Last weekend (20, 21 & 22nd May), myself, my Mum and Dad, my brother Peter, Buck and our dogs Sonic and Victor all set off for Bulawayo amid a noisy chorus of excitable Pointer Dog singing. We were heading to Cawston Ranch in Matabeleland for the Zimbabwe Pointing Dog Field Trial of 2016.
Field Trialing in Zimbabwe has a long history dating back to before World War One – I can just picture the colonials in all their posh attire, gin-and-tonic in hand and riffles at the ready. Although the sports’ Englishness has greatly diminished with the average competitor opting for “shoosh” and “nyarara” rather than “steady on old chap” as the chosen lingo of the field, good old fashioned camaraderie and sportsmanship remain. The sport depends upon a relationship of mutual understanding between man or (unlike in the early days) woman and dog. Gun dog breeds show instinctual ‘inclination’ early on and are trained with great care in order to produce a highly primed, responsive and hardworking dog. The gun dog breeds we have in Zimbabwe largely consist of English Pointer dogs, with the odd German Short Haired Pointer and Red Setter dogs appearing.
Field Trials are kind of like going on a holiday that is primarily for your dog. Although these gun dogs are proudly given the label of ‘working dogs’, from what I’ve seen it is less like work and a lot more like pure, undiluted fun! That said, a well trained dog knows exactly what to do, when to do it and how it should be done. Organised as a competitive sport, Dog Field Trialing is a non-blood sport – this means that the aim is simply to find birds, rather than to shoot them. Within the competition, dogs are awarded points for finding birds, pointing at their find, ‘honouring’ another dogs find (effectively pointing at the dog that is pointing at a bird), being steady when the salute to the bird goes off (a shot fired in the air when the bird is flushed from cover) and general good behaviour. Points are deducted when a bird or game animal is chased by the dog, if the dog is out of range and unresponsive to its handlers whistle, if it overlooks a bird that has broken cover nearby and does not ‘honour’ another dog that is pointing at a bird. During the trial, two dogs will run at a time while being watched closely by the appointed judges. Dogs that are not running in that particular round are kept on a lead and follow the action from a distance in what is called ‘the gallery.’
Having grown up with Pointers, I have been to trials as a young child but I suppose you can’t truly appreciate the closeness to the bush and the relationship between dog and human until you reach a certain maturity. There really is something magical about the freshness of the first light and the smells of grasses crunched underfoot as you and your dog walk off into the bush. More than anything I think the whole experience is as rewarding as it is, due to the clearly palpable pleasure of the dogs at work. You can hear it in their singing! Sonic in particular is a bit of a soprano, with his tune and tone changing but his song never stoping. It is rather entraining when all 26 dogs get going to form a choir chorus. I now understand the term “Quiet in the Gallery!”
Thus, off we set on Friday morning for the first round of field trialing, 26 humans and just as many dogs into the early morning mist. My Dad had high hopes that this was the year Sonic would get that elusive back, honour another dog and move onto to the next round (for the first time ever) to compete with the championship dogs. My Dad had given Buck the great privilege of running Sonic – which believe me is a GREAT privilege with Sonic having equal status as one of the Craig children, except in beauty and intellect of which he is considered far superior.
Poor old Sonic, he didn’t get to run much at all. Mid way through Sonics’ second round, disaster struck. I wish I had words to adequately describe the noise – screaming comes close – that shook the peacefulness of the bush. Gun shots were let off to deter whatever animal had caused the screaming while those in the front party sprinted toward the noise. Sonic shrieking with pain, was found with a deep gash, high on his inner back leg causing a tremendous amount of blood loss. The femoral artery had been severed and it was bad, very bad – we think he was hit by either a bush pig or warthog. Buck’s T-shirt became a plug as both he and my Dad attempted to stem the bleeding. It really was touch and go. I could feel Sonics’ breath getting shallower and shallower and could see his eyes rolling white as we rushed through the 60km and police road blocks towards the closest veterinary surgery in Bulawayo. Sonic, a tough old boy, was not going to let a pig stop him from running and he somehow survived the car trip to Bulawayo. Buck who is famously very queasy at the sight of blood or at the thought of an injection was an absolute trooper and held the wound closed throughout the drive and on the operating table. One of the real successes however, is my Dad managing to drive through 5 police roadblocks at break-neck speed without being pulled over once! I think the blood smeared on his hands and splattered all over his clothing quelled any conversation about fire extinguishers and reflectors. A big shout out to Lovemore who helped us navigate our way through Bulawayo and to Rhode Veterinary Surgery. Without Lovemore to show us the way, there is no chance that Sonic would be alive today.
All in all, the weekend was a success and the trials continued without further incident – thank goodness! Victor and Peter brought home a commendable fifth position with the Championship being won by Bear – the only German Short Haired Pointer entered, who is owned and handled by Kevin Cooke. Deka, owned and handled by Graham Ross won both the Maiden and Derby competition. Buck (under what I suspect was the influence of red wine and too much excitement) made a public promise that he would have his own puppy entered next year – I think this was my Dads plan all along. I can already envisage how many pairs of shoes I am going to loose.
If it weren’t for the handful of passionate people, namely the Cookes and the Mackies, the sport would have died in Zimbabwe a long time ago. The mere fact that the Trial took place at all is testament to the passion and dedication of the Pointing Dog Field Trial Club of Zimbabwe. The ability of the club to endure and continue to produce such quality field trialing regardless of the ups and downs in Zimbabwe, is due to the sheer will and determination of its members to keep the sport alive and active for the next generation of gun dog owners – I think that that is pretty cool. If you have a gun dog or are thinking of getting one, get in touch with the club (you can find them on Facebook). I know they are desperate to encourage as many people as possible to join them and are more than willing to help people enjoy the rare relationship between gun dog and handler.
Sonic is making a speedy recovery due to all the extra love and attention he has been getting while wrapped in his special ‘gun dog green’ sleeping bag. Much to my dismay, he is even allowed to sleep on the couch at the moment!
Words by Joanna Craig
Photography by Buck O’Donoghue.