This weekend they’re out for fun, hunting quail and chukars near Ellensburg. Last month they were all business in the Midwest, hunting for a top-dog title among the country’s best pointers.
“It’s been three weeks and I’m still winding down from the competition,” said Irene Palmer, who lives with her husband, Cal, near Tacoma in Orting, Wash.
She has plenty to savor after transforming Oct. 31 into “Ladies Day” at the 2013 German Shorthair Pointer Club of America National Field Championships near Eureka, Kan.
In two weeks of competition, Palmer became the first woman handler to win the Amateur Championship and was runner-up in the open competition. She did the job with her 4-year-old female shorthair, who’d delivered a litter of nine pups just seven months before the competition.
They both performed flawlessly before judges and a gallery that had to ride horses to keep up with the action covering many square miles of the Bechtel Ranch.
Dunfur’s Tule Moon – everybody calls her Max – comes from a line of German shorthairs produced by pro trainer Dan Hoke of Dunfur Kennel near Cheney. Although Hoke had trained the dog, the pressure boiled down on Palmer at the championships.
At 5-foot-2, she also may be the shortest handler to win the national title.
“She’s this diminutive person,” Hoke said. “You can’t hear her voice from five feet away, but she has a direct connection to her dog.”
Winning a national championship doesn’t just happen one day.
“My husband and I have been at this 20 years and we’ve had 10 dogs,” Palmer said, listing a staggering amount of travel and numerous competitions required to campaign a field trial dog to the top ranks.
“This is my third year of handling at the national level and I was in Kansas for three weeks for the championships.”
The Palmers had trained their first field trial dogs themselves, but the task has become nearly impossible. “There’s no place left on public land in Western Washington where you can train a bird dog on horseback,” she said.
The last places – Fort Lewis and Scatter Creek Wildlife Area, which was dedicated in the 1960s as a field trialing area near Olympia – have been closed to horse travel by state laws enforced to protect threatened species such as the Mazama pocket gopher and Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly.
Palmer says she may have had more time to develop a champion years ago if she hadn’t been to so many meetings with Fish and Wildlife Department staff in the futile attempt to maintain a place to train.
Beyond training, it takes years “to learn all the subtle stuff” about field trialing, as well as some luck in getting the right dog, she said.
“We’d always had liver-colored dogs,” she noted, suggesting she had to get past a little bias just to take in Max, who is mostly white.
“As a puppy, she was just this cute little thing, but I had no idea what she’d be.
“She was beautiful on point and a good hunting dog, but it was a while before she took off.”
It’s not unheard of for a younger dog to top the podium, Hoke said, but most national champions in the German shorthair competitions are in the 5-6 year-old range.
Max had racked up the trophies, enough to qualify for the nationals, by the time the Palmers bred her last spring.
“That may have worked to Max’s advantage because we gave her all summer off to gain weight and recuperate,” Palmer said. “This fall, she seemed to kick into another gear. She went into nationals in good shape and injury-free.”
Max would need to stand out in a field of 80 dogs and impress the judges.
She was perfect in her first 30-minute outing, with three finds and two backs, each of which she held motionless while the gallery of 30 people on horseback gathered and the designated shooter moved in.
“It’s nerve-wracking,” Palmer said. “The dog can be right on and yet there’s so much that can go wrong.”
First, Max had to be absolutely steady to wing and shot. And to advance to the finals, a dog also must have at least one retrieve.
When Max backed the point of her brace mate, she had to hold steady as the shooter flushed the bird for the other dog.
The first two times she found quail, the shooter dismounted his horse and moved in but was unable to kill a bird as they flushed into trees or toward the gallery. So he simply shot in the air.
Max was steady until released to range over huge expanses of Kansas prairie in search of more birds.
“It came down to her fourth and last covey,” Hoke said. “The bird went down and she got her retrieve.”
Max performed equally well against the last 16 dogs, the best of the best, in her 45-minute final run.
“I work with good dogs every day, but I can’t take my eyes off (Max) when she’s working a field,” said Hoke, who won the national championship years ago with Max’s great grandmother and had five dogs in this year’s finals.
“The judges made the same comments: Max is just gorgeous when she runs.”
She’s also solid when she’s not running, as she demonstrated while one wild covey of about 50 quail flushed at different times like popcorn.
At the end of her last run, she had to cope with thunder and lightning moving in.
“The last few minutes get your heart racing,” Hoke said. “Everybody involved in trialing has had a perfect job blow up at the end. One busted bird in the last 30 seconds and it’s all for naught.”
Palmer said at the end she just tried to concentrate, be aware of their surroundings and guide Max out of trees and potential flub-up areas.
“When I try to describe how hard this is to hunters, I ask them how often their dog is perfect,” Hoke said. “Then I ask how often is their dog perfect with another dog in the field and in front of a gallery of people trickling in on horseback as a distraction?”
Palmer said there’s more Max can do, but for now the plan is to take her hunting along with some of her nine-month old pups.
“Max has had quite the year,” Palmer said.