Bird Dogs & Training  |  03/22/2023

Unsung Heroes: The Invitational Gunners

Photo by Ann Fernando

Unsung Heroes: The Invitational Gunners

By Nancy Anisfield

“When push comes to shove, all Invitational handlers rely totally on their gunners. Many (most) are not running dogs, often buy their own shells, walk their butts off, are under serious pressure, get little credit for great shots, and occasionally get grief for their rare misses. In my opinion, they are the under-acknowledged backbone of the test.”

The above words, spoken by Tim Otto, president of NAVHDA and an Invitational judge, couldn’t be more true.

Anyone who has run the Invitational knows that besides getting birds on the ground, we need to concentrate on our dogs and keep every bird contact running as smoothly as possible. Gunners are a critical factor in achieving that outcome. And it’s no easy task. Challenges include keeping up with the handlers but not getting in the way of the judges; responding to situations where the dogs are separated; positioning themselves to the best advantage of shooter, handler and dog; killing the bird cleanly; and above all, ensuring maximum safety.

Unlike the different ways different chapters cultivate their gunners, the Invitational has a precise process that prospective gunners must follow. Angie Coenen, the Invitational Coordinator and NAVHDA Secretary, explained how to become an Invitational gunner.

“To be an Invitational gunner, you have to have gunned at a Utility Test, and you need a Senior judge to write a letter of recommendation for you to be submitted to the Invitational committee.” Angie pointed out that the letter from the Senior judge needs to cover the gunner’s safety and accuracy in a testing situation. The letter goes before the Invitational committee for review.

“The Invitational committee votes on approving the gunner,” Angie said. “If the gunner is approved, the volunteer chair puts the name on the approved gunner list for the current and future Invitationals. Each year when the request for volunteers comes out, the approved gunner can sign up to be a gunner that year.”

We asked several gunners what made them want to gun at the Invitational.

 Charles Coulter replied, “After volunteering in most positions, I looked into gunning, but I wasn’t sure. Once I handled in the Invitational, I realized the importance of the gunners. I felt it was the best place to volunteer and really be able to help the handlers through a very tough day.”

Jake Bartells said, “The fitting answer would be I wanted to help any way I could to make an extremely intricate test run smooth, and there is certainly an element of truth to that. But a greater truth lies in the fact I wanted a front row seat to all the action.  Being in the middle of it all changed the way I train my own dogs for the test.  I'm able to take away from each and every brace a situation I then go home and replicate so my dogs are better prepared when their opportunity arises.”

Matt Lorello also said his main reason was that he wanted to gun over some of the best dogs in the country, but he added, “The first time I went to the Invitational to run my dog, I wanted to volunteer a couple of days while I was there. Part of it was a challenge to myself, too.”

Photo by Waylon Lunn

What is the hardest part of that challenge? Paul Coenen said, “The hardest thing is keeping your cool and focusing on each bird and not getting lazy about your shooting. You have to remember that each bird can mean the difference between the dog passing or not. Every single bird is important.”

Jake cited a few challenges that top his list. “The tricky situations are what I live for; they are what keeps me coming back as a gunner.  I love the pressure to perform and the self-loathing that drives me to be better when I don’t. The look of disappointment, worry and even disgust a handler will give you when even a single bird is missed, or one sails farther than desirable before expiring is one I’m always trying to avoid. It’s avoiding that look that drives us all to perform flawlessly.”

From a “tricky situations perspective” Jake said it usually comes a few days into the test in Ohio where it’s not allowed to have folks clean up the extra birds at the end of the day.  “This results in some coveys forming. I’ve often seen points where multiple birds go up,” he described. “Safety is paramount, but I’m also trying to stay aware of which one the dog is focused on, where additional birds landed in relation to the dead one, and if even more live birds close to the dog didn’t flush.  I never want to contribute to setting a dog up for failure, and my awareness of these things has often kept a dog and handler out of some increasingly difficult situations.”

Another challenge Jake pointed out is the pressure of gunning for friends or the “higher ups.”

Photo by Waylon Lunn

“I’ll never forget being so excited to gun for my friend Rick Holt when he was running his dog Blake.  It was towards the end of a hot day, and I thought this would be fun.  Thirty minutes into the run I found myself in a situation I’d never been in before.  Blake had three bird contacts, the first bird I missed, the second was a safety, and the third was another miss.  I felt two inches tall. I remember thinking, ‘Here I am letting my friend down at the moment he needs me to bring my A game.’  Rick handled it perfectly. He looked over at me and said, ‘It’s okay Jakey, there’s more birds.’  He’s one of very few people that get away with calling me ‘Jakey,’ and he said it with kindness but there was worry in his eyes… In the end we got plenty of birds on the ground for him, but avoiding that feeling is what focuses me on every shot I’ve taken since.”

Charles said that to him, seeing a dog or handler come undone or have some sort of issue in the field is the toughest part. “It feels pretty helpless, and you really want to see them do well.”

Keeping up with the handlers can also be hard. “If you’ve got a handler with long legs and a fast pace, it can be brutal to make sure you’re keeping up and being where you need to be,” Matt explained. “Another tricky thing is determining how to handle some of the iffy shots – you need to make split second decisions which often are in reaction to a judge’s call. Like if your gun is open and the bird pops unexpectedly. Then you need to close the gun, mount and shoot, making sure you don’t mess up the handler or the dog by moving too quickly, startling the dog, or not being in the best position.”

Photo by Nancy Anisfield

Geoff Ferrer pointed out that “knowing your place” is one of the hardest things. “You are not a handler, you are not a judge. Your job is to be seen and not heard. You need to anticipate the action and always be prepared to take a safe shot. A handler should never have to wait on a gunner. Many handlers do not like to engage in conversations, others will. Even if a handler wants to talk, the gunner should never distract the handlers from the job at hand. A gunner must know the rules and abide by them and never, never tell the handlers that the judges screwed up or improperly evaluated a situation.”

Geoff also offered this advice to handlers. “The prudent handler should have a talk with his or her gunner before the brace begins. Set the ground rules. Let the gunner know if you want to talk. Tell the gunner what your normal sequence will be on the retrieve and what you want the gunner to do. Some handlers want the gunner(s) to walk back with the handler after the flush before the dog is sent; others will want the gunner to remain in place until after the dogs passes for the retrieve. Some handlers prefer that gunners do not open their guns until the dog passes. A handler and gunner that are in sync are fun to watch.”

Paul agrees that communication between handler and gunner is important. “Gunners should communicate with your handlers right away, so they know that they can talk to you. Everyone is looking for the best in that dog while in the field. Help them where you can and give them space where they need it.”

What is the best thing about being an Invitational gunner? Answering that question, Paul and Geoff both echoed Matt’s reason for being there. “The best thing is that you get to hunt over some of the finest dogs in the nation,” Paul said. “It has been an absolute pleasure being in the field with these great dogs and their great handlers.”

Jake feels it is hard to single out one best thing about being an Invitational gunner. “It’s getting to give back to an organization, yet having a blast doing it.  I enjoy doing the little things for a handler, like on a bright sunny day blocking the sun and letting a dog utilize my shade, assisting a handler as they try to manage their gun, water bottle and dog when they enter the water tub, or keeping my eye out for that bird they just can’t seem to locate. Gunners may get a lot of credit, but the truth is the poor guy dragging 50 ducks up the bank, or the person delivering 200 lunches is the one that deserves the credit for doing the real work.”

“Unless you are an Invitational field judge or a field photographer, being a gunner is the only way to walk multiple braces and see some exceptional dog work. Having gunned every Invitational since 2012, I have seen a lot of great dog and handling work,” Geoff added.

Photo by Nancy Anisfield

NAVHDA can be very proud of the Invitational gunners. Their expertise and appreciation for their task is remarkable. “At any level – NA, UT, or the Invitational – if you are volunteering you need to be good. Handlers rely on the volunteers,” Matt explained. “You want to be the best you can be, whether you’re a gunner or a bird planter or whatever. People put in a lot of time, money, and effort to get to a test. Even though we’re volunteers, we’ve accepted a job and need to take it seriously, doing the best we can under any conditions.”

The pay-off, the reward, is the experience. Charles summed it up well. “You have an amazing view of some of the best dog work in any organization. It’s also pretty special to be a part of someone’s journey. Pass or fail, you were there for a pretty special moment in that person’s life.”

This story first appeared in Versatile Hunting Dog Magazine, December 2022.