Passing The Torch
“We cannot hold a torch to light another’s path without brightening our own.”
March of 2003 found me in Phoenix, Arizona sitting across the desk from a man I considered one of “the best in the business”. I had come with my 2-year-old dog hoping to learn some of the finer points of the breaking/steadying process. Not only how to fully steady a dog, but how to do it while leaving all the God-given style and talent intact. While I sat there I wondered …what makes a man, a professional in every sense of the word, take time out of his busy schedule to help someone like me, a beginner?? What makes him treat me like an old friend, even though our only conversations up to that point had been over the phone? What makes such a talented man willingly and freely give advice and help to someone who will never be able to reciprocate?
As we talked into the evening, my questions were unknowingly answered as Bill Gibbons related an early conversation he had with the late Bill West, the man who had been such a help and inspiration to him for so many years. Bill West advised him to always remain willing to help others, giving of his time, knowledge and experience to those who sincerely wanted to learn. If he would do that, Mr. West said, he would always have a full kennel and more business than he could accommodate. In the years since, I’ve come to realize Bill Gibbons and others like him embody something vital, something that is absolutely essential if we are to ensure the success and longevity of our sport — experienced, effective mentors.
Given the steep learning curve associated with field trialing, there is nothing more valuable than having somebody to help you along, to sustain and support you, someone to really TEACH you. While I’ve been blessed by the influence of many good people, four remarkable individuals have been the difference between merely dabbling in the sport and my wanting to embrace it for a lifetime.
What an amazing experience it was to have those days with Bill out in the Arizona desert! Prior to that I’d spent many hours reading books and articles, had countless exchanges of email and phone conversations with other trainers and put in numerous hours with my dog out in the field. I learned a great deal from all of them and was under the impression that I had a pretty good grasp of the fundamentals, in other words, I didn’t know how much I didn’t know! Once I saw the method employed by someone who had spent years honing and perfecting his craft, I was instantly humbled and somewhat embarrassed by my previous perspective.
One of the most important principles I learned from Bill has colored every dog training experience since then: “You don’t have to be hard on a dog or talk to a dog to break a dog.” Watching Bill use a checkcord is visual poetry. Wary birds and effective use of the checkcord will tell the dog all it needs to know about the “rules of the game”, no spoken words are necessary. He handles a checkcord the way a master fly fisherman handles a fly rod, patiently playing the “line”, knowing exactly when to pull back and exactly when to let a little more out. Bill is a gifted teacher of both dogs and people. I have found that to be a rare combination; usually people are good at one or the other, but rarely both. Training with him was like having a foreign language interpreter in the field with me, giving a running commentary on what was unfolding before us. He told me what the dog was thinking and why; he also told me what he was doing and why. The Japanese proverb, “Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day with a great teacher”, was certainly true for me!
Some of the best help often comes from unexpected sources. Maurice Lindley is a professional trainer in South Carolina. I have never met him in person but we have exchanged hundreds of emails over the past 7 years. Our acquaintance, along with correspondence through a couple of select dog training forums/groups have been a priceless addition to my bird dog knowledge. Maurice has been a cheerleader, counselor, and confidante. I’ve been taught about patience as well as perseverance, humility and humor; I’ve learned it’s possible to be successful and self-effacing at the same time. Most importantly, Maurice has taught me to love the process as much as the product.
Dog training and learning the nuances of field trials are complex and comprehensive undertakings; rarely does progress come in a straight line. At those times, it is comforting to have someone telling you everything will be okay, to keep trying, things will get better. Every time I was ready to give up, ready to quit competing or at least send my dog off to a “real” trainer, Maurice was telling me to stay the course.
One such occasion was after the 2006 National Amateur Chukar All Age Championship in Idaho. In the days leading up to the trial, I was full of anticipation, sure that I had my dog right where she needed to be. The sleepless nights, the hours and hours of preparation, training and conditioning were finally going to pay off. Although nervous, I couldn’t wait to turn my young dog loose! Anyone who has ridden behind all age dogs at Mile Post 9 knows that stable footing is precarious, even under the best of conditions. Add an incredibly wet spring, frigid temperatures, and belly-deep mud and you’ve got a situation where handling and scouting become a very tough affair. Soon after the breakaway, as I watched the last remnant of the dog’s tail whip over the ridgeline, I knew I was in big trouble! Within a matter of minutes, my perfectly prepared dog turned into a deaf, mindless renegade who looked as if she’d never had a day of training in her short life (which would have gotten shorter had I been able to catch her!). The next 55 minutes were pure torture. My husband wore out two horses trying to scout as I rode the course trying to act like I knew what I was doing and keep my composure. Oh, we saw the dog every now and then…a tiny white speck, bouncing among the treacherous cliffs high above us and hopelessly out of reach. After the brace was over and the field trial party had long since ridden on, I was able to coax the dog down, slip her into the roading harness and head back to camp. It was a dismal ride.
The next day, my hopes dashed and my ego bruised, I made my way home in disgrace and was ready to throw in the proverbial tracking collar. What had gone wrong? How does one more thoroughly prepare? How long would it be before my dog actually finished under judgment? As expected, Maurice’s advice was to keep working hard and eventually the pieces would come together. He encouraged me to look at the performance without emotion and then analyze the weak points (pretty much everything!) and the strong points (like the dog was in great shape!). He has never allowed me to wallow in disappointment or discouragement. Get back out there and do better the next time! That’s great advice for field trials and life.
A few years into my field trial pursuits, I met someone who would change the way I looked at bird dogs in general and field trials in particular. Glen Wiese was the first judge I ran under in an AFTCA trial. Little did I know then that the man judging my derby dog would become a trusted friend and influential teacher, a true mentor. Since that day, we have spent many hours riding behind bird dogs, both at trials and in training. He’s taught me that a good hunting dog is wonderful, that a good trial dog is special, but the kind of dog that can be highly successful at both is what our sport should be about.
Glen has impressed upon me the critical role wild birds play in a dog’s development. In the back of my mind, I can hear him saying, “Nothing will make a bird dog like time on wild birds”; “A few days on wild birds is more valuable than 10 times that on pen raised birds”, and “They have to be bird dogs FIRST!” These words of wisdom have completely reshaped how I want to start a young dog and finish an older one.
Crisp fall mornings and the warming afternoons of spring nudge my memory back to the times I’ve risen well before dawn and made the 2-hour drive to meet Glen so we could run our dogs together. As trucks and trailers rattle to the end of the gravel road, horses shift and dogs whine in anticipation. I sit silently for a moment, looking up into the sage-covered hills of this majestic valley. Early fall will find Hungarian partridge and sharptailed grouse cast about the countryside in distant coveys. Late spring will find paired huns holding well for points, and sharptails being beckoned back to their leks. No matter the time of year, we are confident that the master instructors – wild birds, will be governing this classroom. We cannot teach our dogs how to hunt or where to find birds; we cannot teach them what birds smell like or how they act. Nor can we teach them how close or far away to point, as each situation is different and dependent upon a thousand factors that we will never understand. The best we can hope for is to witness the moment when instinct encounters opportunity; then our hearts skip a beat at the glimpse of a tail thrust skyward, body motionless in tense anticipation of the flush and shot. Glen is right; this is how real bird dogs are made.
I eagerly listen as renowned trainers, dogs, and trials of a by gone era are recalled and I recognize that the retelling is a gift. As a judge, Glen has always been more concerned with what a dog does right, than what it does wrong…I believe that’s called “positive judging”. He’s constantly looking for the performance that inspires. He’s thrilled by a dog that makes us strain to sit a little taller in the saddle for fear we will miss something grand. Because of his example, I’ve come to better understand what “Slightly flawed brilliance should triumph over perfect mediocrity” really means.
Of all the wisdom Glen has imparted, perhaps the most enduring will be the belief that learning is a life-long endeavor. More than three decades my senior; competing, reporting and judging across the country and up into Canada; over 150 placements and a handful of championships under his belt, Glen Wiese still considers himself a student. Ironically, those who have the most to boast about, seldom do. Their true influence is manifest in the success of others.
For me, one of the greatest thrills in field trialing is watching a championship performance. Sometimes that performance is not rewarded with being named champion but I will never forget the good ones, no matter how the judging shakes out. At first glance, it appears that the dog is doing everything on his own…he runs the course intelligently, he shows in the right place at the right time, and he handles his game with style and proficiency. But if you dig a little deeper and especially once you start trying to do it yourself, it becomes painfully obvious that a lot more goes into that kind of performance than first meets the eye. How does the dog know when to hang close and when to roll? How does he know when it’s okay to be out of sight and when he needs to show? How does he seem to know exactly where he is on the course and how to consistently find the front?? The answer to those questions and many more can be summed up in one word – Handler!
A good field trial handler is a unique craftsman. He takes superior genetics and sound training and blends them into performing art. No matter how
gifted the dog, he will never reach his potential without a good handler. The 2005 Christmas edition of the American Field contains an insightful article written by Neil Mace entitled, “Trainer, Handler, Scout: Which are you?” Characterizing the role of handler, Mr. Mace observed: “There is a calmness about the best handlers, not unlike that seen in fighter pilots or professional quarterbacks at the highest level, an assuredness that they are in complete control of uncontrollable events. Not brash or cocky, just true confidence. They, too, must be able to read the dog, think like a dog, have the ability to know what the dog will do before the dog does. Where the trainer is calm, cool and collected, moving slow with exaggerated deliberateness, the best handlers are lightening fast in thought and action. They can determine in a heartbeat to call or wave off a point, to attempt to flush or blow the dog through an area, showing the ability to read a small almost indescribable aspect of a dog’s attitude in the blink of an eye.”
Those words pretty much sum up my impressions as I’ve watched Rich Robertson handle his dogs in championships and again as I saw him running his field trial string this summer on his ranch near Payette, Idaho.
The Robertson Ranch is spread over thousands of acres of some of the West’s most awe-inspiring landscape. Plenty of room to run, tough terrain to negotiate, and four species of wild birds make this an ideal place for field trial dogs; those who don’t have “it” tend to show themselves in short order. Even more enthralling for me was watching one of the country’s most successful All-Age handlers do what he does best in this environment.
If one subscribes to the theory that field trial dogs are supposed to be wildly frantic creatures that are on the edge most of the time, watching Rich Robertson work with his All-Age charges will be an interesting experience. There is no running off or crazy behavior; no cruising through the country with blatant disregard for the handler. If you want to see dogs running a mile out and disappearing over the distant mountains never to be seen again until a tracker or hard-riding scout finds them on point, you’ll be disappointed. What you will see is an incredibly hard-working professional with a group of highly-trained, well-conditioned, classy bird dogs that know how to handle, know how to find birds, and know what to do once they’ve found them. Rich’s talent and work ethic as expressed in his dogs gives us a glimpse into what’s truly behind his winning record. It was an honor to spend a few days running dogs with him. My only regret is that I couldn’t stay longer!
Looking back on my own field trial journey, I realize many people have helped along the way, but those who have taught, encouraged and led by example – the true mentors – have been crucial to my wanting to stay in the game. Without people like Bill Gibbons, Maurice Lindley, Glen Wiese and Rich Robertson, our sport faces an uncertain future. As much as we’d all like to be instant experts, it’s just not possible to gain the necessary knowledge and skill that only comes through years of worn boots and wet saddle blankets, without experienced eyes to look through.
Our profound thanks goes to the Mentors who have inspired, supported, and expanded the vision of so many; ultimately, the breeding, training, and judging of our dogs will reflect those very things. If you have been lucky enough to have people like this in your life, thank them! If not, look for them! And then pass it on. Our future depends on it.
Chukar Hunting Territory, Utah
Glen Wiese goes in for the flush
Rich Robertson working dogs on the Robertson Ranch, Payette, Idaho
Kim’s pointer, Daisy, nails a chukar!