Nose to the wind: Dogs take to the field for the first day of national trial competition

Published 4:52 pm Thursday, November 17, 2022

Short bursts of whistles and sporadic sounds of gunfire broke through at times the sustained and biting west wind that whipped lightly falling snow over the grassy lands west of Austin Thursday morning.

Nevertheless, eager English Springer Spaniels wove their way through the tangle of tall grass at their handlers commands searching the undergrowth for pheasants buried within.

“They are running fantastic,” said Logan, Utah’s Gary Riddle, who had just completed his third run of the morning with Frieda. “Their scent is good. This is perfect for the dog. This isn’t too cold, this is perfect.”

In general consensus it was a fantastic start to the 2022 National Open Championship for English Springer Spaniels, which will run through Monday. The event is part of an over 60-year tradition of running dogs through five days of trials, both on land and in the water.

Thursday’s competition would see around 120 dogs work the expansive patch of land just a few miles west of Austin. As the competition moves on, the number of dogs competing will be whittled down, leading to the crowning of a national champion on Monday.

“You get a chance to see a lot of birds being worked by dogs,” said this year’s event President Mike McGinty prior to the start of competition earlier in the week. “It’s really exciting.”

Entry into the event is by invitation only, meaning that observers to the week-long competition are seeing the best of the best.

Event Marshall and Judge Mhari Peschel gets a first-hand look as she calls dogs to the line and calls out the progress of each dog, whether a bird was flushed or if the dog was retrieving as well as when the dog successfully retrieved.

“You expect to see a lot of the awesome dog work,” Peschel said, describing what people can expect to see. “A lot of runners taking moving birds along the trees. Dogs that can be handled well. A little bit of everything.”

While the winds and snow were biting, the conditions didn’t seem to affect the dogs much at all, as they successfully worked their trials. 

Neither handler, official or shooter were surprised at how well the dogs tracked during the morning.

“I wouldn’t say they are tough conditions, it’s just a little colder,” Peschel said. “As a hunter I would surely hunt in this. I think they are going very well.”

However, for the shooters the challenge was definitely increased. In all, only a small few of the birds got up into the winds during early trials and escaped. It was a testament to their talents, but it still proved to be difficult shooting.

“These are actually pretty hard conditions to shoot birds,” said George Akkouris, one of three shooters patrolling the grasses during this flight. “You try to keep warm so you got extra layers of clothes on, which affects how you mount and swing the gun. And the wind makes the shooting a lot more challenging.”

However, the field trials are more than competing and more than a national championship. There are friendships that stretch back for years and for many that’s as much of a draw as the trials themselves.

Akkouris himself enjoys a generational connection, which includes his father Vasilios Akkouris, who was competing and running George’s own son’s dogs.

“And that’s the coolest part. It’s three generations,” Akkouris said. “They get to run these animals and it’s a really cool thing. I started when I was a kid and I’m still doing it today.”

Riddle, who breeds, raises and trains dogs, also commented about the social connection of the event. After 40 years, it’s clear there is nothing he would rather be doing on a frigid day like Thursday.

“This is incredible,” Riddle said. “The nationals are a big deal because these are people I’ve known for 40 years and it’s a small group. We are very emotionally tied because this is such an emotional sport. It’s fun to see them. I consider these my dearest friends that I see once or twice a year.”

The competition goes from 8 a.m. to around 4:30 p.m. each day except Monday when the competition comes to an end.

The public is encouraged to attend the event, and watch the dogs work, but they are required to wear orange above the waist in order to take to the field.