Since 1896, the nation's top bird-hunting dogs and their trainers have converged each year at Ames Plantation in western Tennessee to compete in their sport's Super Bowl – a two-week National Championship that tests the dogs' endurance and skill as they navigate a 6,000-acre course, running for up to three hours nonstop, often through freezing cold and rain. For the handlers, the most accomplished of whom are celebrities in the insular and obsessive world of bird dogging, the intense competition represents a chance at bragging rights and a $20,000 prize. Grand Junction, TN (pop. 325), site of the championship, is home to the National Bird Dog Museum and the sport's Hall of Fame.
Bird Dogs follows a few select competitors on the quest to qualify for and win the national championship. Both the dogs and their trainers are central characters in the story. To qualify for the championship event – the most prestigious field trial in North America – they spend the year competing in smaller trials across the U.S. and Canada; a dog must win two of the 75 qualifying trials to make it to Ames.
The handlers follow their dogs on horseback, along with a trio of judges and as many as 500 mounted spectators. Dogs are judged on the number of birds they find, as well as the style and stamina displayed. When a dog smells quail, it stands locked on three legs with forepaw tucked under its chest, while its handler flushes the covey from the brush and fires a starter pistol. The birds, counted as a “find,” are not killed.
“There is no bond, with the exception of a perfect love affair, that can be fuller than the relation between a gunner and his bird dogs,” wrote legendary dog breeder George Bird Evans. This film illuminates the fascinating subculture of competitive bird dogging and the unique relationships forged between dogs and their trainers, while chronicling the competition for the title of "most elite canine athlete."