Litchfield >> Like a red streak flashing in the distance, he sniffs the air on the go and races to and fro in search of his target. His handler occasionally bellows out a command and the little red flash reacts and changes direction.
The red streak with happy eyes is an Irish setter who goes by the quite noble sounding name of Braeval Laddie and his proud owner is Gregor McCluskey, he of good Scottish stock and the mastermind behind the highly successful BraeVal line of sporting apparel, hence the first name of his precious bird dog. But Braeval Laddie isn’t any hunting dog, he’s a national champion and a king at his trade; finding and pointing birds for his handler, and at that he’s one of the best in the business.
Braeval Laddie was recently named the National Champion Shooting Dog and RU National Championship Amateur All-Age at the Red Setter National Field Trial Championship held at the Jim Edgar Panther Creek Field Trials in Chandlerville, Illinois. That Braeval Laddie beat out some two dozen other dogs, all of which went through a qualification process to get to the Nationals, was named National Champion Shooting Dog was somewhat of an anomaly. You see, such competitions, and the sport of bird hunting itself, is dominated by English pointers and English setters. Indeed, Braeval Laddie’s bright red color distinguishes him from the majority in the field trial world, a field of mostly light-haired shooting dogs.
“Light, or “white dogs”, are easier to see than a red dog, which is a consideration,” says McCluskey. “ It’s very rare to have an Irish red setter compete and beat the white dogs,” adds the dog’s owner, as he walks through a field at the Torrington Fish and Game preserve atop Torrington Mountain. “We are always the underdog (quite literally) at the field trials and I like that. Now Laddie has a following and a reputation as a champion. We compete in American Field, considered the top flight of field trials.”
What Laddie does is run hard (he’s in great shape, honed from miles of training on a regular basis), runs fast, runs with style and grace, and points with his tail up in the air in classic 12 o’clock pointer fashion.
“A class shooting dog must handle, have a high, fast pace, known as a race, run edges, work on the correct side of the wind, seek out birdy objects or structures in the field or woods. When the dog makes game he must point with tail and head high, show staunchness, and be steady to the wing and shot. If another dog has a bird find or point first, the dog must honor and back the pointing dog. He can’t run past the pointing dog.”
Indeed, while some may think a shooting dog pretty much goes and finds birds for a hunter, when he, or she, competes at trials there is so much that goes into the scoring, and style is big part of the system. “Look, he is flagging (wagging his tail), which is a no-no for a shooting dog,” says McCluskey, as we come upon Braevel Laddie standing near brush where he has caught the scent of a bird (in this instance a quail, one of several his master has placed around the preserve on training day. “It means he isn’t sure.” Which, we find out, he had a reason to be, as the quail either escaped his tether or made a meal for a hawk that McCluskey saw in the trees when he was laying the quails out.
Braeval Laddie indeed runs with style, an animal in tune with his surroundings and enjoying serving his master. It really is quite remarkable that the dog never seems to tire, instead running full tilt, turning occasionally as he seeks scents, and then bolting off to search again in another direction. His master keeps tabs on him this day with a hand-held GPS, which shows how far Laddie is away from us. McCluskey disdains calling his dog into him, as this is frowned upon by hunters and judges. “The dog should never come from behind you. He should always be up front and go to the front when he is behind other dogs and handlers.”
As with any good shooting dog, Braeval Laddie is a bit headstrong and possessed with his duties. Reigning him in and directing him on his training day, which is somewhat warm and filled with scents (Laddie pointed a turkey that was in a leveled cornfield, a surprise find), is presenting a bit of a challenge for his handler. But this is the price one pays for having a champion bird dog. Says McCluskey, “You want him or her to be attentive and pay attention to commands, but you can’t break the dog so that it is timid on the hunt.”
In competition and training, Laddie must stand perfectly still on the point even when the bird is flushed. McCluskey uses a gun with blanks that he fires after the bird is flushed, or found, simulating the kill shot, at which time Laddie is free to fetch the bird if ordered to do so, or resume his hunt.
By simple definition, a bird dog is a type of “gun dog” or “shooting dog” used to find, hunt or retrieve birds or other small game animals by tracking their scent in the air. The term bird dog refers to dog breeds such as the pointer, English pointers and setters, red (Irish) setters, German shorthair pointers, Brittany, and other pointer breeds.
“At the competitions, finding birds is important, but it is not about the number of birds the dog points, but a combination of the class, style and the race — how fast they move to get the job done. Many times dogs win trials with less finds than other competitors. We are looking to find the superior athletes for breeding. You can win finding one bird, but that is also very rare. Two or three is the average and you must remember that race, speed and style points are very important and decide the best dogs.”
McCluskey seems a man at peace with himself and nature. He is obviously proud of his dog, which he purchased as a pup, Laddie showing promise as a birder right away. It took a good two to three years to get the now four-year-old Laddie to the point (pun intended) of being a champion. He won RU Champion honors and regional honors as a one-and a-half-year-old dog, and was voted New England Field Trial Horse Black Dog of the Year - Puppy, and McCluskey worked even harder from then on, knowing he had the makings of a truly great shooting dog, albeit a rare red-haired one.
“I will run him to keep in shape several times during the week,” says McCluskey, who is an avid hunter and fisherman and designs the Braeval line of clothing, which is sold online and at some of the premier specialty outdoors boutiques and five-star lodges across the country. He also maintains a small showroom in Litchfield. “I run him on dirt roads in Washington and we will go for 10 miles. I used to get people starring at me wondering what I was doing running the dog while I rode in a truck. After they understood what I was doing and what kind of dog Laddie is, they appreciated seeing us train.”
During competition, the handler directs his or her dog on horseback, a much better option than trailing on foot or in a truck. It is a nod to the classic origins of the sport and the way bird hunting and the teamwork between man and dog remains in the sporting world to this day.
McClusky grew up in Avon, and, despite being an accomplished athlete, really found his calling in the outdoors. “My coaches used to have to come find me in the woods,” he laughs. “I enjoyed sports but the outdoors always held me and still does.”
He had his first hunting dog as a young teenager. “It takes a lot of work and time to train a dog (he has other bird dogs) and I knew Laddie was special. There are a lot of subtle things about the development of a class bird dog and how one trains it. Every solution in bird dog training creates a new problem,” McCluskey says, “The way you start a dog, introduce to gunfire, and command a dog, body language that goes on between dog and handler. Laddie is a great dog and he knows when he is competing. He really gets hyped and rises to the challenge.”
Laddie is just entering his most productive years as a shooting dog. “Generally speaking, from four to eight is a pointing dog’s prime years,” says McClusky.
As for what is next for Braeval Laddie, his owner says he will pick his spots and enter the right competitions to display his dog’s considerable skills. After all, he is already a national three-time champion. He also will likely be studded. “I have had several offers to stud him and when I find the right combination that is something we will do. But we have time.”
For now, the champ is very satisfied training and being a constant companion to his master, always a pleasing byproduct of the collaboration between man and dog.