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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A hunting dog paradise in Spokane’s backyard

By Rich Landers For the Spokesman-Review

The hunting dogs ranged from rookies to champs on a recent training day organized by the Spokane Bird Dog Association on a little piece of dog heaven near Medical Lake.

One dog nearly flawlessly retrieved three dead ducks tossed at the report of a blank gun by assistants in three locations. It clearly relished the sprint through a natural waterhole.

Another dog pranced somewhat cluelessly toward a single dead duck, took a quick sniff from 20 feet away, frightfully pivoted 180 degrees and fled in the opposite direction.

“That one needs some work,” said John Gilbert, veteran dog handler and training day organizer. “But don’t we all?”

Where cows once grazed off Espanola Road until the late 1980s, SBDA members romp their dogs and hone their skills on a half section of leased state land west of Medical Lake.

The club has leased the 320 acres from the Department of Natural Resources in a rare land-use designation that recognized dog training as more valuable to the state than livestock grazing or timber production.

“Thousands of people days are logged on that land with club members training and all of the trials, tests and other dog events we hold out there,” said Doug Koenig, SPDA president.

The 150 families in the association’s subgroups for pointers, flushers and retrievers – including the Spokane Retriever Club – pay about $3,000 a year for the lease. They also take care of the gates, roads and weeds.

“We’re a strong, diverse club because we can center around these dog training grounds, which are open year around with various native habitats and water ponds,” Koenig said. “Not many clubs have access to something like this.”

“Professional trainers spend a lot of time developing relationships to gain training areas, but having that sort of access is beyond my means as an individual,” said Gilbert, a retired firefighter who’s taken three Labrador retrievers to the highest levels in national competitions.

“You can’t do that kind of training in a city park. At Espanola, we can use pen-raised birds, shoot a shotgun without consequence, swim retrievers in ponds of different sizes and find all kinds of space without distractions.”

Koenig said some club members are less serious with no aspirations to campaign a dog to high achievement in national tests or field trials.

“I’ll be out training and see somebody at Espanola with a dog and a kid simply recharging after a working day by throwing bumpers into a pond for their dog,” he said. “Or maybe it’s a guy who wants nothing more than a reliable dog for the hunting season. A trained dog is a better hunting companion.

“We had a multiweek obedience class this winter and had all types of hunting dogs. One couple – Doug and Meaghan Gilmore – came with their Brittany. It was cool to see them take turns handling the dog so it learned to respond to both of them rather than having one favorite.”

SBDA hosts a variety of events from low-key training days in which beginners can get tips from experienced handlers to pro-level spectator events attracting handlers who compete to see who has the top pointer or retriever in the region.

“Mostly, I just love working with dogs,” Gilbert said. “I like the idea of dogs being utilized for what their breed was originally bred and trained for.

“I feel the connection between a dog and a person is one of the strongest in our society. Any activity with dogs is good, but connecting with a dog’s original purpose is most rewarding.”

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