Tribute to Mr. John Edwards
John Edwards: A Lifetime with Brittanys
by E.T. (Ed) Wall
Field Trial Magazine, Spring 1997
The year was 1959. Dwight Eisenhower was President, the Russians’ “sputnik was circling the earth, and Elvis Presley was finishing up a stint with the U. S. Army in Germany. Another serviceman, John Edwards was wrapping up his career with the Air Force and preparing to return home to the piney woods of eastern North Carolina that he had left in body, but not spirit, twenty-two years before. The ramrod-lean, hickory-tough colonel had served all over the world, including flying numerous combat missions over Southeast Asia in World War II, and had finished his career at a base in post-war France. While stationed there, Edwards became familiar with a breed of bobtailed little bird dogs that had evolved in the French countryside under the tutelage of peasants and poachers. The dogs were Brittany Spaniels (now simply called Brittanys) and Edwards was so taken with them that when he came home, he promptly bought one.
Local folks didn’t know what to make of the pint-sized pointers. Four decades latter, Brittanys are one of the most popular breeds in America and are common-place in the fields and forests of the Carolinas, as well as everywhere else. A big part of that popularity can be attributed to John Edwards. Operating as “Ed’s Brittanys,” he has bred and sold thousands of Brits all over theU.S. and overseas. More important, he is recognized by knowledgeable bird dog folks as having improved the breed as much as any living person, both in the hunting and field trial arenas.
John Edwards’ field trial credentials place him among the big-timers in the game. He has been featured in national publications and on television. It would take a CPA to document the number of field trial placements his dogs have garnered over the years, including national championships. When we spent a recent afternoon with Edwards, however, it wasn’t to count trophies. It was to solicit his thoughts on bird dogs, breeding, judges, handlers and all the aspects of field trials that he has observed over the past forty years. The following are excerpts from that visit as well as a few notes from earlier conversations.
FTM- John, we know your reputation as a Brittany man. Has that always been the case? How did you get started in this bird dog business?
EDWARDS- Well, I started out hunting with a Gordon Setter when I was a boy over in Greene County.
FTM- A Gordon Setter? That was kind of unusual in this area at that time, wasn’t it?
EDWARDS- No, it was a very popular dog. I’m talking about 1927 now. I was ten years old and used an old Iver Johnson black powder gun. It had a thirty-three and a half inch barrel. We’d take that Gordon out around about any ol’ place out in the country and find plenty of birds. We’d flush a covey and I’d look at an ol’ bird for awhile and I’d say that’n over there looks pretty good and bam – one shot, you see, never missed.
FTM- You say you started out with Gordons. How did you get into Brittanys?
EDWARDS- I was introduced to the Brittanys in France. It was 1957 and I’d never heard of ‘em, but the sergeant who was head of the rod and gun club said to me one day, “Sir, if you want a good bird dog, get a Brittany.” After that I hunted with some over there, but they used them as flushing dogs. I was going to bring one back but I just didn’t find one that I thought was good enough. These people that are trying to push the French Brittanys don’t know what they are talking about. You see, we have improved on the pointing instinct and hunting instinct of that dog so much more than they have. The only thing they have to point over there are woodcock. The imported dogs just don’t have a strong pointing instinct.
Anyway, when I retired I bought one in Atlanta, Georgia. I took her home and my wife said “Where’d you get that long-legged, ugly thing?” A year latter she was baking the dog a birthday cake! That first dog was Prairie’s Lady, the first Brittany most folks around here had ever seen. Some of them called ‘em Cocker Spaniels. But then they’d go hunting with me and say, “I want a pup out of that dog.”
FTM- You’ve gained quite a reputation over the years as a breeder and trainer of field trial dogs, as well as gun dogs. Has the field trial game changed in the past forty years, and if so, how?
EDWARDS- Well, for one thing, they’ve changed the definition of an all-age dog. This is the biggest problem. They’ve gone run, run, run. Somebody the other day said the Tennessee Walking horse twenty years ago couldn’t even keep up with these dogs today and I agree.
Down at Hoffman (NC), even Bill Andrews and a lot of the other old timers are trying to get’em to slow down. They’re still supposed to be bird dogs, not racehorses. But with a lot of ‘em that’s not the case. They’re what I call “if dogs.” If they run big and wide, if they don’t get lost, if they accidentally find a bird, if they handle the bird-they can win. Hell, we even see it in the Nationals, even with Brittanys.
Everything, all the major trials, are on horseback now. It’s optional and I walked for years and years, but my God, with everyone else on these fast horses, I had to get on a horse and go with them. That makes for a wider and faster dog-they don’t hunt as much. Now, my dogs have produced, I think, eighteen national champions but even some of them weren’t what a bird dog ought to be.
FTM- What do you see in the future of field trials?
EDWARDS- It’s gonna be hard to turn around because the young people have come into it now. For example, I was up at the Nationals and heard a young squirt talking about the top dog in the whole stakes, maybe a hundred dogs or so. He said, “That’s not an all-age dog – doesn’t run big enough.” What he meant was the dog wouldn’t run out there a mile or so and get lost. Of all those dogs, that’s the one I would have wanted to breed to. He was moving but he wasn’t just running the fairway-he was hunting. The dog had three finds and every one of them was in the boondocks, wasn’t out there in the middle. They’d go in, flush the bird and “bang” he’d pop out and off again. Now that was a bird dog.
FTM- Why do you think trials have gone the way they have, toward wider and wider dogs?
EDWARDS- I hate to say it, but I think the pros have gone this route so the amateurs will have to turn their dogs over to them. It takes a trainer with a scout on each side, all of ‘em on horses, and an electronic collar on the dog, to handle an awful lot of them. And I’m talking about a lot of Brittanys now, too.
I should say, though, that not all of the pros go along with this business, especially some of the old guys. Paul Walker-his daddy was a professional trainer and he was a professional trainer- now his dogs would win, but boy, could they hunt. They didn’t just get out there and run. Paul would stop and start to singing and boy, let me tell you, it was beautiful. His dog would pop out right in front and take off again.
FTM- What were some of the outstanding dogs you’ve owned over the years?
EDWARDS- Well, Rendezvous Huck would have to be one. He was twice National Champion runner-up and had about eighty field trial placements. I got him when he was about eight years old and he’d never been hunted. I’d turn ol’ Huck out he’d be gone. I’d go back to the truck an hour or so later and he’d be there waiting for me. About the fourth or fifth day in a row of that, Huck decided he couldn’t keep going like that and he settled down and boy, I tell you, he was some bird dog. The only thing wrong with him was he was a roan. Several folks said if he’d been easier to see in the woods, Huck woulda’ been national champ at least twice.
FTM- What about Secret de Brit?
EDWARDS- Oh, she was a hell of a bird dog. I bought her from a fellow who had whip-run her, trying to get her to run big and she’d gotten so she’d cower down. I brought her home, took her out of the crate and she just rolled right over and peed all over herself. Well, it took me about six months and I got her confidence back. It took me four or five trials to break her to a horse.
FTM- What did you do with her that was special?
EDWARDS- I just spent a lot of time with her, let her know I wasn’t going to hurt her. Well, she got so she’d lay out there and she was pretty, that little ol’ tail up there. After I got her broke ‘n everything, I placed that dog in every field trial I put her down in, first or second except one up in Virginia where she had a third place. There were a bunch of briars and she was a short dog, had a tough time in the briars. She took the amateur and the Open All-Age at Hoffman within an hour of one another. She ran the last brace of the All-Age and the first brace of the Amateur and damned if she didn’t win’em both. She ended up retiring the Southeast Amateur Gun Dog Trophy.
There was another one, Dewey’s Jacques of Leeway. Leeway was a famous breeding kennel up in Indiana, produced a number of top dogs. A fellow who was retired bought the pup and moved down here. It was too much dog for him so he brought him to me and I bought him. He was two years old and had never been trained. When I got him broke, he was something to see, though. He’d go in the thick, anywhere, come out all bloody. He never did as well in the trials as some of the others because of that. The judges don’t want a dog in the thick. They want one out in the fairway. He was a hell of a bird dog, though, and where he showed, he could beat anything around.
FTM- If you were breeding with the goal of winning a national championship today, what would you look for in a sire and dam?
EDWARDS- I’d still find me a bird dog. I’ve got one out there in my kennel right now, belongs to a fellow in Virginia, out of my breeding. He has the qualifications to win big. The thing about him is he’ll run big and he’ll run close. He’ll hunt to me, you see. You can turn that dog loose and he can go with nearly all the Pointers you’ll see anywhere, but he handles easy, has a good nose on him. He has the ability to get out there, but he knows when to come in. He hunts hard but he hunts with you.
FTM- What’s the dogs breeding?
EDWARDS- He’s out of Towsy, one of the top dogs in the country. Delmar Smith handled him. I saw Delmar at the Dog of the Year up in Ashville and I asked him “What’s the top Brittany you’ve ever had?” and he said “Towsy.” I asked him, “You think he could go with them today?” He said, “No doubt about it.” Towsy was a “bird dog” and my contention is you can still win with one like him.
I tell you something else, though, I’d pay more attention to the dam’s breeding than most folks do today. I think the female has more of an influence on what’s passed on to the pups than the male does. You breed to a male for his name and hope the traits you’re looking for are passed along. There’s a greater chance, though, that what you want – range, temperament- will come through the female. Too many breeders today don’t seem to realize that.
FTM- How would you change field trials in the years ahead if you could?
EDWARDS- I’d start with the judges, that’s what a lot of it goes back to. We need judges who will tell the handler “You show me your dog. That means if he runs way out there, out of the country, I’m not running after him.” If more of ‘em would do that, trainers would start showing up with dogs that will hunt with you rather than those “if dogs” we talked about before. They haven’t changed the definition of an all-age dog in the book. It’s the handlers and judges that have changed.
FTM- John, are you still handling dogs in trials anymore or doing any judging?
EDWARDS- No, I had to give that part of it up. I can’t ride a horse all day anymore, got arthritis so bad. A lot of trials wouldn’t want me to judge anyway. You can call me old fashioned but I’m not going that race horse route. I still call ‘em bird dogs and I’m going to work ‘em like bird dogs. A bird dog should hunt hard, should get out there and go where it’s open, but come in and hunt close in the thick. He ought to handle, to hunt with you and handle birds properly when he finds ‘em. I love one that does that. If he won’t do all that, though, I’ve got no use for him.
The clip below features John Edwards of Goldsboro, NC on a Sports Afield program several years ago. Enjoy!