Steve and Chris Selep's obsession with bird dogs began at the breakfast table.
The Schaumburg, Ill., family was watching hunting dog trials on an outdoors television channel in the morning when Steve was reminded of the birding trips he took with his cousins as a boy. He was looking for an activity to draw in his two teenaged sons and figured hunting might be it.
His plans derailed when he discovered a purebred puppy could cost $1,000. Then his wife, Chris, learned about bird dog rescue and the family decided to foster a shelter dog. Two years later, the Seleps own four English pointers — three of them with their own stories of abuse or abandonment.
Despite the fact that these dogs were once discarded, they're on their way to being champions.
"I've never seen happier dogs," Steve says. "When they go out there and they're on a bird, their tails are wagging and you can tell they're doing what they were born for."
Their first pointer, Cassie, was found in Kansas in 2008 and recently earned her junior hunt title from the American Kennel Club. The family has added three more dogs to the pack: Abe, who was left for dead by the side of the road; Petey, who was raised and trained by a firefighter who had to give him up when he lost his job and house; and Belle, the only non-rescue purchased from a breeder as a tiny pup.
He insists their success shows anyone can do it.
"It's not intimidating at all, as long as you go into it knowing that you're going to have a lot of patience."
Still, training rescue dogs takes serious commitment. When Cassie first arrived as a foster dog through the Illinois Birddog Rescue and Research organization — the group specializes in rescuing abandoned dogs in danger of being euthanized and rehabilitating them as hunting dogs who live as pets — she had probably been a stray for about a year, Steve says.
"She was all skin and bones. You could count her vertebrae and I just fell in love with her right away," he says.
Once Cassie mastered basic skills such as "sit" and "stay," the family joined a hunting dog club, where they found a huge well of support and knowledge. Members of both the club and the rescue group showed the family how to introduce her to the birds and teach her basic commands.
Cassie started participating in AKC tests and recently racked up enough points to earn a junior title.
Their other dogs are also competing, and Steve says he and Chris want to move to a farm so they can expand their pack.
The family takes the dogs for long walks during the week and visits a conservation area on weekends to give the dogs room to roam.
They love the training and the hunting too; Steve, a retired soldier, taught Chris and the boys to shoot and now they jump at the chance to head to a local hunting club in search of birds.
And, Steve says, the dogs seem to know how good they've got it.
"Maybe because of whatever their past situation was," he says, "once they get to know you and love you, they love you 110 percent."
Hannah Wolfson lives in Birmingham, Ala., with her husband, son. and Bosco, a rescued squirrel dog from Tennessee.