program,” Rayl emphasizes. “Although he was not the breeder of record of all those dogs, he was the instigator behind all the breeding. And he kept us filled for years and years with good prospects, good derby prospects, good puppy prospects.”
Evolution, Builder’s Addition, Fiddler and their ilk would make “Rayl” a household word among fans of great pointing dogs. In 1979, a brilliant son of Evolution by the name of Arrival won the National Open Shooting Dog Championship at the hands of Eddie Rayl. And in 1981-82, yet another star was poised on the horizon in the form of his littermate, Heritage’s Premonition.
Johnny Robinson of Jacksonville, Florida had bred the litter, having acquired his good matron Pete’s Stylish Judy explicitly for the purpose of crossing her with Evolution. It was a good nick, and Robinson did a lot of winning with the pups on the southeastern juvenile circuit. “Then Johnny told daddy he was going to sell the puppies, and it was Heritage’s Premonition (formerly campaigned under the moniker, Robin’s Nest Sierra), Arrival, and another dog called Administrator which Eddie always said was the best of the bunch, but you never could keep him broke.” Bill fingered Heritage’s Premonition as the most promising all-age prospect and sold him as a derby to Jim and Judy Cohen of Berea, Kentucky.
1982 National Ch. Heritage’s Premonition
“Daddy pretty much broke him when he was a derby up there in Canada and Joe Bush fooled with him too,” Rayl says. He was but one of a coterie of outstanding prospects being worked at the time. “I was working Premonition and I won some derby stakes with him. But there were a lot of good derbies in camp that year, nine altogether. We had a setter derby called Chief Moon Mountain, we had Glenwood that daddy had gotten out of Johnny Robinson’s litter as a stud fee puppy, we had Heritage’s Premonition. And Eddie had Arrival as a derby at that time on the shooting dog circuit.”
A period ensued during which Cohen tested the dog with other top handlers, but it was not until he rejoined the Rayls’s program that Heritage’s Premonition began to hit the mark in earnest, winning the Dominion Chicken Championship and getting the runner-up nod at the All-America with Freddie up front. Winning the Alabama Open the following January qualified him for the National, and the Rayls took him down to Martin Davis’s grounds at Reinzi, Mississippi south of Grand Junction to prepare for the stake.
“Big was not a dog that would work real good,” Rayl says. “You’d see him in a workout, and you’d about swear he’d never …well, he’d go to this bush and that one, just not really do what he was supposed to do.” But when they turned him loose at a trial, he gave in spades and acquitted himself with distinction. He won the National his first time out, an achievement not many can claim.
He ran on the first Thursday afternoon. Bill Rayl was the scout. “There was a little bush on the edge up there and Ol’ Big was pointing on one side of the bush. Rex’s Cherokee Jake was coming from the other side, running down the edge, and when he got to the bush he stopped. He never did see my dog.” Rayl had seen a covey come out, and it was his opinion that the bracemate had stopped to flush. The write-up designated a back. “But when the judges got there, they hadn’t seen the birds. I told them what happened, and we went on and he had five more finds after that.”
“Ol’ Big was a pretty good handling dog anyways, but I had a certain call that I could call on him and spin him around on a dime.” Near the end of the race, the dog had cast widely down an edge to the left. As Rayl sat watching him go, he became aware of the crowd’s growing elation. “You know how slow they usually go at the National,” he says. “Well, they were all riding right up there with me,” he says, “The judges, the gallery. Everybody was really excited.” Showtime! Rayl squalled and the dog whirled in his tracks.
“He came on back and we went up there alongside the barn at the end of the course and I stopped him. And here comes Mr. Joe Hurdle, cantering up on his horse. He said, ‘Now, I want to see him go around the edge of this field.’”
“I told him, ‘Well, now, Mr. Hurdle, I don’t believe that’ll be no problem!’ And I sent him around and he was just a-whistlin’, he went right on around. And they said ‘Pick him up!’”
Just as they had stood in the limelight together in 1980 with Builder’s Addition, father and son accepted the laurels side-by-side for Heritage’s Premonition in 1982. In hindsight, it was a poignant moment. A timebomb was ticking, and its repercussions would be felt all too soon.
Bill was plagued by a series of heart attacks in Canada the next summer. “We thought we were going to lose him then,” Rayl says, and after more than twenty years his voice still cracks as he describes the ordeal. “They kept him in the hospital there at Winnipeg for about three weeks. When he finally started getting a little bit better, Jack Robinson sent his plane and picked him up, and flew him back to Georgia.”
At 56, Bill was still a young man, and for a while it looked as if he might fight his way back to good health. But his heart was giving out, inch by inch, and he was in and out of the hospital all winter. Bypass surgery was performed in February, but it did not improve things much.
“I was going to the Kentucky Championship, which was in March,” Rayl says. “I had some people coming over to the house, looking to buy a puppy that morning, and I needed to leave. So daddy said, ‘Well, I’ll show them those puppies.’ Of course, he was still recovering from surgery then.”
Bill showed the pups, but the physical effort tired him out and he complained of not feeling well. He excused himself and went to the house to lie down on the couch. “And when he laid down there, he just had a stroke.” Rayl says.
Rushed by ambulance to the hospital at Thomasville, Bill was now desperately ill. Freddie was met with the news upon his arrival at the Kentucky grounds, and caught the next plane home. “When I got there, they had done a brain scan on him and the doctor told us there was just no hope. Daddy died on his birthday, March 20, 1983. He was 57 years old.”
“There is one thing that I’m so grateful for,” Rayl stresses, “and it’s another thing about this sport that I dearly love. My dad and I shared a common bond and worked together and not many kids have been able to do that. I worked for my dad from the time I graduated high school in 1971 until he died, and that twelve years was probably the happiest times I’ve ever had in my life.”
Left to right: Joe Bush with Fiddler, Fred Rayl with Builder’s Free
Boy, Bill Rayl with Heritage’s Premonition, T. Jack Robinson with
Bill left an enduring legacy, both through the great dogs he bred, developed and handled, and in the people he inspired. His contributions to the field trial sport were many and varied. He was elected to the Field Trial Hall of Fame in 1984.
Eddie Rayl eventually gave up the dog training life and went into the truck driving business, but Freddie has carried on the family tradition with a strong sense of purpose and pride. Except for a couple of off-season jobs to bring in extra cash, it’s all he’s ever done and he wouldn’t have it any other way. He keeps a couple of litters of puppies going. He has a good string of all-age performers and some promising young candidates coming on. He’s high on a talented first-year dog called Tom Pace. “We didn’t win any derby championships with him,” he admits with typical candor. “He’s a tough kind of dog, and he got kind of hard-headed with me last year.” But he’s got what it takes to win, Freddie thinks, and he’s aiming for the top.
“When daddy was alive and we were doing it, of course we had help. Back then you could get help for $20, $25 a week, and there was no big deal about all the things you have to worry about now, things like getting sued, or withholdings to the government. Daddy always had a big crew working for him, six or seven people pretty well all the time.”
Things have changed since Bill Rayl’s day, but though it may be harder to hammer out a living as a professional trainer, Freddie says the intangible, day-to-day rewards are what make it worthwhile. Like Bill, he sticks mostly to working and training dogs he has bred and raised himself. It’s where he finds his greatest satisfaction.
“Like these little puppies out here right now,” he says. “If I can work one of those puppies and fool with him all this year, then take him up to the prairie next summer and work him and see him develop, if I can watch him going down through there doing the thing that he’s supposed to do, tail cracking and slamming into point on a covey of birds, and then when he lets me go in there and flush those birds…I’ll tell you what! There’s just nothing in the world to me like that. I don’t believe the most powerful stuff in the world could give me any kind of high like that does.”
And that’s the payoff. Winning is great, Rayl concedes, and notes that, financially, a dog trainer has got to win to succeed. “But I get so excited watching a young dog work like that,” he says. “Or even an old dog. Even with Fiddler’s Pride when he got to be nine or ten, there was always people coming to the place saying ‘We want to see Ol’ Joe run!’ And we’d turn him a-loose and he’d go down through there doing his thing, and it’d just put your heart up in your mouth. And unless you love a bird dog, you won’t know what I’m talking about.”
Rayl tells a story about a time they worked dogs on Cherokee Plantation. “We averaged finding a covey of birds every four minutes,” he says. “That evening we were sitting around talking and they asked daddy, said, ‘Mr. Bill, what do you think of our place here?’ And daddy kind of set back in the chair and looked at them and said, ‘Well, about all I can tell you is, if I was down here working on this place they could just build a conveyor belt and I’d stay out there and work dogs, and whenever I got one broke I’d send him back in and they could send me another one out.’ And that was a man that did love what he was doing!”
Economic considerations, shortage of available grounds, liability issues, animal rights activists and a host of other obstacles challenge the life and integrity of our field trial heritage. Rayl is hopeful but realistic about the future of the sport. “I believe it will endure because it will evolve,” he says. “I don’t think we’ve seen the bottom yet. I think we will probably see some rougher times in the next few years, and it’s just my opinion but I think we’re going to all have to get together and sit down and say, ‘If we’re going to make it better, we’re going to have to start doing something.’ We need to try to get some rules and regulations going, things to help the trainers. But that’s a whole other book!”
Rayl encourages young trainers trying to break into the business, but he does not sugar-coat his advice. “It’s a tough life right now with the economy the way it’s been the last few years. And you need so much in the way of equipment and grounds. Unless you have somebody backing you, just to jump in cold would be an awful tough way to go.” His suggestion to would-be pros is to hang onto your paycheck and benefits for a while. Start out working a couple of gun dogs or amateur dogs, go to the weekend trials and build up a clientele. “Like any other business, start out small and just take it a day at a time.”
“Because there is one thing about bird dogs and field trials that will take the place of money or anything. Of course, I know that it won’t feed the kids, or send ‘em to college, and it won’t make the wife real happy. But if you will stick with it, it is the best sport. To be a dog trainer, and go out there and make your own dogs, doing everything like that, I’ve been at it for 33 years and I can look back on it and say it’s been one heck of a wonderful life.”
Barbara Teare’s interview first appeared in the 2004 Winter edition of Field Trial Magazine.
Barbara Teare, reporting the 2011 Alabama Shooting Dog Championship, Union Springs, AL. We are proud to add Barbara to our list of Contributors. Her bio is available on the Contributors page.
Photos courtesy Field Trial Magazine and The American Field Publishing.