The smile on Francois van der Walt’s face says it all. His bird dog Bonnie casts gracefully through the knee-high veld, back and forth like a fast-speed windscreen wiper, nose high in search of scent. The white and liver-freckled pointer puts on a dazzling show. Suddenly, the galloping gundog slams to a halt and wheels into the breeze. She wags her tail and wiggles her haunches. The intoxicating scent of game wafts up her nose and triggers a frenetic response. Dogs like Bonnie live for moments like this… to hunt, find birds and please their owners.
“She’s making game,” Francois shouts in bird-dog parlance.
Bonnie weaves delicately through the high grass and builds with excitement until she marks the squatting bird and anchors to a crouched point. Francois creeps ahead of the quivering dog, flushes the stooping Francolin and pops off a blank round of gunfire.
The proud handler turns, flashes a quick smile at the judges, releases Bonnie to find another bird and continues his march through the veld. A gallery of observers and fellow dog handlers follow along at the central region British Breed bird-dog field trial.
All about the dog work
Francois owns the Classic Arms Gun Store in Witbank, but reserves full passion for training and trialling his six German shorthair pointers. We click immediately at our first meeting. He regales me with tales of great dog work and seems eager to show me. It doesn’t take long to earn an invite.
“I’m running my dogs in a British Breed (BB) event in a few weeks. We don’t shoot the birds. It’s all about dog work. Why don’t you come and see?”
South Africa’s National Field Trial Association sponsors two types of trials for pointing dogs. The HPR (Hunt, Point, Retrieve) trials simulate actual hunting conditions while BB trials focus on dog work. Game birds are saluted with a blank round of gunfire, never killed. Both tests are held on country farms where wild Francolin and Guineafowl flourish.
I agree to meet Francois in the Free State farmland near Klerksdorp to observe the BB field trial hosted by the Central Field Trial Club. Dogs of British heritage, such as English pointers and English, Irish, Gordon and Llewellyn setters are tested, but exceptions have been made at the club level for non-British pointing breeds, such as German shorthair pointers.
No breaking. No chasing.
I arrive on the second trial day, greeted warmly by event organiser Deon Jordaan. He tells me Francois is already in the field but takes time to explain the BB format. Dogs, handlers, gallery and judges walk the fields in a large group, handlers taking turns to run two dogs in a brace for a duration of 15 minutes, under the observation of a judge.
The judges look for a wide range of faults and positive behaviours and, after each heat, the judges decide which dogs performed the best and advance them to the next heat, until a winner prevails. Deon says 32 dogs are competing in this trial.
“It’s the open class today and these dogs are fully trained,” he tells me. “Some already qualified for the Nationals.” Fully trained dogs hunt smart and with grace, use the wind to advantage, find, point and remain steady while the handler approaches and flushes the bird from its cover.
A fully trained, ‘finished’ dog must remain steady and in place at the sound of gunfire. No breaking. No chasing. A high-end bird dog will visually recognise the point of another dog and back it with a point of its own. Training to this level requires time, knowledge, patience and dedication.
The relationship between dog and handler
Francois appears on the horizon followed by a group of dogs, handlers and observers. They return to the staging area to enjoy late-morning tea. (The BB field trial is steeped in tradition and the British influence is palpable.) Francois greets me but rushes to water and rest his dogs during the social hour.
I mingle with the friendly group of bird-dog enthusiasts and meet Jaco Moolman and his wife, Rosemary Parr, from Centurion, Gauteng, who have been field trialling their English setters in BB events for 20 years. They own seven setters and have three with them, two freckled light-brown and another white and black, all beautifully feathered in flowing, silky locks.
They tell me field trialling enriches their lives because of the beautiful places to which it takes them and, of course, the wonderful relationships they develop with people, dogs and the great outdoors. Rosemary says their dogs are part of the family, house dogs when not working.
I ask what makes a great field trial dog. “The relationship between dog and handler is most important,” Jaco says, and describes the love and trust that develops over time.
A rinkhals in the grass
Soon, we are off to the field for another round of dog work. I keep pace with Francois and another of his dogs named Cleo. We cross a series of fences and enter a fallow field of knee-high broom grass to await his turn. A brace of dogs sweeps the field ahead of us and disappears over a hill. The sound of a blank gun tells us at least
one dog made a point.
“I have been involved with various breeds of working dogs for 35 years, the last ten running pointers in field trials,” Francois tells me, as we stand idle in the field. He begins to reminisce about a special dog, his first German shorthair pointer (GSP). Francois bought the male pup from Texas, USA, out of prime field-trial stock, for R60000.
“Friends called me crazy,” he says, “so I named the dog Dollar.” The strapping, hard-charging GSP became a top trial dog and Francois bred him several times to develop his current line of pointing dogs. Unfortunately, Dollar died much too young. “I cried my eyes out,” Francois says.
I ask more about Dollar and the dog man wells up with emotion. Fortunately, he is saved from further heartache when called to the front line. He sprints enthusiastically ahead of the gallery to run Cleo for the judges.
I try to follow but get diverted by one of the field marshals. A rinkhals is spotted in the grass, and the gallery loops away from the action. I take the detour in the company of Rachel Pretorius, a young dog handler from Cathcart in the Eastern Cape. She, too, awaits word from the judges to showcase her two beautiful Irish setters, Sniper and Ruger. I ask why she selected the Irish breed.
“I went for the pretty dogs,” she says simply, and explains that they are out of strong, Swedish hunting stock. The red setters nuzzle Rachel as she talks, the affection between them evident.
No kill events
Rachel tells me she had an early interest in training field dogs but never wanted to kill birds. “But I learned that British Breed trials are no-kill events and decided to get involved.” We follow a farm lane and drop over a hill when they call Rachel to the line. She disappears over another hill and a few moments later I hear a gunshot. I hope her dog performed well.
We gather for lunch at a nearby farmhouse and I catch up with Francois. He has spent a busy morning running dogs in both earlier heats. I cannot help but ask why he remains overly passionate about field trialling.
“I enjoy good dog work, a dog’s passion to hunt and the intrigue of training them.”
He tells me every dog is different, and training methods must always be adjusted. Handlers unwilling to adapt will always have trouble. “It’s not simple, you know.”
Francois prefers German shorthair pointers because they have been bred to retrieve. He considers it a bonus. The dog man also prefers a special type of these pointers, one with “lots of drive”.
I look across the crowd of dog people socialising during the lunch hour and cannot help but notice the presence of their dogs. Some lie at the feet of their owners, some are getting pats and hugs, and others lounge nearby. The dogs appear equally comfortable charging breakneck through the fields or basking in the company of their owners.
It’s plain to see that the desire to run big, hunt hard and love deeply course through the bloodlines of the British breeds. I cannot help but think these dogs and their owners have been dealt a perfect hand… the royal flush.