The goal of our kennel is to produce, train and campaign English Setter cover dogs that meet the standards of The Grand National Grouse Championship, The Grand National Grouse Futurity and The Grand National Grouse Puppy Classic.
For more than three decades we have stayed true to this mission. Other directions that our program might have taken were set aside so that we would not be distracted from this challenge. As two amateurs, we don’t have the time or money to venture into other directions with our kennel. Striving toward the goal of meeting the Grand National standards is demanding enough of our resources, so we keep to this singular focus.
WHAT WE ARE NOT ABOUT
We don’t breed pups for the general public. We have only one or two litters per year with the goal of producing dogs that can measure up to The Grand National standards in mind.
We don’t develop and sell started or broke dogs for the general public.
We don’t seek to breed a certain color of dog. It’s hard enough to progress toward the Grand National standards without setting up an arbitrary and unproductive criteria such as color as a part of the standard. While gunners might prefer a certain color for their dog that lounges near the hearth or rides in the pickup seat next to them, it’s not a criteria used in judging cover dog performances, and we have no interest in a characteristic unless it improves performance.
We don’t seek to breed dogs of a particular specified size. We have not set a minimum or maximum number of pounds that our dogs must weigh. While the standards in other types of bird dog competition run in open fields may require that consistently successful dogs be particularly long-legged, long-bodied and weigh over 60 pounds, the requirements of hunting in top cover dog stakes emphasize quickness, maneuverability, speed, light-footedness and athleticism. It is very difficult for a big dog to exhibit these traits that contribute to making a class impression while hunting in the woods. Our male dogs generally weigh 43-50 pounds. Bitches generally weigh 33-40 pounds.
We don’t train dogs for others. We are two amateurs who have kids, grandkids and sometimes not all the time we would like for our own dogs.
We don’t work with other breeds of cover dogs. We have owned pointers, brits, shorthairs and red setters years ago but over the past twenty-five years, it’s been virtually all English Setter cover dogs.
WHAT WE ARE ABOUT
In a more positive manner, what do we advocate in our kennel operation? The short answer would be all the things sought in a dog that can win a Grand National event. In particular we can note a few things we especially seek in our dogs.
BREEDING GOALS AND TRAITS:
1. We seek a hard hunting dog. A setter that tears the cover apart with speed and efficiency. While a dog must reach to appropriate objectives, range in itself isn’t the quest—whatever the cover presents, near or far, the cover dog ought to be able to adjust his range and hunt it hard.
2. We seek a class dog. Of all the characteristics that we aim for, class in all the dogs we breed/train/campaign is a priority and what we feel identifies and separates our dogs. It’s thrilling for us to hunt behind a jumping, cracky, hard-punching dog who has lots of snap and a smooth gait. When this dog jams onto point with a straight, 11-12 o’clock tail and with its head high, the picture is completed. When there are scores of dogs in a top cover dog competition, we are convinced that it’s the class factor that deservedly gets the judge’s attention and makes the difference as to which dog gets recognized.
3. We seek dogs that like to please. We want our dogs to adopt our agenda, not one of their own.
4. We seek dogs that develop on time and are trainable. Life is too short for us and a dog’s life is too short to have to wait months longer than necessary for a dog to hunt, point and be trained. Intelligence is a key to hunting and training success. With each generation our dogs have moved forward in terms of their inteligence, trainability and early development.
5. We seek dogs who like to hunt naturally out in front. Wire (our kennel’s first dog, 1984 PA Grouse Dog of the Year, 17 wins-39 winners-318 placements) was a dog who was noted for hard and fast hunting and doing it out in front. Some lines of cover dogs have a genetic tendency to loop back and/or hunt to the sides. We have actively sought to continue to produce dogs whose genetic tendency is to hunt forward with the knack of being able to stay in touch with the handler without coming back in. Wire’s influence on this trait continues in our dogs today many generations later.
Part 2. Only dogs that win are the individuals we choose to use in our program. We prefer dogs that distinguish themselves at the national level. Over the years we have been through hundreds of dogs in our kennel. We’ve watched thousands of cover dogs hunt in grouse and woodcock venues across the country. Even with all this experience, we still insist that we compete all the dogs we want to use in our program to prove that they are indeed worthy and up to the standards sought in cover dog trials. We can be kennel blind, as anyone can be. Therefore, we rely on competition to objectively and impartially confirm that a dog is worthy of being a part of our breeding program.
We seek dogs who are bold around their birds–dogs that stick their birds hard. We love dogs who have confidence in themselves and in their handler and are able to take corrections in stride during training. Boldness and wanting to please (#3) are not antipathetic.
BREEDING CHARACTERISTICS AND STRATEGY
After more than thirty years of finding our way forward toward our goal, we have settled on some breeding principles that seem to work well.
1. Stress line breeding. Having been fortunate enough to own some good dogs early in our operation, we established from their gene pool a family of dogs who are interrelated. By line breeding for several generations, we have fixed the desirable characteristics so that we can consistently produce dogs who have what it takes to compete successfully and consistently in top cover dog trials. We have been ruthless in culling out individual dogs who had undesirable characteristics. With line breeding all characteristics are heightened and intensified in the offspring and we have been diligent in eliminating dogs from the program who have undesirable characteristics. After generations of this process, relatively few undesirable traits show up—when they do, those dogs are eliminated and are not used for breeding.
2. Rely on Ghost Train bred dogs of high caliber. Wire—Ghost Train Delight—Northern Alibi—Body Guard—Grindstone-Topseed–Rock Hard—Pennstar, all these male/sires from one generation to the next are strong in Ghost Train blood. Star’s Misty Ghost—Whoopi—Meteor’s Express Train—Northern Anndee —Barnburner–First Option, all these females/dams from one generation to the next are strong in Ghost Train blood. The Ghost Train line founded and maintained by the Frutchey family of Michigan is the foundation upon which our kennel’s line breeding program is built.
3. Go outside the family and outcross to other cover dog sires. From time to time in order to invigorate the line and to add/enhance characteristics that may be weaknesses in our dogs, we breed to dogs outside our line. In recent years, Grouse Ridge Reroy, Super Ghost, Torque and Keystone’s Red Rage were very useful in improving our dogs.
4. Breed only to cover dog sires and dams that win.
Part 1. Stick to cover dog sires and dams. Bird hunting conditions across north America vary considerably–from Texas to Georgia, from Nebraska to Nova Scotia, from Saskatchewan to Mexico. While we admire great setters like Tekoa Mountain Sunrise or Destinaire who have accomplished so much on the horseback all-age and shooting dog circuit, we realize that they were bred for generations to do a job that is different from hunting through grouse and woodcock coverts. Their anatomy and instincts were honed over generations to do a special job in hunting the more open fields and prairies and they are sensational at doing it. Our experience is that while all setters are bird dogs, you have to have a dog that fits the type of cover conditions you face to get ideal and consistent results. I draw on a parallel with horses often. Yes, all horses can run. But if you want to foxhunt, you don’t take a draft horse and you don’t try to win the Kentucky Derby with a horse off a working ranch. Similarly, if you want a dog that hunts hard, fast and stylishly through the woods on foot, you don’t start with a dog bred to hunt off horseback and run the edges of bean fields or to bluffs. We stick with dogs who are proven as cover dogs.
Part 3. We believe that the females we use in our breeding program are at least as important in producing top cover dogs as the sires that are chosen. We insist that the females are winners who have proven they have the right stuff. We don’t carry any brood bitches who have great pedigrees but lack objective evidence that they have the characteristics for success.
PUPS—Bob Watts’s part, the Minor League Manager
At six weeks of age we can begin to separate dogs that have the traits we seek. We can usually eliminate several pups from a litter at this age. We begin walking the remaining pups in the litter every day through the fields and woods.
Around the kennel, we pick them up often and talk encouragingly to them. As the weeks go by you can tell that some pups are snappier, more energetic, faster, bolder, jumpier, happier, higher-tailed, straighter-tailed, and smoother gaited than others.
By twelve to sixteen weeks we can probably sort the litter down to two or three that seem to separate themselves on these desirable traits.
At twelve to sixteen weeks of age we start to hunt the pups in the field for 20-30 minute heats. The time spent in the field may depend a bit on the time of year…it’s too hot in July and the cover is too high to do this with a fourteen week old pup. But pups are ready to work and ready to learn to run and hunt at this age. We try to let them have as much fun in these workouts as possible. There is no pressure. They come with us and stay in front naturally after the early conditioning they receive from taking all those walks as a 6-12 week old pup. We try to arrange for the pups to find gamebirds regularly in as natural a setting as possible. When we can’t find grouse and woodcock in consistent numbers, we have farms on which we release pheasants (alongside the native pheasants) and we establish coveys of quail (6-8 coveys of 20 birds over 400 acres).
At first, the pups will check in to our feet, but gradually they get more adventuresome and more determined to find birds and with this comes more application. They grow stronger and have more endurance. We are careful not to overwork the pups. We gradually lengthen the workouts to 30 minutes at about 6 months of age and up to 45 minutes at 9 months and then maybe to an hour as they near a year (depending on the weather, availability of water, game birds, cover conditions, etc.). We like to run them three times a week.
Our pups are raised in large grassy fenced-in pastures where they can run loose, develop strong bones and muscles, and explore.
We take our young pups to different places and give them exposure to new situations so that they are bold no matter where they are or what happens. Bob keeps an old pickup to take the pups along on the front seat to town or a training session at a nearby farm. Townspeople often remark that they saw Bob going down the road driving his old Dodge pickup with three or four pups on his lap or crawling all around the cab.
Beginning at 8 weeks, we start putting the pups on the barrel and on the whoa bench. These sessions are short and there is lots of praise for standing up tall and straight at both ends. The Sherry Ray Ebert video and the Ferrell Miller video as well as the George Tracy’s article in Field Trial Magazine (Fall, 2001) are excellent resources on the value of the barrel and bench. Other than this exercise, there is little obedience type training (“come” is about it), no work on “planted birds”, and no attempt to steady up the pup. They do what comes naturally.
We hunt the pup during their first season and as a part of this, we shoot a handful of birds for them when pointed. Wild birds are too precious to shoot and the pups only need a few.
MOVING UP TO THE MAJOR LEAGUE—Dick Brenneman’s role.
As the pups come into their second summer (assuming they are born between January and July), the one(s) that continue to be major league prospects are taught to whoa and then started in their training to be broke dogs. At this point, Dick comes into the training picture. With the pups from the litter whittled down to one, or if we are lucky two, prospects, Dick spends May getting the whoa command thoroughly learned and then he uses the Delmar Smith method to break the dog to be steady to wing and shot. Dick worked with the Delmar Smith operation at several of their training seminars and he is comfortable with this approach. Recently, we have been sending our prospects to professional trainer, Dave Hughes, to start their breaking. A month or two of work at Hughesville Kennel and at home on released game and the coming-to-derby-age prospects are standing their game and generally steady on released birds. We don’t come down hard on the dogs at this point nor do we demand perfection. So long as they will point and stand game solidly in the fall field trial season we are satisfied. We are not of the school of thought that expects derbies of any age to be finished bird dogs. As we move into the spring, our derbies are going to be standing released birds as well as grouse and woodcock more solidly. Sometimes they may be steady, but this is not because we are carrying a big stick and insisting on rock solid broke derbies. We believe it takes too much out of a young dog, desire you can not put back into them, if you break them to perfection at this age.
At the end of their derby year, the dogs will get another bit of time on released birds and at this point we become insistent on them being finished and steady to wing and shot. This is all part of a natural progression that leads into the late summer and fall following their derby year where they are transitioned onto grouse and woodcock and expected to become proficient at handling them to perfection.
Often during this first season of all-age the dogs are generally not reliable enough under wild bird field trial circumstances to campaign them. We are satisfied to have them become more experienced on the wily ways of grouse in training sessions this season with an eye to competing them later in the first year of all-age or the following fall. In recent years we have had more and more young dogs move to finished dog status than ever in our history. Better and better dogs.
During this period when the dogs are derbies or young all-age, we run them two or three times a week on wild birds. These workouts last 40-60 minutes. During the “off season” the dogs can rest (mid-May to early July and they need a break) and then they are worked three times a week the rest of the summer to be steady to wing and shot.
The mature all-age dogs that we are campaigning are laid up from May until early August. We have some large grassy fenced-in pastures where they can keep their muscle tone and relax. We road them with a 4-wheeler occasionally. Then in August they are run three times a week for about 45 minutes until the trial season starts. At this point they are run one or two times a week for 45 minutes in preparation for the weekend trial. There is a lot for a dog to learn about the habits of grouse and we expect them to continue to learn as they grow older and more experienced. We don’t do much roading of our older dogs during the trial season. We hunt them into condition and keep them ready to run by continuing to hunting them.