Canines have field day at nationals

OUTDOORS

April 10, 1994|By PETER BAKER

CLEAR SPRING -- A pair of bird dogs move over the top of a small crest from the north. Close behind, handlers follow, whistling and calling, keeping in touch with their singles in the brace of Vizslas. With each handler is a designated shooter, and watching the dogs, the handlers and shooters are judges on horseback.

Ahead of this entourage, the dogs, tails upright, noses close to the ground, work eagerly in a crossing breeze that carries the multiple scents of the day through hedgerows and corn stubble.

The Vizslas -- Hunter and Kilroy, the third brace to work the bird field on Tuesday during the National Bird Dog Championship -- search separate portions of the field and hedgerows, in which chukars have been freshly positioned.

The purpose of this portion of the American Kennel Club's first national championship for bird dogs, which was run Tuesday and Wednesday at the Blair Valley section of the Indian Springs Wildlife Management Area in Washington County, is to demonstrate the dogs' skills as hunters and their responsiveness to the commands of their handler.

For the judges and handlers, there are noticeable quirks in the performance of each dog, all of which have had to pass rigorous tests to qualify for this competition, but the key guidelines from the field trial rules seem to be these:

"The dog must locate game, must point staunchly, and must be steady to wing and shot. Intelligent use of wind and terrain in locating game, accurate nose and style and intensity on point are essential."

Watching Hunter and Kilroy, the dogs separate their areas of corn stubble or hedgerows into sections and work the crosswind and terrain until catching the scent of a chukar and then go on point. The handlers move in to flush the bird, the shooter makes the shot and the dog is then sent to retrieve the kill.

In the 30 minutes allowed each brace in the bird field, championships may be won or lost. But just getting into a competition such as this represents the greater part of the challenge.

Until recently, Jack J. Sharkey was the assistant administrator of the Veterans Administration in Washington. These days, Sharkey retired, and his energies are spent working with Hunter, a 1993 national field champion.

Hunter, properly known as Hodag's Hunter and bred by Hodag Kennels in Huntingtown, Md., has a bloodline that includes nine Vizsla Club of America Hall of Fame dogs in seven generations. Hunter's father and grandfather were master hunters and together they are the first three master hunters in the history of the AKC, Sharkey said.

Although breeding has had a lot to do with Hunter's success in field trials, Sharkey said the regime of training and competition continues to be rigorous for both dog and owner/handler.

Last Saturday, Sharkey and Hunter were in Richmond, Va., for obedience trials, at Fort Eustice on Sunday, Blair Valley Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday for practice and competition, to New Jersey on Friday, Upper Marlboro yesterday and in Richmond again today.

And that travel schedule doesn't include training sessions in the off-seasons of summer and winter, when conditions are either too hot or too cold for competition.

"I try to train the dog at least twice a week," said Sharkey, who lives in Alexandria, Va., and commutes to Southern Maryland for training sessions with his horse and Hunter.

During training, Sharkey said he runs Hunter 30 minutes at full bore and then, on a third day, has the champion pull 15 pounds of chain to build his strength and stamina.

But then there are the two other sides to Hunter, the show dog champion and the prospective champion in the obedience class. So, add a Monday night every week for obedience training.

"He was a master hunter at 2 1/2 ," Sharkey said, "and last May he started in the obedience world. . . . There has been only one other sporting breed ever that was a triple champion -- show field and obedience -- so that is our goal, to make Hunter a triple champion."

Hunter has an unusual side as well, a side that befuddles Sharkey at times.

"Hunter, right from the git go, he looked like crap in training," Sharkey said. "But you put him down on the course with another dog and he senses competition. He goes.

"People who watch him don't believe it. If you watch him in training and then watch in the competition, they say that is a different dog. He gets me so angry because I try to push him, but he won't push."

The travels of Sharkey and Hunter are not unlike those of other dogs and handlers. They can compete somewhere in the country on almost any given day.

John Books of Fulton, for instance, has been involved with dogs and the Conestoga Vizsla Club of Clarksville for many years and has trained two dual champions.

On Tuesday, Books was settingbirds in the hedgerows and corn stubble.

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