Form and Function
The first thing one reads under the heading of General Appearance for almost every Sporting breed recognized by the American Kennel Club is breed purpose. Depending on the breed, these descriptors include: “Primarily a hunting dog” … “Active, aristocratic bird dog” …“Bred primarily for sport afield, hard-driving hunting dog” … “Versatile hunter” …“Bred to work in field, forest and water” … “The requisite instincts and abilities to maintain a 'dual dog’ are always to be fostered and appreciated, never depreciated” … and many others. (Think of any retriever that in the presence of water and fowl chooses to yawn and lies down. Is that really a retriever? Breeds-specific traits and their relationship to form and function are essential in the judging process).
More often than not, week after week judges enter the ring seduced by flash, glamour and exaggeration, and as a result reward breeding stock that could never perform for the breed function intended. Breed-specific traits define breed type directly and correlate to the gun dog’s defined purpose.
Personally, I feel that no judge should be approved to judge a Sporting breed until he or she has attended a breed-specific hunting test or field-trial competition. So, with that clearly stated, I am “over the moon” on March 4th, when my good friend MB calls to see if I would be interested in attending the Vizsla Club of America National Gundog Championship at Blandfield Plantation – March 22nd & 23rd, only sixteen miles from my home in Virginia. Since I am judging the Viszla Club of America National Specialty in 2022, I find this to be a sign from above to do the right thing!
As the event date grows closer, MB informs me (March 11th) that due to work obligations she will not be able to attend. “Please check in with DOUG LJUNGREN (AKCDOUG) when you arrive. I have shared with him that you will be attending, and he will assist you in any way.”
“Perfect!” I text back, feeling relieved that AKC’s AVP of Performance Events will personally look out for my well-being.
Later on the afternoon on March 11th at 4:37 PM (to be exact) I receive a detailed email from JILL HOFFBECK about the 2022 Vizsla National Specialty. I respond to her inquiry and share the news of attending the National Gundog Championship. “How exciting that you plan to watch the Red Dogs work. LOVE hearing that! I reached out to the event chair, and she said to ask for her (PAT CARNEY) or Melissa Thomas, when you get there, and they will take care of anything you need.”
March 12th – Message received from ELISE WRIGHT (AKC Delegate VCA).
“JILL HOFFBECK shared with us that you live not far from Blandfield, where we are hosting our National Walking Gun Dog Championship at the end of the month. We would be thrilled for you to watch our Vizslas do what they are bred to do. We invite you to join us for any meals, and we will have limited seating in a gallery wagon. If we know when you’re coming, we can plan accordingly and get you out on course to watch the dogs.”
ELISE and I go back and forth with our communications:
“Monday AM will be puppies; we have 5 braces (circa 20 min each). There will be no shooting, but you’ll get to see young dogs run and apply themselves. Personally, I recommend coming on Tuesday or Wednesday to watch the mature dogs work their birds and retrieve. Braces are 1 hour long so dogs must have both polish and endurance. Here you can see some of the top dogs in the country. On Tues, in the 2nd brace, we have KIMBER, who is our 2020 National Field Champion. Depending on how quickly they go, you might see CANNON – he is very close to becoming a Dual Champion. Wed also promises some talented dogs with their dedicated breeder/owner handlers. All the best, Elise.”
After a few more communication exchanges, we finalize that I will attend on Tuesday, March 23rd. “Hello MICHAEL – Please arrive after 9 AM on Tuesday, and we’ll get you set up. I’ll add a lunch order for you – large house salad. I’ll be your point of contact. Pls text me when you arrive at the Caret entrance as parking may be tricky. Again, we so appreciate your interest in seeing our Dual Dogs work! Best, Elise.”
Tuesday Morning March 23rd, I check the weather forecast – sunny with a high temperature of 68 degrees. “Perfect day for an outdoor sporting event!” I mumble to SADIE FRENCH, who impatiently signals her lack of desire for the weather details and emphasizes — with her most enthusiastic wiggle — her need for a morning biscuit.
Dressed in layers, I leave HOLLY SPRINGS at 8:30 AM and arrive at BLANDFIELD at 8:50 AM. I text Elise: “Parked near horses and horse trailers.” No response.
I exit BUICK, walk toward the center of what appears to be a gypsy camping festival with dogs and horses surrounding an open pit fire. The smell of coffee and wood smoke is intoxicating. To the left of the fire are two tents, one with ribbons and awards and the other containing people in the know. The first to greet me are AKCDOUG and AKC REP TOM MANEELY. Both are informative, enthusiastic and engaged in making sure my day is a memorable experience.
“Now, MICHAEL, I recommend we ride in the gallery vehicle for the first brace. I will be able to explain what is going on and answer any questions you might have.”
“Sounds great to me,” I reply.
“Great, we will load up in about twenty minutes.”
Prior to the first brace, AKCDOUG leaves to manage other obligations. I am welcomed by members of the club, committee officials and asked to view a required evaluation of a young dog. You see, Vizslas running in any National Field Trial event must be free of any disqualifying faults as stated in the AKC standard. This particular morning fellow judge and friend BRITT JUNG approaches. “MICHAEL, great to see you!” We share pleasantries, and she guides me through her role as the approved judge that will examine a young dog that needs to be approved for competition. A woman whom I do not know brings forth a handsome young male Vizsla for review. Supporting her in the adventure is another friend and fellow judge – CORRINE MIKLOS.
The entire process is proactive, informative and focused on making sure the entry does not have any breed-disqualifying faults. Disqualifications: Partially or completely black nose. Solid white extending above the toes or white anywhere else on the dog except the forechest. White extending on the shoulders or neck. A distinctly long coat. Any male over 25½ inches, or under 20½ inches and any female over 24½ inches or under 19½ inches at the highest point over the shoulder blades. (Based on my personal observation of some of the dogs in competition on the day, judges in the past had been very generous in their understanding of where and how much white is allowed. However, this particular dog was correct in all aspects.)
The gallery wagon pulls up, and AKCDOUG signals that it’s time to load up for the first brace run. I have to admit my heart is racing with anticipation and joy. The back of the wagon quickly fills, AKCDOUG and I take the back seat, with PEGGY ZELNERONOK at the wheel and JANET STARNES in the co-pilot position. These two ladies are members of the TAMPA BAY VIZSLA CLUB, and along with AKCDOUG could not have been more gracious and helpful in my experience.
The gallery wagon stops and waits as the judges are acknowledged, the two handlers collect their dogs, and the official members of the team are in place. Numerous other individuals in the gallery are following along on horseback.
AKCDOUG explains: “There will be six braces running today, and each brace is one-hour long – two dogs running together. This particular event is unique – during the first shoot, if good and safe, the dogs are required to retrieve. The handlers will be on foot as this is a walking championship. There are two judges, one judge’s marshal, one gallery marshal, two scouts, a recorder/scribe, and the gallery on horseback, with the two gunners in all-terrain vehicles.” AKCDOUG describes the course: “The course starts along the tree line over there.” He points to his right. “The dogs will move along the tree line to the first landmark. If all is well and safe, this is where they will attempt the retrieve. If not, it will follow later. As I stated earlier, each dog must complete one retrieve. From there the handlers and their dogs will turn left through the All-Age Field. Heading west, there will be multiple points. We will end up in the Longleaf Pines.”
The handlers release the first brace. In competition are JULEP and RUGBY. “You can see they are both in great form and full of enthusiasm," shares PEGGY. I quietly observe their breed type and make mental notes on their positive conformation attributes.
“One of the handers just popgunned the bird,” AKCDOUG remarks.
“What does that mean?” I inquire.
“A successful flush was made. The handler popgunned the dog, and keeps it collared for safety reasons, while the other dog works. It appears this particular attempt is nonproductive.”
The two dogs continue the course. “Look! RUGBY scored a find.” JANET points through the window. We all watch in anticipation as the gunners move in, shoot the bird and RUGBY completes a successful retrieve. Twenty-nine minutes into the course, I boldly verbalize my first novice observation. “What are they going to do now? Both dogs are pointing the same bird.” AKCDOUG explains: “This is called a divided find. Both of the handlers will move in flush and shoot. Oh, no, it looks like JULEP moved forward, causing her to be picked up.”
“Picked up – can you explain?” I ask again.
“Picked up means the competition has ended for her. Her mark required significant forward motion that is not allowed. Thus, she is picked up and RUGBY will continue the course alone.”
“I got it!” At this juncture in the competition, I’m feeling like a damn pro – tossing out terms like “picked up,” “avian infraction,” “divided find,” “relocate,” “popgunned,” etc. RUGBY scores three additional finds and finishes the course. We return to the official tenting area for regrouping before heading back down for the start of brace two.
“Michael! Can you ride a horse?” AKCDOUG asks.
“Sure. I used to have reining horses and I would love the opportunity to ride. Not to mention a different perspective, allowing for a closer view.”
“Excellent. I brought two of my horses and you’re welcome to ride one.” There is not much time between the braces, and AKCDOUG, along with AKCREPTOM, move quickly to prepare the two horses at AKCDOUG’S trailer. “You will be riding my new horse – PACO. He’s having trouble with his bit, but he should settle into things.”
“No worries!” I remark. AKCREPTOM holds PACO while I process getting myself into the saddle. I don’t say anything, and approach PACO from the right side. Since my sword-carrying days are over, and there is no fear of stabbing myself by mounting on the right. I do so in fear of aggravating my lower-left back. I try not to make a big deal of it until AKCREPTOM quietly notes the difference and asks AKCDOUG if it’s OK, without knowing that I know to what he is referring. I chuckle internally and make no mention of my lower-back disc issue, and the need for the right-side approach. The most important thing is I make it up on PACO with neither any injury to my spine nor the equine.
AKCDOUG on top of his horse, TRACKER, leads me and PACO down the dirt road to the start of the second brace, featuring KIMBER and HAWK.
The perspective from horseback is beyond anything for which I could have ever hoped. At 10:57 AM, both KIMBER and HAWK, not unlike the first brace, approach the task with grace, style, speed and determination. “Notice how well they are both covering edge,” AKC DOUG shares from the top of TRACKER. PACO stays steady, periodically fighting the bit, as we move forward. Four minutes in, HAWK records his first find.
“Look there!” AKCDOUG points toward HAWK. “That is such a pretty picture. Note the placement of the head. The line from the tip of the nose through the back and finishing with the use of the tail.” I am spellbound by the beauty – the light, the balance, the pose. “PACO, my friend, that is style and artistry!” I proclaim while lightly rubbing his neck. KIMBER encounters a bird, which pops up at the wrong time, forcing a pickup. HAWK manages to hold on through two more finds and on the third one, at 35 minutes, an avian infraction occurs, forcing HAWK’S day to come to an end.
AKCDOUG and I continue to move through the third brace with KIKI and BENNY participating. KIKI successfully completes her retrieve and encounters an avian infraction at the 45-minute mark, resulting in getting picked up. BENNY completes the run. On the return to camp, PACO is determined that his trailer full of feed and hay is far more interesting than gently walking back, stopping for photo opportunities. After a few spins around the fire pit, I manage to get him settled long enough for a few KODAK moments. PACO and TRACKER are settled. I choose not to attend the fourth brace (LEIA and ZARA compete, with LEIA encountering issues with a walking bird and the judges elect to pick up. ZARA completes the course), giving AKCDOUG a much-needed break from my barrage of questions. Instead, I spend valuable time at the official tent having a breed-specific discussion with ELISE. Through our conversation and my sharing my thoughts of the dogs that appealed to me from a conformation perspective, it becomes apparent that the vast majority of these particular dogs come from the same sire. It’s a great feeling when you can establish type, balance and structure at a working trial, with all of them worthy of the conformation ring.
DOUG and I view braces number five and six from the back of the gallery wagon, perched high in the front. Brace five is made up of SHELBY and ARYA. Both dogs start strong, attacking the course and following the edge. At the 11-minute mark both are found standing in a divided find. AYRA’S day ends when she comes upon a bird that flushes at an inopportune time, and SHELBY finishes the course. Brace six, the last pair to run for the day, consists of CANNON and ADELE. With no disrespect to ADELE, I am totally mesmerized by CANNON’S enthusiasm and working style. He is pure joy to watch.
“MICHAEL, CANNON is a dual champion!” A voice comes from behind while my internal smile spreads. To give his enthusiastic artistry the clarity it deserves, I share the SCRIBE’S official recording of brace six:
Both dogs broke away strong, with Adele taking the left line and Cannon the right. Both dogs were seen on a divided find at 6 minutes, with the bird blanked and all in order. Right before the end of the All Age field, both dogs were found buried in the woods on what appeared to be a shared find. Whatever it was, both dogs handled it well and moved on down the course. After the turn in the All Age field at 22 minutes, we encountered what appeared to be another divided find, with Adele’s handler flushing and shooting. Cannon got his retrieve at 30 minutes in the Big Half Moon field, completing it successfully. Adele’s first attempt at a retrieve was at 33 minutes in the Triangle just before the turn into the Pheasant Field. The bird did not cooperate and the handler popgunned. At the beginning of the Pheasant Field, Cannon was found standing with Adele backing. Cannon handled the bird well, but Adele was picked up. Cannon moved on, recording a covey find at the end of the Pheasant Field before the turn. At 47 minutes, Cannon went on point yet again in the sorghum strip just before The Pines. Cannon’s last find was at 51 minutes, at the far-right edge of The Pines on a large covey. Cannon went on to finish the hour in the 17 Acres.
CANNON’S performance is the perfect end to one of the most glorious times I have had at an AKC event in decades. The dedicated breeders, trainers, handlers, club officials, AKCREPTOM and most importantly AKCDOUG are collectively responsible for JOY. Oh, and I must not forget to mention PACO, who is focused on feed, paying no attention to the fact that BLACK BUICK is hauling me to the exit. I wave to PACO, “Thank you and goodbye"
Wednesday morning, March 24th, I send ELISE a quick text before her start of another exciting day of competition. “Thank you for an amazing day!!!”
She replies: “Oh, gosh. We loved having you. I think it was a first. Also, it is rare to have a conformation judge talk about our dogs while working in the field. [Smiley Face Emoji.] I pull into the driveway on a Vizsla Club of America National Gundog Championship HIGH! I immediately phone MB, expressing my enthusiasm and my gratitude for hooking me up with AKCDOUG – a gentleman who truly understands purebred dogs from a Gestalt perspective, one who is mission focused, and if approached would, in my humble opinion, make one hell of leader for the organization.