Steve Ralph raises Brittanys at Blazin Britts Kennel
When Steve Ralph takes to the outdoors, it’s seldom that a Brittany is not by his side. If he’s not showing one of his Brittanys in a field trial competition, Ralph can be found training the upland game bird dogs near his home just outside Forest Lake.
For 34 years, Ralph and Brittanys have been constant companions.
Ralph, 52, got hooked by the breed early on and used the pointing dog for hunting. It’s now much more than hunting as Steve and Lori Ralph, owners of Blazin Britts Kennel, have translated that love of hunting to a stable of dogs that has produced multiple national championships.
Just this March, Joker’s Jackpot, or just Jack for short, captured the 2012 Purina All Age Brittany of the Year honor.
“That’s the pinnacle,” Ralph said of Brittany field trials competition. “You have to win many trials to get that.”
And Jack, an orange and white 5-year-old, is just getting started. He was a top-10 dog in the national competition in 2011 before winning it in 2012. And based on early results from field trials, Jack could make another run at top dog this year.
That Ralph is passionate about hunting dogs is a natural. He grew up in the suburban Golden Valley area at a time when suburban life was not as it is today. There were still hunting and fishing opportunities for a kid like Ralph who relished both activities while attending Lindbergh High School in Hopkins.
By the time his college years at Bemidji State University rolled around, Ralph made dorm life work with plenty of wild fish game and a dog at his side that told no tales. It was in 1980 when he switched from labs to a Brittany.
That was Molly, a Brittany that became his constant companion until 1990.
“I trained her like a lab,” Ralph said, smiling.
Labs are known for moving into bird cover and flushing out a bird for the hunter to shoot. That’s in sharp contrast to the pointing skills of a Brittany, Ralph said.
But Molly did her job and Ralph did his.
“We ate wild game every day,” Ralph said.
He rented a meat locker where ducks, pheasants, deer meat and fish were readily available for his always-hungry pals.
At Bemidji, Ralph backed away from his initial goal of majoring in wildlife management after seeing the long ladder that he would need to climb. Instead, he used his technological skills to net a computer programming degree. He has worked for Honeywell but in 1999 landed a job with a Pennsylvania-based company that today allows him to work from home.
“It’s been a blessing,” he said.
It has allowed closer access to his dog and helped family life, involving the couple’s two children, Alex and Alissa, both Forest Lake graduates.
It wasn’t until 1993 when Ralph’s focus for Brittanys started to change. He was goose hunting near Hinckley when he met a second hunter with a Brittany. Ralph was invited to a meeting of the St. Croix Valley Brittany Club.
He soon became deeply involved with the club and began showing dogs in field trial competitions while holding down numerous office positions of the club.
The entry into field competition meant changes but provided a new family activity. Son Alex is now married and has a family, while Alissa, a student at Northwestern College in Roseville, continues to help with the dogs.
A vacation for the Ralphs almost always involves the dogs. There is constant travel to field trials in various regions of the country. When the Ralphs pack up, it involves a horse trailer, too, as much of the field trial work is done from the saddle. Ralph owns three Tennessee walking horses that are used in competition.
Ralph serves as a co-handler with Jim John, who is working with Jack this spring.
Field trials for the American Kennel Club events most often are run by local or regional clubs and offer a variety of stakes to challenge dogs of various ages and levels of experience. The trials are geared for both professional and amateur handlers.
During trials, working dogs will release as far as 300 yards from their handlers, sometimes out of sight. The small cowbells that were once used to help guide handlers to the dog on point have been replaced by hand-held GPS collar tracking devices that tell a handler when a dog goes on point and where the dog is.
Dogs are judged on ground speed, stamina, application of the course, ability to locate and point game, style on point and manners on birds. Juvenile dogs (those under age 2) are judged in derby classes.
It is the top all-age dogs that are selected for breeding. Dogs with the top qualities will most likely produce pups that can be trained to win, Ralph said. “You are along for the ride,” Ralph said of the actual experience in the field with a top-quality dog.
Jack’s story seems to make sense, Ralph said. His sire, Smarteyes-Joker, was the No. 2 dog in history, recording a record 44 wins in 30 hour placement events. Smarteyes-Joker, also known as Jordan, died at age 14 but from 2004 through 2007 was Minnesota Field Dog of the Year. Jack, who is not yet 6, has 13 wins in hour placements events.
“He could surpass that record,” Ralph said.
And then there is Taylor, who carries the formal name of Sniksoh Sweetness. Taylor, still a derby dog, collected big hardware in her first full year of competition.
She won the Illinois Derby Classic earlier this year and also captured the prestigious Victoire National Derby Championship in Ardmore, Okla. She was a week shy of her first birthday and became the youngest dog to win the honor.
Taylor is an up-and-coming phenomenon and will be eligible to compete for the Victoire title again in March 2014, Ralph said. No dog has ever won the championship twice.
“A lot could happen,” he said.
Ralph said the constant travel, club duties (he is the technical guru for local Brittany club), judging field trials and training consumes time. It has cut into his hunting time with the dogs.
“I do it for the dogs,” he said.
Maybe it was Molly so many years ago that sealed the deal. He calculates that in the past 34 years, he has worked with 16 Brittanys. Along with Jack and Taylor, his other dogs today are Ringo, not yet 2, and the kennel veteran, Co-Dee, 14. A pup may be added from Taylor should she continue to shine, he said.
Brittany spaniels originated in northwestern France with the first written and verifiable record of the breed in 1850. Brittanys were recognized as a breed in 1907 and by the AKC in 1934. The “spaniel” tag was officially dropped from the name in 1982.
Brittanys are athletic and energetic dogs. They are compact and solidly built but not heavy.
Ralph likes that a Brittany offers the combination of being a companion dog and a hunting dog.
“They are great family dogs,” he said. “They are in shape all the time. They are like a marathon runner. Their body is in top shape. They live longer because of that.”
Although Ralph admits to missing his time hunting to an extent, he wouldn’t trade the past 20 years of working dogs in field trials. He had made hundreds of friends and built an activity the entire family can enjoy.
“It’s a fun hobby,” he said. “It keeps me in shape.”