MT. STERLING, Ohio — Last month, a last-of-the-litter dog called Ugly Freddy — who nearly washed out of training — won the 2018 English Springer Spaniel National Amateur Championship.
His owner and trainer, Dick Taylor of Ludlow Falls, said “Ugly Freddy” is an affectionate nickname for a dog whose markings don’t fit the breed standard, but whose abilities made him a champion.
Freddy was the last dog in his litter and he didn’t quite have the standard look for his breed — his tail had been docked too short and the markings on his face give the impression of a mustache. Not sure he liked what he saw, Taylor was reluctant to buy him until he saw Freddy’s pedigree, which included a dog named Zoe that Taylor had seen run trials in the past.
“If this dog ran anything like Zoe, I wanted him. I called my buddy back and said, ‘OK, I’ll take a chance. Give me a discount and I’ll take him,’” Taylor said. “As he started to grow and we started to play with him and train him, bring him along as a puppy, it was like, he is ugly, but he runs beautifully. We don’t care what they look like, it’s how they run and cover their course and use the wind and find birds.”
Despite a good pedigree and a beautiful run, Freddy almost ended up a pet instead of a competitor.
“I almost gave him away a couple of times to the neighbor kid who wanted him for a pet because I didn’t think he was going to work out,” Taylor said. “He was a knucklehead. He was just a goofball. The kid down the street almost got him twice.”
At first, Freddy had difficulty locating items he was supposed to retrieve. Taylor uses a launcher that shoots a canvas dummy using a .22-caliber pistol blank to train dogs to retrieve. “I bet we went through 500 boxes of bullets. And all of a sudden, things just started clicking for him,” he recalled.
“His run just kept me hanging on to him and now he’s won the national championship,” Taylor said.
Dogs have to qualify at smaller competitions throughout the year to have enough points to make it to the national. Four-year-old Freddy started off the year well, qualifying for the national championship in his first trial. Taylor has run dogs in previous national championships, but never got more than a certificate of merit, he said.
“I never dreamed that he would win the thing, but he just kept improving through the year,” Taylor said. Freddy was one of 112 dogs from the United States and Canada that qualified to compete.
This year’s event was held in Mt. Sterling, south of Columbus. The ice storm that hit Ohio in mid-November delayed the start of the trials — “It was just like Santa Claus postponing Christmas,” Taylor said.
When they got started the next day, the fields were still covered in ice. Freddy was the fifth dog to run.
“It was difficult. I’ve never run in something so difficult in my life,” he said. Ice held down the cover, so visibility was good, but it was difficult for the dogs to run in. “The poor dogs couldn’t run, they had to hop. It was tough. It was a tough run, but he got through it. He did really well, actually.”
The second day, the cover stood up and cut down on visibility.
“He just flowed through that heavy, thick cover and I was so impressed,” Taylor said.
Taylor, who has also judged these competitions for several years, said he knows “what’s good and what’s bad” when it comes to field trials. After Freddy ran his second trial — where trainers were asked to direct their dogs to find two pheasants and retrieve them — Taylor knew he’d seen something good.
“There’s so many things that can go wrong, but nothing went wrong,” he said.
Freddy competed a third day and “did everything right.” He leaped to catch a bird and when it got away, he sat instead of “breaking” to chase it, Taylor said.
“It was as pretty as a picture,” he said.
Freddy was called back for a fourth day of trials and then a fifth. By the fifth day, the four dogs ahead of Freddy were out of the competition and Freddy was the first of the 22 remaining dogs to run the course. The dogs were required to find and retrieve three birds, which Taylor called “just another opportunity for things to go wrong.”
“So you can’t sleep that night. Even though I’ve done this a million times and I’ve judged probably 20 trials, I was nervous,” he said. “They put it on a new course and they wanted us to run downwind. It had been raining and it was thick, wet cover. And I thought, ‘How’s Freddy going to handle this?’”
After Freddy’s last run, the judge shook Taylor’s hand and winked instead of offering any comments on the dog’s performance.
“I’ve never seen a judge do that,” he said.
Taylor watched the rest of the dogs run, thinking, “Every dog was as good as the last.”
“Apparently, Freddy must have been just a little bit better,” he said. “I knew we had a good run that week, but you just never know.”
Taylor started working with dogs as a kid while hunting with his father and learned early how to judge a dog’s capabilities.
“When we would be hunting together and he couldn’t see the dog, he would always say, ‘Hey Dick, what’s the dog doing?’” he recalled. “At a young age, I was reading dogs.”
Taylor said he “accidentally” got into field trials after he bought a dog from a friend who also participated in field trials. His friend, who was a mentor to him, was named Freddy.
“We ran out of things to hunt. The pheasants went away here in Ohio,” Taylor said. Field trials were something he could do with “dogs, guns and pheasants. “The next thing you know, I’m addicted.”
When looking for a field dog, Taylor said trainers look for dogs that run well and that can be easily trained. Field dogs also have to be able to find birds and retrieve, he added.
“They’re like a kid on a Little League team. When kids first start, they can’t figure out how to catch a fly ball. But if you hit them enough of them, pretty soon at the crack of the bat, they know which way to go. And that’s the same way with dogs. They figure it all out in time or they don’t. And if they don’t, they end up being pets for somebody else. They make great pets,” he said.
Trainers also look for dogs that have a lot of drive and a “hard flush.”
“When those pheasants go up, we like dogs that actually jump in the air and try to grab them,” Taylor said.
The hardest part of the training is getting the dogs to stop and sit after flushing a bird, something called “steadying.”
“It’s just a lot of persistence,” he said.
Taylor said the training is fun and it’s something he does with his friends on weekends at the training facility at his home in Ludlow Falls.
After his rough start to training, Taylor said Freddy is “a dream to run with.”
“Anybody could run him, really. He runs and he handles well, he checks in with me all the time. A lot of dogs just take off and run loose, but every time he runs by, he gives me a little glance and I’ll guide him. It’s my job to keep him in position. We work as a team,” Taylor said. “Sometimes, I can just move my head and he’ll just turn and go that way.”
Life hasn’t changed too much for Freddy now that he’s a national champion — “Dogs don’t know if they win or lose,” Taylor pointed out — but he has gotten to spend more time laying around the house.
In January, training and competitions will start all over again.
“He’s laying by the fireplace a lot of nights now. We’re drinking eggnog and just taking it easy,” he said. “Then we’ll get right back to it. We’ve got another national to get ready for in 11 months.”
Reach Cecilia Fox at email@example.com.