Billy and the Field Trial

This dog was born to hunt, with or without you.

by David Gowdey

He was born in April in the middle of a high-mountain snow storm. His mother, Annchen, was taking a break from delivering her first and only litter, when she asked to go into the backyard and relieve herself. As she stooped down, out popped Billy into the snow.

I rescued him immediately, holding him inside my shirt against my body to keep him warm and shield his still wet body from the falling snowflakes. I took him quickly into the warmth of the whelping box, where Annchen soon followed and licked him clean. Once that was finished, he snuggled in with the other pups none the worse for wear. I didn’t know it at the time, but as he plopped into the snow, he also plopped into my heart, where he still holds a place years after his death.

I named him Wilhelm von Geldie as befit the most recent offspring of a noble line of hunting dogs. However, such a moniker was way too long and formal for a little pup, so he became Billy. After a few weeks, after they get big enough, all shorthair puppies begin to peek over the edge of the whelping box at the big, wide world. Some do so when Mom steps out of the box to stretch her legs—worried that she might not return. Others do so even when Mom is in the box with them—looking with curiosity at a whole world laid before them. Of these explorers, the bolder ones will be the ones that first try to “go over the wall.” It always happens sooner than I expect. I’ll check in to find the head count one puppy short, recount, and then notice the culprit tugging at my shoestrings.

From that point onward, you are fighting a losing battle in keeping the pups in the whelping box. Raising the sides may buy you a few days or a week, but at some point, your Houdini will climb over, and by showing the way, train his brothers and sisters to do the same. There is a certain point where the whole thing looks like a mass jailbreak—with inmates scaling the walls and running in all directions. Billy was the first in his litter to clamber over the box sides, a natural ringleader. I had kept Billy and his sister Rosie from the litter. As is common with female GSPs, Rosie progressed faster in her training. She was a solid pointer and an excellent retriever at a time when Billy was still gangly and short of attention.

However, the one thing that was notable about Billy, even early on, was his nose, which was well above average. He would pick up the scent of birds or retrieving dummies from much farther away than Rosie—even though Rosie was an excellent hunter with a nose that would be called outstanding by most. At six months, she was a solid young hunting dog that held her points and was a reliable retriever—while Billy still had a lot of puppy in him. Three months later Billy had not only caught up, but that nose made him an even more effective hunting dog than his sister.

He had grown into a beautiful, strapping young shorthair—long of leg, powerful hindquarters, a strong neck, and deep chest. Strangers used to comment on how handsome he was. He was also a sweet dog—happy to sleep on my lap and chest, gently snoring in my ear. In addition to looks and natural talent, he was also smart as a whip. He had the whole package, and there were times when I thought about his potential, it made me short of breath. He was well on his way toward being the kind of dog that experienced bird hunters dream about, but we still had a bump or two to overcome.

For a few weeks in his second summer, Billy hit the terrible twos like a moth hits a windshield—full speed and straight on. He temporarily developed a belief that he did not need me to be involved in the whole “hunting thing” in order for him to get a bird. He was convinced that if he rushed in fast enough, he could catch them himself.

I inadvertently started the problem by taking him to a shooting preserve where we hunted pen-raised pheasants. These were foolish birds and easy marks. At some point in the day, Billy lost his head, rushed in and grabbed a bird before it could fly. Before we left, he did it another time. At that point, a lightbulb went on in his head. He believed he had this hunting thing all figured out—and I was irrelevant to it. He soon became Billy the bird-bumping bonehead, trying my patience for most of the summer.

I spent months of training to try and teach him not to bust his birds. I trained him to whoa reliably with a place board, then began working him with check cords, as the books said—correcting him if he ignored the whoa command and tried to bust a bird. There were plenty of times I got rope burns fighting against his desire to rush in on that bird. Gradually we made progress. It got to where he would reliably whoa on command from a full run. I thought we had it licked. In July, when he was 15 months old, I decided to put his training to the test. I entered him in a walking field trial run by the National Shoot to Retrieve Association. This is a trial format that was created by hunters. In each brace, two dogs work a specific quail-stocked field, roughly 40 acres in size, for a half hour. The dogs are expected to find and point their birds staunchly, and then retrieve to hand after the gunner flushes and shoots the bird.

They are judged primarily on the number of birds they point and retrieve, and their style in doing so. On the day of the trial, scenting conditions were awful. It was early July and the forest was bone dry. The temperature was in the 80s and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Not a drop of rain had fallen for more than three months, and fire restrictions had been in effect since May. The grass was brown and dry, standing stiffly against a hot, dry breeze that felt as though it were coming from a blow dryer. You could almost feel the breeze sucking the moisture out of your body and everything it touched. Every time the hooves of the judges’ horses hit the ground, a cloud of dust would rise to be blown, swirling across the field.

Our brace was scheduled just before lunch, and by the time our turn came, eight experienced dogs had found and pointed only two birds all morning. When the judge blew the whistle and I released Billy, he raced off searching for a bird as though he had been doing this all his life. About five minutes into the brace, Billy locked up on point. My chest swelled with pride as I walked toward him to flush the bird. I congratulated myself that the training had paid off and we had finally put the bird bumping behind us. He looked spectacular on point, the picture of focus and intensity. I thought to myself,

Only two birds have been found all morning, and here my dog has found one after just a few minutes. We could win this thing—his very first trial!

Then reality intervened. As I came up to flush the quail, Billy broke his focus on the bird, turned his head, and looked me straight in the eye. If he’d had fingers, he would have been flipping me the middle one. His message was clear, Screw your whoa training, there’s no check cords here. He then turned back, leaped in and busted the bird, and chased it yipping like a toy poodle as it flew out of bounds. It took me a while to call him back and get him hunting again. I could hear some murmuring and snickers from the gallery. I thought, All right, any dog can make one mistake. No reason to worry. He soon found another bird, locked on point—and repeated the same scenario. At this point, he was attracting plenty of amused attention from the crowd, and the chuckles had turned to outright laughter. My face began to turn red from embarrassment.

As it turned out, Billy did this four times during the brace—somehow finding birds in those terrible conditions, stopping and locking up on a beautiful point, holding staunchly until I got near, and then each time flipping me off and busting the bird. I could have strangled him. By the last bird, the crowd was roaring with laughter. As we walked off the field, Billy with a big smile on his face, one of the judges rode up to me and rubbed some salt in the wounds. “You know, you’ve got a pretty nice dog. He found four birds which would have put him in first place if he’d held point. You might want to see about training him.”

Fortunately, Billy’s propensity for busting birds ended in November when we had a chance to hunt wild quail. They soon taught him that he had no chance of catching one all by himself. He redeemed himself by turning into an amazing hunting dog— one of the best I’ve ever seen. His performance in the hunting field became legendary, and he never intentionally busted a bird again. For my part, I never ran him in another field trial.

Dave Gowdey is the author of two books and numerous articles about bird dogs, hunting, and fishing. He currently lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he is bringing along another promising young German shorthair named Axel.