The description — classy, easy-handling and fast — could apply to sports cars, and that’s an appropriate comparison. But, you’d have to add something that doesn’t apply to any grouping of wires, motor and body — and that’s sense.
These are no ordinary dogs, and yet, they are perfect for ordinary owners — as long as they want to hunt game birds. It would be an injustice if any from this line of dogs were kept from that purpose.
Marty and Debbie Zukovich, Tamaqua, Pa., have developed a line of English Setters that are known far beyond the Schuylkill County Pennsylvania line. The Zukovich’s Pine Hill Setters, trained by Robert Ecker, Hazleton, Pa., are known and respected on the bird dog field trial circuits all over the country.
Walk along the kennel, and it seems like every dog should have a paw print in the concrete out in front, a sort-of canine walk of stars. There’s the friendly Trapper, the 2000 runner-up in the New England Woodcock Championship, Rhode Island, and the winner of the event in 2002. One month after that win, Trapper also won the Wisconsin Grouse Championship.
Bonnie Is No. 1!
Bonnie, runner-up in the Grand National Grouse Derby Classic, Marionville, Pa., won the Pennsylvania Grouse Championship last year. The Pennsylvania competition is the oldest bird dog field trial in the country, held since the 1940s, and Bonny bested 98 other dogs.
Marty Zukovich, Tamaqua, Pa., with Bonnie.
Bonnie is presently considered the No. 1 English Setter grouse dog in the country, and in light of that distinction, was awarded the prestigious 14th Annual Michael Seminatoe plaque and the Edward L. Frisella trophy.
Zukovich grew up with dogs as part of the family. In old photo albums, filled with black and white photos, young Marty appears petting the family’s bird dogs.
As an adult, he got a Brittany hunting dog and also bought some Bobwhite Quail, to help with the dog training. Zukovich, who majored in animal science at Penn State, soon found himself in the bird-raising business in a big way, raising and selling birds to other enthusiasts.
Today he raises approximately 25,000 birds a year, including the Bob Whites, Chukar Partridge, Ring-necked Pheasants and Hungarian Partridge. The birds are kept in a circus big-top size enclosure, and as a result are winter-hardy and ready to fly.
“That’s a hobby out of control,” Zukovich said wryly, looking over at the bird enclosures, and then back toward the line of kenneled dogs. “Kind of like this.”
Enters Field Trials
The Zukovich’s met trainer Robert Ecker because he bought birds from them.
“Week after week I was selling him birds, and he was talking about field trials,” Zukovich recalled. “About nine years ago, I bought (English Setter) Sandy.”
Ecker had lots of experience on the field trial circuit. One of his English Setters, Midnight Light, won the Pennsylvania Grouse Championship four times and was named Walking Shooting Dog of the Year for New Jersey in 2002.
Ecker, who had been working with Sandy, convinced Zukovich to enter her in the puppy class at a competition in West Branch, N.J. Sandy won the puppy class, leading the Zukovich’s into a new world.
The breeder/trainer relationship is a good fit for both. Zukovich works full time at Leiby’s, where he is an ice cream maker, and can’t get to all the trials.
Two years later, Sandy won the Fillingham Classic, held in western Pennsylvania.
“That was pretty exciting, because I never thought I’d win one that big,” Zukovich said of the Fillingham Classic. “But so many other things have happened since then.”
Sandy was the winner of the Region II (New Jersey and Pennsylvania) Amateur Walking Championship in 2002.
Strong Breeding Program
Ecker said that it’s the Zukovich’s attention to the dog’s breeding program that is developing such a strong line with desirable traits. The dogs excel at the big field dog trials, but they are just as valuable to the average hunter.
“His breeding program is aimed at producing dogs that will do well at walking trials, on wild birds,” Ecker said. “They are perfect dogs for the average handler, because they are bred to work close to the hunter.”
Marty with a puppy
At a trial, each brace has two dogs, two handlers and two judges, who are judging the way the dogs work, their manners, their pointing style and their response to the handler,” he continued. “Dogs that do well there are the kind of dog everyone wants.”
The Zukovich’s, Ecker, and another trainer/helper Bill Henke, Marianville, Pa., released a kennel full of puppies. With one mind, they raced around the yard, and as a pack, circled around. Then, with puppy eyes still blue and legs yet unsteady, they raised eager pink noses into the breeze.
“They have the breeding, a good sire and dam, and everyday their personalities are changing,” Ecker said of the puppies. “It’s like a hidden treasure of Schuylkill County that these dogs are so good, and right here in our backyard.”
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