Hard Driving Bev: Interview with Trainer, Joe McCarl
Hard Driving Bev and owner/trainer Joe McCarl are the only dog/handler team in history to have won all three national championships on ruffed grouse — by many considered the king of game birds. This past spring Bev added the National Grouse & Woodcock Invitational to her decisive wins of the National Amateur Grouse and Grand National Grouse Championships. Bev is one of those dogs who always poses a threat. She is a consistent performer, both in her strong, forward ground application and in her uncanny ability to dig up grouse when other dogs come up empty. The venue Joe most loves to show her and where she has won several times, is the big pole timber country of the Allegheny National Forest near Marienville, Pennsylvania. Grouse are scarce and a dog must reach out to seek objectives. Only a powerful, stylish running dog can capture a judge’s eye on those grounds. Bev’s amazing ability to accurately locate and handle grouse at Marienville and elsewhere make her a truly remarkable competitor. It was thrilling to watch Bev win the Invitational this past spring and easy to see why Joe is so fond of her.
CM: You bred Bev yourself, leasing a female and breeding her to a male you had worked several times and seen perform. What did you see in those dogs that made you try the breeding?
JM: I leased a female from Paul Horchen and bred her to Jeb’s V.D. Both were out of a talented dog named Van Mac and were above average grouse dogs in the sense that they knew where to look and how to go to and handle their game.
CM: There were only two pups. You kept the male and sold the female (Bev), then bought her back two years later. What were the circumstances that lead to that?
JM: The male I kept was an exceptional bird dog — a big, strong running dog that was already handling grouse out on a limb as a derby. Unfortunately he lacked the running style needed to win at the top level. It turned out Bev had been too much dog for the man I sold her to. He was afraid to turn her loose. Apparently, she had broken her chain twice and was found tangled up in the woods. He lost her on a trip to Kansas too. Fortunately for me, he found her. He got in touch with me when she was about two and asked if I wanted her back. Of course I was interested in seeing her. When I got to his place, he turned her loose and as she ran off, I saw her footspeed, power and style so I took her home.
CM: So you had Bev back in your kennel and she pretty much had no training or exposure to birds. How did you proceed?
JM: The first thing I did was bring her in the house and let her ride on the front seat of the truck everywhere I went. I wanted to establish a close bond with her. I thought I was probably going to have to come down pretty hard on her if she was a run-off. Actually, I found out she really wanted to work with me, I just had to show her what I wanted. The only thing I had to come down hard on her for was chasing deer, a habit she may have picked up while with her former owner. I knew I had to deal with it because deer are everywhere she would be hunting grouse. Unless she got over it completely, I didn’t have a prospect. I waited for the right opportunity, which came just before the 2002 National Amateur Grouse Championship while I was working dogs with Jerry Kolter. She took off after deer and I got on her with the electric collar. I didn’t have a choice. She was either going to get hurt or lost chasing deer or she was going to work with me. She finished the session under the truck. A few days later she was the National Amateur Grouse Champion. Obviously I was relieved to see that she decided to work with me. She’s never run trash again. As far as handling and breaking on game, I just needed to show her what I wanted…she was a snap.
CM: Can you talk a little bit about your notion of a great grouse trial dog and how you developed Bev on the ground and around game?
JM: I think a great grouse trial dog should have what any great trial dog should have: drive, style, endurance and intelligence. I do not like freewheelers — dogs that run all over hell because they are not trained. Some people are afraid to shorten a dog and make it handle for fear it will not run again. I believe good dogs must have the mental toughness to accept training or they won’t be consistent performers. In my experience, you don’t have to teach the good ones to run, you have to teach them to handle. If the dog doesn’t do it right when it’s close to you, it won’t be doing it right when it’s out there.
Bev was on the 50 yard program for about a year. She learned to turn to the outside and that I wanted her to run to the front. She was easy around game, always wanting to pin her birds without making them fly. I just gave her a lot of opportunity on grouse to perfect that. It’s critical to let the dog figure out how to handle game. After all, I can’t smell the bird so how can I tell the dog where to stop? I have had some judges tell me they don’t like a dog self-relocating before the flush. I disagree, I want the dog pinning the bird, not pointing where it was feeding a few minutes ago and suffering an unproductive.
CM: What problems, if any, did you have with her development?
JM: I really didn’t have any big problems. Being a smart dog, she tried to exit some training situations but quickly discovered she couldn’t and just accepted it.
CM: I’ve heard you say many times that intelligence is one of her strongest characteristics. In what ways does she show you that and would you say that’s what makes her such a great grouse dog?
JM: Absolutely. Besides her ability to handle birds, Bev shows her intelligence through her choice of objectives and how she covers the ground getting to those objectives. And she keeps my whereabouts in mind not wasting steps coming back to me. When she needs to make a big move, she knows how to show up way out front. When it’s hot and dry, she’ll tone it down a notch, whatever it takes to get the job done.
Bev easily adapts to different country, different conditions and different game birds. I train in the woods, on the prairie and in west Texas and she is a savvy bird finder in all three places. It seems her mission in life is to go point birds for me no matter where we are. I think the good ones are driven by birds. Bev runs plenty big but is always directed to finding birds.
CM: This spring, she ran hour heats on four consecutive days, winning the Invitational and competing in the Pennsylvania trial. I thought she was stronger the last three days. She has quite a motor. Describe how she is built.
JM: She’s about 42 lbs. in shape. She’s short coupled with a very strong front and rear. I am not an authority on how dogs are put together but if they are fluid, move easy and get stronger as they go, I would say they are put together right. Bev is seven and going strong. I think that’s a good indication too.
CM: What was the defining moment in her life that gave you the absolute confidence that you had an exceptional competitor, not just a good one?
JM: It had to be the performance she put on at the Grand National Grouse Championship. To me, that was as close to perfect as a dog can get.
CM: What was Bev’s first major win?
JM: The National Amateur Grouse Championship in 2002. It was run in Marienville very late that fall, I think mid-November. Grouse were very hard to come by. Bev was a little rough handling the first 30 minutes but after her bracemate was picked up at the half, she settled in to her typical big forward pattern. Her find was in the last cutting on the course. With just minutes left, she worked a running grouse from one end of that cut to the other and pinned it in a little pocket of beech trees. It was a hell of a piece of work. She has won a lot of trials pinning running grouse that way. Not many dogs can do that and I don’t know of any that can do it as well as Bev.
CM: The following year, she won the Grand National Grouse Championship with a superb race, topping a field of 85.
JM: Bev gave me a once in a lifetime performance. The course we drew is the most wide open one at Marienville. In November there is almost no cover on it. Bev was off the bell most of the hour but showed every three or four minutes, crossing the front. Every time I looked out front and thought to myself “a dog crossing that ridge would be pretty,” Bev would be right there, crossing that ridge! Her race was extreme but never once did I have the feeling I was going to loose her. The two times she did not show, we found her on birds. Her first find was at about 30 minutes. I watched her cross right to left about 300 yards out and knew she was heading to a birdy spot. After a few minutes, when she didn’t show, I figured she was standing. Her bracemate had shortened up and was hanging close. When we got up the course to that birdy spot, she was sent in and knocked and chased a group of four or five grouse. At the same time, we saw Bev standing 20 yards away looking like a bull. She had been there for at least six minutes, never ticked her tail or let down until I went and collared her. On her second find, she took that big bowl toward the end of the course. We saw her go up over the hill 500 yards to the front. When we got to the top of the hill, she was standing and as I was walking toward her, two grouse lifted from right in front of her. I was still 50 yards away when I fired. She never blinked an eye or moved a hair. I had to go over and wake her up after the shot… she was mesmerized! Performances like that are why I keep going. I have only seen two or three in my life but I want to be there the next time it happens.
CM: She went on to win the Ontario Grouse Championship, followed by the Venango Classic in the spring of 2005. The weather was so miserable, you nearly picked her up at the Venango. Talk a little about those two wins.
JM: Bev’s course at the Ontario had a brand new ugly cut in the middle of it. She had the brains and the independence to hunt the edge of that cut the whole way around. It was huge but she never broke her cast off. She capped off her hour with a limb find on a grouse.The Venango, that was something! I remember the rain blowing sideways. I almost scratched Bev, it was so horrible. It’s the only time I can say not having a tracking collar on a dog saved me. She had a nine minute absence on the back turn. I would certainly have called for the Tracker, had she been wearing one. Just as she showed from her absence, she pointed a grouse in that 40 mph wind and rain. I decided to leave her down though it was near impossible handling. I couldn’t hear her bell and she sure couldn’t hear me. Toward the end of the hour, she worked a pair of running grouse 100 yards and pinned them at the edge of a cutting. That pretty much won her the trial.
CM: Her Ontario win lead her to the Invitational. Describe her three days running, again at Marienville?
JM: The first day was solid, a nice forward handling race on one of the tighter courses with a good grouse find at about ten minutes. On the second day, she drew an extremely hilly and rocky course. It’s a difficult one for any dog to run a good hour on but Bev smoked it. Her find was 200 yards off to the right, at the bottom of a ravine. The cover was really thick down there. Jerry Kolter, who was scouting, and I finally found the dog standing facing us. Unknowingly, we had forced the bird to run toward her and as it lifted, it blew into her face. Bev just stood wagging her tail, happy and proud of herself. By this time we were well behind the other handler and dog. When I released Bev, I knew she would get to the front fast causing me a long uphill run. I caught up, regained contact, and she finished extreme and to the front. On day three, the judges wanted to see her on my favorite course at Loletta, the one she won the Grand on. She ate it up…was almost too much dog at times but again pointed a grouse. She was the only dog to point one all three days.
CM: What do you do to keep her competitive, both physically and around game?
JM: I road her and let her have a little free running but not much. Bev thrives on field trials and that is where she shines. She is not special in workouts and is a lot sharper with rest between trials rather than ground down. It takes very little to keep her right on the ground and on her game.
CM: You bred Bev twice. What characteristics were you looking for in the sires that you felt would compliment her?
JM: I bred her first to Frank LaNasa’s all-age champion, Front N’ Center, then to a son of his, Ch. Centerpiece. Both are real nice dogs I have had the opportunity to know first hand. I was looking for physical strength, style, mental toughness and, always, ability on wild birds. I think we have a lot of potential choices in pointer sires. Many people limit themselves to dogs competing in the grouse woods and that’s not very many. For me, it’s important to get out and see other dogs to find sires with the qualities I am looking for. Some of the pups might be wrong or too much for the woods but others will be right.
CM: The first litter will be first year shooting dogs this fall. You have worked some and know all of them. What traits of Bev’s do you see in her offspring?
JM: Happily, I am seeing her composure around game, her honesty and great willingness to work with you. Their drive seems to be geared towards birds. They are finding and handling a lot of birds for young dogs.
CM: Bev had a litter of four pups this spring. Three have gone to other trialers, one is staying with you. I understand she bounced back quickly from both litters. Will you compete with her this fall? What are your future plans for her?
JM: I hope to get a couple more litters from her. And yes, I will campaign her this fall. Bev doesn’t owe me a thing though. If anything, I owe her a great deal. She has taught me what is possible if you are lucky enough to have an animal like her. If I’m real lucky, she’ll give me another one.