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Do Field Trial Titles Matter to Gun Dog Pedigrees?

We've asked breeders and trial judges to weigh in.

Do Field Trial Titles Matter to Gun Dog Pedigrees?

The truth about field trials when it comes to selecting your first or next bird dog. (GUN DOG photo)

How will you select your next gun dog prospect? Will you buy a dog from someone with whom you hunt, or will you browse through breeder websites to find a family of dogs that look and perform the way you think they should?

When you buy your dog how will you know that you have chosen the right breed, the right breeder, and the right bloodlines for you? The question may seem simple on the surface, but in truth choosing the gun dog that ideally suited for you is a more complex process than it may initially seem. There are hundreds of gun dog breeders and kennels offering puppies and young dogs for sale, and all these breeders claim that their dogs make excellent hunting dogs. In many cases that may be true—but maybe they won’t make the type of hunting dog that you want or need.

For over a century the de facto method of determining whether a hunting dog is “good” has been the accumulation of field trial honors. Glancing back at a prospect’s pedigree and seeing initials like FC, for Field Champion—inspires confidence. Breeding for top performing offspring is complex business, and here’s proof that an association placed their stamp of approval on a hunting dog, and you can reasonably expect that a few of the descendants of that dog will be similarly successful in the field.  

Is field trial success, then, the mark of excellence? Can a pedigree bursting with titled dogs offer proof that your pup will be successful? Here’s what the top trainers and breeders have to say.

CLICK to learn how to read a pedigree!

The Basics of Field Trial Dogs

My first question to the four trainers I interviewed was straightforward (and really a two-part question): do good field trial dogs make good hunting dogs, and do good hunting dogs make good field trial dogs?

The response from each of the four trainers was similar. Yes, a good field trial dog is a good hunting dog. And no, a good hunting dog doesn’t always make a good trial dog.

“Not all hunters want a dog that will do the things asked of a field trial dog,” says Tom Loy of Tallgrass Gordon Setters in Idaho. Loy pointed to a peer-reviewed article published in 2018 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in which the genetic profiles of field champion sport hunting dogs were compared to those of other purebred dogs. In that study, the sporting dogs showed a strong selection for genes associated with cardiovascular, neuronal, and muscular health. It’s proof of what hunters have understood all along: breeding animals with superior genetics produces offspring with a genetic advantage and a better than average chance of succeeding in the field.

This research doesn’t mean that efficient hunting dogs will succeed in field trials, Loy says. For example, his own Gordon setters sometimes come back and check in with the handler and get a drink while hunting in big country. That behavior is frowned upon in competition, but when hunting in vast wilderness areas, having a dog that periodically checks in and rehydrates is beneficial for the foot hunter. Similarly, he says not all hunters need their dogs to remain steady to wing, shot, and fall or to hunt at great distances in a window ahead of the handler. In the field, the hunter decides what is desirable and what is not. In a field trial, that responsibility falls to the judge—and the judge and handler may not always agree.

spaniel field trip in mountains
Off-spring from a field trial champion may not win more blue ribbons, but it is a good indication your pup will have traits that make it a good bird dog. (GUN DOG photo)

Jerry Kolter of Northwoods Bird Dogs in Minnesota says that while some dogs are very effective hunters, they simply don’t have the polish required to win field trials. “A dog that doesn’t have the athleticism or the style to win trials can still make an excellent hunting dog,” Kolter says. “Field trailing is a game, and as games get more competitive, standards change. Competition develops things that aren’t realistic. Dogs have to point birds to win field trials, but it’s not just about pointing birds.”

While some aspects of field trial success, like tail position, don’t always correlate directly to success in the field, there are elements of field trials that relate directly to the dog’s ability. Talmage Smedley of T’s Doghouse in Utah says that field trials have a practical side, and that even though a good hunting dog might not always earn a title, field trails serve an important purpose.

“If I’m trying to put birds in the bag, I’m not worried about tail position,” Smedley says. “But prey drive is essential. All the dogs in a trial should have very good prey drive, so then we start looking at fine details.”

“Gait and conformation is one important aspect of a dog’s performance. A sporting dog with proper conformation can hunt longer and is less likely to be injured or become worn down in the field. Whether you’re trying to fill your game pouch or win a national title, having a dog with good conformation is important. Field trials help sort out dogs with the right body type.”

Accomplished field trial dogs make good hunters, but not all hunting dogs can win titles. And you may be perfectly happy hunting with a dog that will never become a field champion simply because your dog’s hunting style suits your own.

The Advantage of Field Trials  

Garry Riddle of Rockey’s Kennels in Utah has been training hunting dogs for over 40 years and says one benefit of attending field trials is that it will help hunters understand what dogs can accomplish.

“I got my first spaniel when I was ten years old,” Riddle says. “I thought it was a great dog. Looking back, it had a hard mouth and was a slow hunter, but I didn’t know any better. Most people need to see how a dog can perform before they are able to evaluate their own dog’s performance.”

Riddle has finished 17 dogs to field champions, but he says training—not hunting—is his first priority. When a dog makes a mistake, the bird doesn’t get killed and the issue is addressed. By having a trainer-first mentality you’ll develop better dogs, whether you trial or not. If the ultimate goal is to kill birds, then it’s very likely that you’ll allow small behavior problems to go unaddressed, and those small problems can turn into major issues down the road.

“Field trials make handlers better, not dogs,” Riddle says. “A trainer once said I’ll show you everything I know but I’ll still beat you because I have experience and I can see what’s going to happen before it happens.”

If you subscribe to Riddle’s trainer-first mentality, you’ll benefit from going to field trials. The major advantage of attending trials is that you’ll be able to look at several different dogs and meet trainers and handlers with whom you can exchange ideas.

“At a grouse trial you’ll meet other grouse hunters,” says Kolter. “And, more importantly, you’ll see a lot of dogs work. In fact, you’ll probably see more dogs work at a single trial than you’ll own in a lifetime.”

gun dog field trial in mountains
Although field trial dogs and hunting dogs may have different expectations, there is common ground in desired traits—like prey drive. (GUN DOG photo)

There are, of course, different trial formats that cater to different styles of dogs. There’s a feeling among some hunters that big-running, all-age dogs in major field trials are out of control, running wild and well beyond the limits of the handler’s control. But the trainers with whom I spoke felt quite the opposite.

“A big-running dog isn’t necessarily out of control,” says Smedley. “A dog that can be effectively handled at that distance and maintains a ten o’clock to two o’clock position is biddable, and that makes for a good dog.”

Trial success is based largely on prey drive, Smedley says, and ultimately breeding for dogs with superior prey drive is an important part of hunting dog selection. Prey drive is the primary force that compels a dog to cover mile after mile, day after day. The opportunity to search for birds is reward for a dog with prey drive, and savvy trainers use the promise of that reward to compel dogs to perform for the handler.

“The process of training a dog to perform well in field trials makes you a better trainer,” says Loy. He believes the goal of the field trialer is to leave no fingerprint. In other words, the dog should perform with the illusion that there’s no handler, as if ranging, hunting, pointing, and style were all instincts born out of the blood and not the result of meticulous and consistent training. Most bird hunters will tell you that their dog is good, but ultimately field trials are an opportunity for a “disinterested third party” to evaluate the dogs, Loy says.

Field Trials and Breeding Better Bird Dogs  

Assigning championship status to the finest of our domesticated animals is nothing new. Whether it’s show pigs, racehorses, or bird dogs, the importance of identifying the best of the breed was less about accolades for the owner and more about enhancing the quality of bloodlines to improve performance.

“Field trial formats vary, but we’re ultimately looking for the best dog,” says Smedley. “It doesn’t exactly mimic a hunt. Sometimes new field trialers can’t understand why we’re doing things the way we are, why it doesn’t exactly mimic a real hunt. But ultimately the goal is to identify the dog that is best.”

“Field trials aren’t just about breeding,” says Loy. “And there’s no guarantee that a field champion’s offspring will be good dogs. But you’re increasing the odds of success by breeding to dogs that are proven performers.”

“Training can’t be passed on, but trainability can,” says Kolter. “You can’t guarantee that your pup shares the same temperament as its field trial winning parent, and it will start off with none of the same experience. But the offspring of that field champion will likely have the primary critical elements of training success in place, namely prey drive and a willingness to work in sync with a hunter.”

What Field Trial Titles Won’t Do for You  

Even with our modern understanding of genetics, animal husbandry is a gamble. There’s no promise that field champion dogs will produce field champion pups, and certainly some titled sires and dams will be better producers than others. Perhaps that’s why we began designating animals as champions in the first place—by determining which of our dogs, horses, chickens, and sheep were “good,” we had a better chance to see those desirable traits carry forward.

Pedigrees filled with field champions won’t make up for your shortcomings as a trainer. If you don’t possess the skills to train your dog (or aren’t willing or able to find someone who does) even a puppy possessing the bluest field trial blood doesn’t stand a real chance of success. Natural prey drive and a willingness to work alongside a trainer can be bred into a dog, but it’s ultimately the guiding hand of the owner that decides the limits of a dog’s potential.

gun dog field trial in mountains on horseback
What does the FC title in your dog’s pedigree mean? It’s no guarantee that your dog will perform at a high level, but it’s a good indication that your puppy will arrive with the traits in place that make for a good bird dog. (GUN DOG photo)

There are also personality conflicts. Some breeds are especially sensitive and won’t stand up well to even a small degree of harsh handling. These dogs require a gentle and patient hand to reach full potential. However, there are dogs that require firmness and a steady trainer who is willing to meet the challenges of handling a stubborn and willful dog. Both sensitive and bold dogs can be successful, both as hunters and field trialers, but it takes a skilled trainer to handle dogs at both ends of the personality spectrum.

Prey drive and trainability. Those are the qualities inherent in the best bird dogs, and that’s what field trials seek in their various formats to identify in a particular animal. But is it the dog that benefits from trials? Not really. Instead, it’s the handler who comes away with a better understanding of the sport. Ultimately, field trialing is a sport, a game we play with our dogs like flyball and agility tests. But field trial success means that a dog has the elements that make a good hunting companion—and perhaps, if luck is on our side, they will pass those traits to their offspring.  

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