Local puppy retrieves national honors

Dog is man’s best friend, or so they say. But Fergus and Keller are more than just friends to Patrick Berry —they’re tools. Equal to his hunter orange jacket, field boots or shotgun, Berry relies on his pups for a successful bird hunt.
Sure, Fergus and Keller have the standard cold wet noses, heart-melting brown eyes, a dedicated eagerness to please and, of course, unconditional love; but what sets them apart from the pooch sitting on your couch and mine is their training —ahem? OK, and their breeding.
Keller is a liver and white field bred English Springer Spaniel. This 16-month-old’s father (Syncerus Sweep) was imported from England; Keller’s mother is from the Midwest. Both of Sweep’s parents are English; Sweep’s father was the Irish national field champion and the mother was the English national field champion.
“He’s got some natural talent,”said Berry, who recently returned from the National Amateur Field Trial Championship in western Kansas. Berry ran Keller against 108 of the best dogs around the country (most trained by professionals), including four former national champions. To qualify, Berry and Keller took second and third in regional all-age field trials, in addition to taking two firsts and two seconds in Puppy Stakes this year (dogs under the age of two).
“He’s awesome,”said Berry. Yeah, you can say that again.
But what is it exactly that Keller does to make him so “awesome?”
Well, Keller is a flushing dog (not a pointing dog). That means generally Keller’s job is to stay within gun range —that’s about 35-40 yards from Berry —and put the bird up for Berry to shoot. As soon as the bird flies, Keller sits and Berry shoots; then Keller finds and retrieves the bird.
One of the places Berry practices with Keller (and Fergus) is in a field that’s less than a five-minute drive from his East Middlebury home. “The farmers around here are phenomenal about supporting my training dogs,”said Berry in the truck as we drove to the field. “I mowed strips that mark 35-40 yards in the field to help teach them how far away they’re allowed to be when quartering.”
Quartering: “to hunt ground/wind direction in an efficient manner.”Thanks Kennel Club.
“Training a flushing dog to a finished level takes an insane amount of time,”said Berry, who served as the Commissioner of Vermont Fish and Wildlife for over three years (2011-2014) before joining The Vermont Community Foundation in Middlebury as their vice president for philanthropy. “In the competitions, all the dogs retrieve, they all have good noses, they’re all intelligent… how he (Keller) does his job is how we’re judged, and style matters.
“I didn’t take Fergus for three reasons,”Berry explained. “First, only springers can compete in the springer nationals (and Fergus is a Cocker Spaniel —they have their own championship); second, Fergus just doesn’t have the same talent; third, while I do normally take both of the dogs everywhere, I just didn’t want Fergus to sit in the truck for 4,200 miles for nothing.”
What got Berry into field trial competitions in the first place?
It’s a progression, he explained.
“If you want to hunt upland birds (a.k.a. birds that live in the woods) it’s a lot easier with a dog, so you get a dog that appeals to you. Then you take the dog hunting and it’s kind of frustrating because you and the dog aren’t communicating perfectly. So you start putting the time in to train the dog, and think, ‘I wish I had a standard.’ There is one: the Hunt Test Standard —a clearly written standard, not against other dogs. You train your dog to that level and someone suggests you should run a field trial; you do well enough and it’s really fun…. And that’s how we got to Keller going to national championships.
“In a hunt test, all dogs can pass and earn a ribbon,”Berry clarified. “In a field trial, the dogs are judged against one another, and only the top four dogs can place, no matter how many are entered.”
Comparatively, Berry is a newbie at hunt tests and field trials. He got his first springer spaniel for hunting over 20 years ago, and didn’t start competing in field trials until last year with his fifth spaniel, Bradie. But his desire to compete in field trials “has been brewing for 20 years.”Berry saw his first field trial in Missoula, Montana in 1995 where he was a fishing guide for 10 years after graduating from Middlebury College in 1991 with a degree in studio art. Bradie also won the Puppy Stake as a 15-month-old; sadly, he was shot and killed in a tragic accident.
With Keller’s impressive performance this year, you’d be right if you guessed that Berry is a dedicated handler. Indeed, he and Keller spend a lot of quality time together perfecting skills.
“I teach manners before anything else,”Berry said. “I spend a lot of time focused on obedience —you have to install breaks and steering first because when you put a bird in front of him, he will go out of his mind and you have to have him under control.”
Unlike some other handlers, Berry’s dogs are also family pets. They’re welcome indoors —even on the bed.
“Keller’s my little buddy … I have a spoilt-brat house dog who hunts with the pros,”Berry laughed. “Clearly we’re doing something right.”
Next up? Keller and Berry are already training for next year, hoping to earn the requisite placements and points to compete in the national championships next November in Utah.

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