North Sea Dog Trainer Finds Success, and Partnership, in Competition

Sonny Kilfoyle with one of his cockers at the Port of Missing Men. Dana Shaw photos

On a cool and drizzly weekday morning in early November, Alfie, a liver-colored 1½-year-old English cocker spaniel, ran furiously around the 500-acre property at the Port of Missing Men estate in North Sea.

Nose to the ground, tail wagging furiously, he weaved his way through overgrown grassy fields and into wooded areas thick with undergrowth, zipping back and forth in a zig-zag pattern, with only one thing on his mind: finding birds.

Before long, there was a burst of fluttering wings and a chorus of squawking, as several pheasants quickly rose into the sky. As they ascended, the young dog simply sat still, until his owner, Southampton resident Sonny Kilfoyle, signaled that he could return to his side.

Over the course of the next hour, Alfie channeled his seemingly boundless energy into a laser focus, clearly the result of combining his natural intelligence with consistent and proper training.

Alfie, a one and a half year old English cocker spaniel.

Alfie is one of four dogs that Kilfoyle owns and trains, along with other dogs, at the historic estate, which was built in the early 1920s by H.H. Rogers, heir to the Standard Oil fortune. The mansion on the property was designed to be a hunting lodge, and the estate was mainly used as a place for Mr. Rogers and his male friends to pursue pheasant hunting and male bonding away from their wives and families — hence the name.

The Port of Missing Men has remained in the family and is currently the residence of Wiltraud Salm, also known as Countess von Salm-Hoogstraeten. Her late husband, Peter Salm, was the son of Millicent Rogers, H.H. Rogers’s granddaughter.

Traversing the grounds of the vast property is like being transported to another place and time. The estate is surrounded by preserved land, with wooded areas and sweeping overgrown grassy meadows, as well surrounding marshland and the Great Peconic Bay nearby.

Sonny Kilfoyle and Alfie at the Port of Missing Men.

A small white chapel, like something out of a fairy tale, is set back to the left of the main gated entryway, while a white cottage with a similar look and feel sits off to another side.

The pheasant shoots that started on the estate property in the 1920s are still a late fall/early winter tradition, starting on the last weekend of October and running through January. They are similar to traditional English shoots, and after the birds are killed, they are cooked — pheasant schnitzel and red wine braised pheasant over egg noodles had been on the dinner menu recently.

Mr. Kilfoyle and his dogs are part of that affair, and he has trained the dogs of several other participants in the shoot. But everyone seems to agree that Alfie is special, a “once-in-a-lifetime” kind of dog.

That sentiment was proven correct recently, as Mr. Kilfoyle entered Alfie is his first field trial, in Millbrook, New York, where they were surprise winners. Several weeks later, they finished third at nationals in Thayer, Iowa.

Field trials are competitions that give working hunting dogs a chance to show off their skills. Alfie is a flushing dog, meaning his job is to sniff out birds on the ground and flush them out of the ground and up into the air, which then allows the handler or hunter to shoot the bird.

Once the birds are flushed and shot, the dog must wait for a signal from its handler to go retrieve the bird, and they are expected to have tracked where the bird fell, and then quickly return and deliver the bird into the hands of their handler.

Mr. Kilfoyle and Alfie were, pardon the expression, underdogs at their first competition — it was the first time at a field trial for both of them, and Alfie was half the age of most of his competitors. Despite that, they finished first, which earned them an invitation to compete at nationals.

In that event, Alfie made it through several rounds of competition and finished third out of 105 dogs. Because the top two finishers were females, he can lay claim to being the top male dog in the country.

Becoming a dog trainer and competitive field trial handler was not Mr. Kilfoyle’s intended career path for most of his life. He hails from Massachusetts originally, and had enjoyed a successful career as a musician, traveling around playing in a band before making music for TV shows and commercials while based in New York City.

Eventually, he moved out east with his wife, Danielle Kilfoyle, who grew up in Southampton, to escape the hustle and bustle of New York City.

They were dog people and had Labradors, and Mr. Kilfoyle said he became increasingly interested in dog training and learning more about animal behavior.

He said he immersed himself in research on those topics, and sought out the advice and guidance of several experts in the field. Before long, he was doing obedience training.

He had a working relationship with Ms. Salm by then, and still cares for her 18-year-old Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever, Jackpot. But his attention was drawn to cockers after he got a call from Mike “Mungo” Meehan, who lives on the estate and wanted him to train his cocker, Rose, for the bird shoots.

Mr. Kilfoyle said he was immediately drawn to the breed, deciding he wanted one of his own. He researched top breeders in the United Kingdom, and finally convinced Peter Jones of Maesydderwen Kennels in Wales, one of the top cocker breeders overseas, to sell him Alfie.

Mr. Jones is picky about who he sells his dogs to, and Mr. Kilfoyle said it took some convincing for him to send him Alfie. But it was worth the wait.

“He’s been everything I hoped for since I got him,” Mr. Kilfoyle said.

Mr. Kilfoyle realized early on that Alfie was special, and it was obvious to others as well.

Ted Lagala owns several English springer spaniels and has been taking them to field trials for more than 10 years, and trains with Mr. Kilfoyle and other cocker enthusiasts at a club in Manorville on Sundays. Mr. Kilfoyle sought out Mr. Lagala’s advice when considering entering Alfie in his first field trial. Mr. Kilfoyle knew Alfie would be considerably younger than most of the other dogs but felt that perhaps he was ready.

Mr. Lagala said that he told Mr. Kilfoyle he thought Alfie was ready, and he described Alfie as a “once-in-a-lifetime” dog. The ability to compete, and have success, at a high level at a young age “usually identifies greatness,” Mr. Lagala said. “I think [Alfie] has a really bright future.”

While Alfie has natural talent and an innate desire to work, he has also benefited from proper training, according to Mr. Meehan, who has been participating in shoots on the estate for years.

“He’s the best trainer I’ve ever seen,” Mr. Meehan said. “He loves his dogs, and he’s firm but gentle.”

That kind of approach is intentional, Mr. Kilfoyle said. He said he is particular about the dogs he purchases, importing them only from reputable breeders in the United Kingdom, and he prefers a natural, relationship-based approach when it comes to training. Mutual trust, and patience, are a big part of the process.

“It takes a lot of time,” Mr. Kilfoyle said as he strolled slowly down a worn path between an overgrown grassy field and woodlands, with Alfie ping-ponging his way through both areas in search of pheasants. “It really comes down to mental conditioning.”

Teaching the dogs to stay put after they’ve experienced the thrill of flushing a bird requires discipline and consistency, he explained.

“From an early age, we convince them that if you stay put, you’ll eventually get the retrieve,” he explained. “If you chase [the bird], I’ll have someone pick it up and you’ll never get the reward. The reward always comes from staying put. It’s easier said than done, because by the time they’re 8 or 9 months old, and they’re on real birds, they’re going to want to chase it. But if the foundation is in place, it’s much easier.”

Mr. Kilfoyle said that, unlike some other American trainers, he never uses electric collars as part of his training methods.

“I would never want to train a dog that required me to use that,” he said. “The reason I import dogs from the U.K. is because they’re smart. In my opinion, you shouldn’t need to use the collar. If I had a dog that I needed to use a collar on, I’d sell it to someone else. Just because it’s not for me, and it doesn’t work with my training methods. Everything we do is so relationship based.”

That statement was immediately clear when watching Alfie and Mr. Kilfoyle interact. Alfie had a laser focus on Mr. Kilfoyle, constantly looking to him for the next signal or instruction. He was glued to Mr. Kilfoyle’s side, and on the few occasions when he strayed a few feet ahead, he quickly circled back as soon as his handler said, calmly but firmly, “Alfie, heel.”

Alfie responded quickly and accurately to a variety of commands: dog whistle, voice commands, and even visual cues. When Mr. Kilfoyle flicked his hand to the left or right, Alfie quickly turned in that direction. Even with the presence of a reporter and photographer who were quite intent on petting him and giving him attention, Alfie wasn’t significantly distracted, although he did at one point give immediate chase after flushing several birds in a row. He had to spend a few moments on the leash after that.

Mr. Kilfoyle noted the one characteristic that has made Alfie stand out perhaps above all other traits: “He was always ready to work,” he said.

There is endless “work” for Alfie at the Port of Missing Men, with the pheasant shoots every weekend, and an abundance of the birds on the property at all times for training. Mr. Kilfoyle said that Alfie rose to the challenge in Iowa as well, retrieving a bird in a cold pond even though they had not done much training in that specific department.

The experience of a field trial has been fun for both Alfie and Mr. Kilfoyle, and he said he plans to keep going and training other dogs for competition. He pointed out that he is grateful to Ms. Salm for providing the sprawling estate as a training ground for his dogs. The fact that they saw success early on, even with the odds against them, has made it even more enticing.

“I’ve always wanted to trial cockers, because it’s fun and natural for them,” he said. “When we won our first trial, we had kind of just showed up, and nobody knew who we were. And people were kind of giving us the evil eye a bit. And then we won — and got even more of an evil eye,” Mr. Kilfoyle smiled. “But we made a bunch of friends, and everyone in the trialing world is really nice. They’re all dog people.”