It all started with an abandoned puppy outside of Detroit in 2010 -- one that just happened to be a German shorthaired pointer. Figuring her to be about 8 months old, Cassandra Bliss -- an aspiring veterinary opthamologist in residency at the time -- took the puppy in. Bliss grew up camping with her family and had cast a fishing rod a few times before, but she’d never been interested in hunting and could have only guessed at the difference between a shotgun and a rifle by the time she’d named the new puppy Ella. So, no one would have predicted that 10 months later this pair would win 1st place in puppy pointing in their very first tournament hunt -- the Michigan Upland Bird Dog Championship. And that was enough to set Bliss’s highly competitive spirit on fire. “By random chance we did well,” she insists, but it was still enough to get her hooked both on tournament hunting and the gun dog lifestyle.
Bliss and her puppy in training
That lifestyle, it turns out, “is really expensive and requires a ton of driving around,” Bliss says. The first couple years, she and Ella spent every weekend she could afford driving to different BDC tournaments (now known for the wildly popular reality show “Bird Dog Wars”), but the hard work paid off. In 2012, the pair had won amateur dog of the year, which meant they had to move to the pro division, competing against the best of the best. In 2014 Cassandra qualified for the Bird Dog Circuit National Championships and earned the ladies championship title. After making the move to the west coast they joined US Bird Dogs and won 1st place in the nationals ladies division in that circuit as well. Out of the 40 dogs who qualified to run in the pro division at the 2014 US Bird Dog Nationals, only five dogs go to the finals. It came down to Bliss and 4 men; Bliss took 4th with Dazzle, her second bird dog, an English Pointer, who was only 18 months old at the time. And to top it all off, Bliss does it all her way -- in a skirt, with an old over/under fixed choke .20 gauge shotgun, and with her self-imposed rule to never take a second shot. In a primarily man’s sport, you could say she stands out. You could also say she kicks a lot of ass.
These days Bliss only needs one shot
“They used to call me Double Tap Cass,” Bliss recalls, a nickname that came from her often having to shoot a bird twice. “I remember tournaments where I’d shoot twice and still miss and my dog would run 300 yards and bail me out.” Even the pros will have a double shot occasionally, but once again Bliss is no ordinary competitor. “It probably took me about two to three years to get really good at shooting. You can shoot clay pigeons all day, but in order to get good at shooting birds, you’ve got to shoot birds.” Bliss upped her game by getting out at least five times a week to shoot, plus going out multiple times with her dogs. Her motto? “Second is the first loser.” A motto she has taken on after the passing of one her favorite competitors who always told her that before going into a field.
Real quick, let’s get the basic rules straight on tournament hunting for pointing breeds. The competition takes place in about a 10-20 acre field where three or more birds (usually chuckar, pheasants or quail) are planted by officials in the brush. For pointers, the rules are that the dog must locate a bird and come to a point that is held for three seconds. After this, the shooter will flush the bird to flight and then take down the bird (ideally in one clean shot). Then the dog brings the bird back to the hand of the shooter where the bird was flushed from. If you take two shots to kill the bird instead of one, you get a penalty. You have a time limit in the field and essentially the fastest team who’s the most accurate wins. This type of competition first became popular for those people looking to do something with their bird dog in the off season.
Bliss in action
With Bliss’ move to Oregon and the start of her own practice (Bliss Animal Eye Care) she switched to the Oregon Bird Dog Challenge, a smaller tournament circuit, but one she could balance with a full time veterinary practice. With Dazzle, Bliss had a lot less time to train, and she sent her to a trainer in Nevada (Jerimiah Davisson with Western Wing Kennels), who also used her for professional guiding on wild birds in Nevada, Arizona, Texas and Montana to get her foundation. In Oregon, the team continues to do well, earning the high point champion of the Oregon Bird Dog Challenge last summer.
One thing Bliss has learned along the way is the differences in training for tournaments vs. wild hunting. When she first started training Ella, and before she knew all that much about tournament hunting, she and Ella would often train in wild bird hunting situations. This is different than tournament hunting for many reasons including bird behavior and terrain; both can be equally challenging. Last wild bird hunting season, Ella ran through stinging nettles that got into her cornea. Luckily, Ella had a great eye doctor (her own mom), but it still required major microsurgery to repair her cornea.
Bliss at work during Ella's surgery
Faced with the “cone of shame,” Bliss decided to try Rex Specs as an alternative for eye protection post surgery. “I put them on her that weekend and took her out to the beach,” Bliss says. She's quick to point out that normally going to the beach would never be recommend for a dog being treated for an eye injury because sand could get in the eyes. “But she just ran around and had a great time and accepted them so easily. It’s just a really, really good alternative for eye protection even post surgery.”
Full disclosure: Bliss now offers Rex Specs at her office as an alternative that can sometimes be used in place of the cone of shame, but also advocates the use of Rex Specs to help prevent eye injuries in hunting dogs. “I deal with hunting dogs all the time -- typically wild bird season in the fall is the worst,” she says. “The majority of injuries are foxtails, foreign bodies and seeds that injure or get left in their eyes. I’ve done a full blog just on eye care for gun dogs.”
Although rarely necessary due to the difference in terrain for tournament hunting, Bliss is an avid advocate for eye protection for wild hunting. “If [the dog will] accept Rex Specs it would help prevent eye injuries immensely,” she says.
Even though you’re more likely to find Bliss treating hundreds of animals for eye-related issues at her thriving ophthalmology practice these days than on "Bird Dog Wars," she’s still chomping at the bit to compete with her pups. So don’t be surprised if sooner or later another trophy or two get added to her collection.
Stay tuned for more articles in our series about gun dogs and inspiring people who hunt.