Summertime on the South Dakota prairie is stunningly gorgeous. Hills roll on and on under a giant blue sky, and when the winds gust, the sweet smell of wheat, alfalfa, and corn silage fills the air. Enormous green fields extend nearly forever, studded with bursts of sunflowers. On a clear night you’re bound to see a shooting star.
Soaking it all in from atop Patrón, his Tennessee walking horse, is professional dog trainer and handler Luke Eisenhart. He’s traveled from South Georgia to these cooler climes to work a string of thirty-five English pointers and setters, either for eventual competition or for hunters across the country, as part of his Trachaven Kennels program, which his grandfather Gerald “Pap” Tracy established a half century ago. “I come from a long line of excellent dogmen,” Eisenhart says.
At age seven, Eisenhart began learning from Pap, and his uncle George Tracy, too—both inductees to the National Bird Dog Museum’s Field Trial Hall of Fame. He ran his first campaign then, and his dog Rocky River Rambo won him his first amateur trial. By the time Eisenhart was fifteen, he was training dogs on his own after school, and eventually he took over the business from Pap. “All I’ve ever wanted to do was to work dogs,” Eisenhart, who is now forty-one, says. “I’ve never thought of doing anything else.” That singular focus has made him something of a shooting star himself.
Over the past twenty years, he’s won more than a hundred championships, and after his success in the “shooting dog” category of field trials, he decided to enter the most elite circuit: the All-Age Stakes, in which top dogs of any age can compete. The South is to the All-Age field trials what the SEC is to college football, and so Eisenhart and his family moved from his native Pennsylvania to the epicenter of the action: Albany, Georgia, where his wife, Tammy, was raised.
All of the conditioning, training, and running on wild birds that followed led to triumph. This year Eisenhart won his sixth Purina Top All-Age Handler award, a new record—his mentor Robin Gates held the previous record of five wins. Eisenhart’s biggest victory came in February on a muddy course at Tennessee’s Ames Plantation—the National Championship, the mother of all field trials. He handled Dunn’s Tried N True (call name Jack), a white, orange, and ticked six-year-old pointer owned by Kentucky’s Will and Rita Dunn, to capture the sport’s top award. “Winning the National was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream,” Eisenhart says. “Dogs run for three hours, and during that time there is always a lot that can go wrong.”
Of course, Eisenhart says, “winning is a team effort. Good owners provide good dogs to work, while generous landowners provide access to fields full of wild birds.” He also credits Tommy Davis, his scout—the person who helps keep dogs on track during the trials—who happens to be his father-in-law and a Hall of Famer himself. “He’s a big reason for my success.”
John Rex Gates—who in 1978 became the youngest inductee to the Field Trial Hall of Fame—sees similarities between himself and Eisenhart. “Records live and opinions die,” Gates says, “and Luke’s coming on strong. He knows dogs, he plans his work and works his plan, and his success takes care of itself.” Claudia McNamee, who owns several dogs Eisenhart runs, first met him on the circuit fifteen years ago. “Luke has a quiet confidence that comes from years of smart and hard work,” she says. “He understands how to bring the best out in dogs, and to put them in a position for success. He’s that way with people and horses, too.”
As Eisenhart scans the horizon back in South Dakota, a pointer locks up. Eisenhart likes what he sees, but he knows there are months of preparation ahead. If all goes according to plan, though, it won’t be a surprise to see him return to Ames Plantation come winter.