A national qualifying field trial, a tournament so big that the president of the National Shoot to Retrieve Association presided. Our son, Nate, was the official bird-wrangler for the event. Other than providing him with transportation and a tent camper to sleep in, I had no business being there.

But the evening of the first day of competition, the president announced that there would be a consolation bracket the following day. This competition was for dogs bumped from championship qualifying during Saturday’s trial and was open to everyone.

Sleek as a new sports car, my ten-month-old tri-color setter, Tess, was more than two years younger than her nearest competitor and had barely entered field training, much less field trialing. But why not? I threw Tess into the mix, and our brace was drawn.

The field carried an air of seriousness beneath the veneer of humorous jousting. Trainers and handlers used the opportunity to reaffirm their stock and training methods. Running Tess against champion dogs and trainers, in the shadow of a national competition, was an intimidating venture, and I struggled to keep the whole thing in perspective. The competitor in me wanted to do well, but the realist continued to remind, “It’s about training, not trial.”

Soon judges, dogs, and handlers were all standing at the field edge. With a wave and a whistle, we were off!

Tess beautifully pinned the first bird of the brace within sight of the gallery, her brace-mate striding in for a back. The scene inspired me to reach in my vest for the ever-present camera.

Mike, the mentor that accompanied me on this maiden match, brought me back to reality with his insistent, “Point. Raise your hand and yell, ‘Point!’” Oh yeah! I’m not just training, I’m competing!

Gentleman Bob held tight in bunched grass amid tall western sage. With a nudge from my boot, the bugger rousted over excited setters that converged to catch it in mid-flight! There was no way to take a shot safely, so I raised the barrels of my Turkish-made 20 in an obvious refusal to take the chance.

Mike yelled, “Safety!” Oh yeah, that was another thing I should have done.

Dogs rounded up and back in bounds, play was resumed. The other shooter’s gun soon loudly proclaimed that his setter had found two birds of their own. Curiously, the majority of competitors felt the need for 12-gauge loads that would cause sagebrush to tremble.

I was glad we had spent the time in training sessions. Tess managed well and showed great confidence as she spun into her second point along the field’s north edge. In nervous trepidation, I raised my hand and timidly charged, “Point!”

Positioned to flush the unseen quail clear of onlookers, I toed grass aside to reveal a squatted bobwhite. It trotted a few steps, then flushed to escape Tess’s advance. Forced high above tall sage, the quail was safely tracked and tumbled with a single bark of the 20 bore. Tess dashed to the bird, carried it partway back, and then left for opportunities elsewhere.

With literally seconds remaining, Tess froze yet again. After calling for the point, Tess relocated without authorization, and I was required to leash her up. Our brace was finished.

Upon reflection, the trial was really mine, not Tess’s. In Tess there was no pressure to succeed, no idealized notion of form or function. There was freedom in her stride, joy in the seeking what came natural. For Tess, the endeavor was not for trophy or ribbon, but to share in the exhilaration of the hunt. An observation that would serve me well to note.