Annual competition tests the skills of hunting dogs

MAKAWAO – In the sloping grasslands about 6,000 feet up Haleakala, dogs put their bird flushing skills to the test in a traditional event that once commanded a much larger presence.

Seven handlers and nine dogs competed in the sixth annual RR “Doc” Lyons Memorial Field Trial Competition on Saturday morning at Haleakala Ranch. The event is held Presidents Day weekend and is run by the Haleakala Field Trial Club.

It is the only annual competition of its kind left in the state.

“Ultimately, it’s about having a good time,” said event organizer Scott Makai, whose grandfather was “Doc” Lyons. “It’s a good reason to get out on the hillside, enjoy nature, watch the dogs work and have a little friendly competition at the same time.”

The club, of which his grandfather was a member, held its first trials in 1956. Those initial years were the golden age of field trials, according to Jim Hustace, a judge.

Hustace, who wrote a book about the history of Hawaiian field trials, said that the sport was very popular in the state and had clubs on nearly every island, including about five on Maui.

From 1957 to 1998, a national competition called the Hawaiian Bird Dog Championship rotated between Hawaii and other states, and there were an additional 40 field trials being held every year. One of the biggest trials drew about 75 Field trials entries and went from “dawn to dusk” over two days, he said.

Hustace, who is a hall of fame dog trainer and secretary of the Hawaii Field Trial Club on the Big Island as well, said that interest in the trials fell after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which caused an increase in costs related to importing birds and sending dogs to Hawaii. There also were pressures from increased development and loss of lands for the trials, he said.

When Makai contacted him about serving as a judge, Hustace said he was pleasantly surprised that the sport was still alive on Maui.

“I was happy to see them do it again because I thought it was all over,” he said.

In his book, titled “On Point,” he explains how dogs are evaluated during competition.

“The pair of dogs has a prescribed time allotted to show the judges their ability to run the selected terrain, to find game birds, and to demonstrate according to their age or the individual requirements of the stake (the event they are entered in) an ability to point and maintain the point in order for the handler of that particular dog to flush the bird,” his book said.

Although field trials do not involve guns, it is a hunting exercise, and dogs must flush birds within adequate shooting range, said judge John Kobayashi of Honolulu. Seeking out prime hiding places, such as bushes or shrubs, and taking nondirect paths to pheasants and quail are signs of a well-trained dog, he said.

Many of the handlers in the competition were fairly experienced, including Grant Tom, who has been training dogs for about 10 years. He brought two German shorthaired pointers to the trials – a 5-year-old male named Slick and a 3-year-old female, Mickie. Mickie won second place in the open all age stake.

Living in Honolulu, Tom said it is sometimes difficult to take his dogs out to the countryside but he makes sure they get out two to three times a week “or else they’ll tear the house apart.”

“The instinct is bred into them,” he said of pointer dogs. “You just have to get them out and onto birds.”

Although this was his first competition on Maui, Tom is an avid hunter. He said that he flies to Molokai every hunting season and also to Seattle, where he embarks on a hunting trip that takes him all the way to Montana.

Molokai veterinarian Stewart Morgan also competed in his first competition on the island, bringing a 5-year-old half-pointer, half-retriever named Bruce, and an 18-month-old Brittany spaniel named Glenn.

Morgan traveled to the Valley Isle the night before the competition and spent the night with his dogs in his rental car. It was well worth the night in the car – Glenn was awarded first place in the derby stake (dogs between 6 months old and 2 years old).

Makai said this was the first year that contestants from other islands participated, and that he would like to continue to build on that progress.

“I’d like to see the competition continue to grow,” he said. “My goal would be to have more field trials held on neighboring islands.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at