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I managed to get back on the line again. Stinker was sitting next to me. The judge asked me if I was ready. I nodded. He signaled with his clip board, and a couple of shots were fired beyond my misty vision. I waited for him to say my number—a nasty trial trick to check if a dog is really steady—and after a pause, the longest in my life, he said 22. Stinker twitched but didn't break. As I reached down trying to remember the conductor-of-a-symphony poise of the gesture, I was horrified to see Stinker was on one side and I was using the opposite hand. Fear made me exaggerate and I reached way down and back as though I was bowling for a spare. At least I impressed Stinker because she saw my hand, realized my mistake and dashed around behind me—almost knocking me over—and nailed her bird without putting a foot wrong. When the judge reminded me I had another bird, I realized I had never seen it. I sent Stinker anyway, but she was in the same boat as I was and just disappeared. The judge excused me from the line.
This harrowing day will always stand out in my memory as a turning point. There were several things which had previously dawned on me but I had refused to succumb. I had had to admit that both Vance and Jay were wonderful guys, but nothing had forced me to be any more than polite about their ability. Of course, this was practiced stubbornness on my part and not based on any logic. I'll admit it.
Suddenly I began to see—and accept—the fact that the professionals, such as Vance and Jay, are past masters at the game. There is no substitute for the ability to be able to sense the temperament and I.Q. of an individual dog; to know the things you, yourself, can do—and shouldn't do—with a dog whose characteristics are those of the dog in question. And there is no substitute for experience to build this ability. I don't care how many books you read. Sure, there's the quality X which makes you have dog insight, and something which makes dogs like and respect you just as horses will run for some jocks. And the books can cover the fundamentals, but the difference between the old pro and the amateur is something.
I mention Vance and Jay because they are typical, though not necessarily cast from the same mold, and because I happen to know them better than any of the rest. And I stress the professionals because, by devoting all their time, they are able to be the top handlers.
They all have a love of the outdoors, wing shooting and dogs. Invariably one really good dog got them started. It's hard work—they got into the game because they loved it, not because they thought they could make a. living having fun with a minimum of work.
Jay Sweezey is 32. He looks like a ballplayer, big, rugged and healthy. He comes from Oceanside on Long Island, where he was always crazy about gunning. He owned a female Lab, Honker, who showed a lot of potential. It was only natural that he wanted to see how she'd stack up with other retrievers so he started running her. At this time he was still going to college and selling nursery stock. Jay was young and cocky; looking back, he says now, "I thought she could do it with little or no training, but I soon learned otherwise." Henry Sears saw in Jay the man he wanted to handle his dogs and run his shooting place in Maryland, and Jay's character probably had as much to do with Mr. Sears's choice as did Jay's ability as a handler.
Vance Morris, on the other hand, runs a public kennel. Anyone with a prospect can get Vance's help, but the pessimistic odds of ever having a dog win the 10 points to become a Field Trial Champion is one of the first things Vance will tell a newcomer. He doesn't paint a rosy picture. Yet, in the 14 years he has been training, Vance has missed running in the National only once.
These men are keenly competitive yet they have some wonderful unwritten laws. Even during a trial there is an intense loyalty between them; they think nothing of giving each other hints. Perhaps a tricky wind current baffled their dog, and the man they warn might be taking the very dog on the line that could beat them. They're fast friends, they'll train together, share something new that they've learned, and often stay with each other if one lives in the neighborhood of a trial.
You couldn't paint a composite owner, but one thing they have in common with the pros is an almost ecstatic pleasure in watching a good dog run. Even when I was completely ignorant I had to admit to myself that the easy competence of a good dog, comparable to natural athletes making the rough ones look easy, was a thrill provoker. And when the older dogs start to handle—take hand signals, stop on a single whistle blast, then take the new direction to a hidden bird while their handlers are sometimes 200 yards away—well, it's unbelievable.
The owners are people from all walks of life who accepted this challenge: "Could I do that? And where would I find a dog that could do that?" Most of them can afford it, but there are many who have to scrimp and save to pay the entrance fees and the traveling expenses. There is no financial gain unless you are terribly lucky and your dog's tremendous reputation brings you in something for stud fees, plus the sale of a few of his pups. But any dog's life is comparatively short, so this angle doesn't amount to much. However, there's a policeman, a truck driver and a barber running dogs who could easily earn their Field Trial Championship.