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Fergus Falls man trains dogs for competitions in retirement years

    “Hillbilly Prez” and “I Like Ike” sound like campaign slogans at a political rally. Far from it!  Ed Zahler, of Fergus Falls, has an interesting story behind the unique names for his pair of English springer spaniels.

“Hillbilly Prez is a combination of Hillary and Bill Clinton. And if you notice the last letters of Prez, you will see my initials. The youngest puppy was named after  President Eisenhower to not give away my political preference.”

Ed explained they purchased Prez during the Obama/Clinton nomination. “My wife, Jean, was not very happy at first about the name. She told me if Hillary wins the presidential nomination, you are not going to give the dog that name.”  Due to the fate of history, the name remained.

Ed moved to Ottertail County, in 1999, after retiring from his own public accounting practice in Stillwater. The 78-year-old retired CPA said he has had dogs all his life and has always been an avid hunter.

“In 2001, I purchased a male English springer spaniel from the Pine Shadow Kennels in Brainerd. After a few days of pheasant hunting in North Dakota, I realized she didn’t listen to my commands. I brought her back to the kennel and traded her for a more docile dog. I also named him EZ.”

After a year of training from the Pine Shadow Kennels, EZ developed into a wonderful hunting  dog and companion. In 2002, Mark Haglin (the kennel owner), told Ed that his dog could be a good field trial dog, and he should consider entering him in future field trials.

Ed entered his spaniel in several trials, but he never placed. Then in 2004, Ed entered EZ in an amateur field trial in Brainerd. He came close to placing first, but he did not make a critical retrieve. In an article written by Haglin, he stated: “Ed Zahler with EZ had three great series going until the last bird in the third series. It was a cripple and EZ was sent on the long retrieve, however he failed to come up with the cripple. EZ had made it to the fall, but couldn’t track it out in the heavy cover.”

This was as close as Ed came to winning with EZ  His faithful companion died of cancer in 2005.

In 2004, Ed purchased a female puppy from Pine Shadows which he named Breez. Breez was a smaller dog, very pretty and a good hunter. Ed entered her in several field trials, but she never won. She would point, rather than rush in boldly to flush the pheasant. Pointing is fine for a hunting dog, explained Ed, but not in field trials. It will disqualify you.

Pine Shadows used Breez for breeding and she had two litters of pups. “Each litter had eight puppies, and I was paid for her use as a mommy. I entered Breez in field trials but finally had to face the fact that she was not competitive because of her pointing. Her last trial was April 26, 2008. I sold her to a loving family in 2010.”

On June 8, 2008, 50-day-old Hillbilly Prez made her appearance in the Zahler household. Ed purchased her from Lois Buermann in Henning. “Prez was a nice puppy but extremely timid and sensitive. She required a different training method. Raising my voice was all that was required to get her to mind.”

Ed entered Prez in five field trials in Kansas and Nebraska  near the end of 2009.  She competed against more mature dogs and was overmatched. At a field trial in Pawnee, Neb., Ed met Dan Murray and sent Prez  home with him to Bismarck, N.D.  for further training.

It was a busy year for Prez and Ed in 2011. They entered seven trials in Minnesota, North Dakota and Iowa. She won a first and second- place award. Ed was excited. These were the first awards one of his dogs had ever won.

The springer spaniel was now qualified to enter the National Amateur Championship in Beatrice, Neb. in November. During the first series of the trial, Prez broke (she wouldn’t sit when the bird went up), and the trial was over for her. Ed sent her back to North Dakota to get more training to remain steady.

Twelve trials in 2012 and Prez won a first and two second-place awards. In August of that year, the couple traveled to Green Bay, Wis. and Prez passed her water test. This test shows that the dog will retrieve pheasants from the water. Now Prez had accumulated enough awards to be named an Amateur Field Champion.

Ed and Jean traveled to Ogden, Utah, in November to the National Amateur Championship. There were 71 springer spaniels entered in the event. Prez was awarded the title of high point Midwest (Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois) amateur springer spaniel. Ed was awarded a trophy there and received another traveling  trophy in February of this year from the Wisconsin kennel for his dog’s accomplishments. The tall trophy has a dog on top of it carrying a bird. Ed was the eighth recipient of the award since its inception in 2005.

Ike, at 18 months, is still considered a puppy until he reaches 2 years of age. Ed has entered him in a couple of puppy trials and hopes to enter him in two trials this spring.

Ed loves the field trials. They are so very different than the shows like Westminster. “Those are fluff dogs with an attitude. Our dogs are fast dogs with great noses to find birds. A lot of the time the judging depends on what the bird does and also the scenting conditions at the time.”

Ed likes to explain how a field trial is conducted. He describes the marked-off course where the dogs must retrieve the bird. The birds, usually pheasants, are shot down by gunners. Only hand gestures and whistles are allowed as forms of communication. The dog must sit until he gets the whistles to proceed.

There are several basic rules that will automatically eliminate a dog from going any further in the competition. “Poaching” is infringing on another dog’s territory. “Pass bird” is not smelling the bird. “Breaking” is not sitting down when the bird goes up.

The 78-year-old senior spends many hours at the senior center in Fergus Falls playing bridge, whist and pinochle. He tries to get in three to five days on the exercise machines. He has also worked many years as a volunteer for the AARP as a tax preparer for their free services for seniors.

Ed admits his life “has gone to the dogs,” but he is just fine with it. Especially when he keeps bringing home those trophies.

“I love my dogs.”

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