The Field Trial Game
September 23, 2010
Some insights into what it takes to win'¦and what the future may hold for the sport.
I recognize that field trials are all about super sporting dogs. But for a lot of us hunters, bird hunting is all about gun dogs too. How come so many hunters look on "field trial" as two dirty words and most professional trainers tell you a choice has to be made'¦that the same dog can't be both a shooting companion and a field trial champion?
With the way sporting life is trending now, all the criticisms about dogs, hunting, guns, animal abuse and restrictions, ad nauseum, I'd think people so wrapped up in outdoor sports would be banding together and supporting the "dog cause" rather than criticizing and splitting up.
I wouldn't try to explain why two fine groups of sportsmen with a common interest in classy, hardworking gun dogs so often express antipathy, even scorn, for each other's favorite game. From a personal slant, nothing beats field trialing except hunting. Feel free to reverse the order. But let's hope that statement keeps things in proper perspective. For me, trialing, contesting, testing and hunting with dogs are symbiotic and ought to be for anyone deeply involved in the shooting sports.
In ever increasing numbers, some very solid dog folks seldom, if ever, hunt. But they own superbly trained and conditioned sporting dogs in order to play the field trial game.
Whether amateurs blow the whistle over their own dogs or hire professionals to take charge of the care, training and handling, it is comparable to thoroughbred horse stables.
As horse breeders seek to improve their stock by using "race horses" so too do serious gun dog breeders turn to the "hot" blood of champion trial competitors.
Each year probably close to 100,000 contestants run in organized pointing, flushing and retrieving events; and competitive shoot-to-retrieve hunting contests are burgeoning in popularity as gunners turn to doing most of their bird shooting at released bird hunting clubs, extending their shooting seasons and getting major use and enjoyment out of their hunting dogs.
Increasingly, wild bird hunting that will challenge a gun dog's nose, bird sense and stamina is difficult to find, especially east of the Mississippi River. The number of hunters who do not engage in games but find their fun in catch-as-catch-can searches for the real thing, however, still greatly outnumber the competitive dog fans. Thus there have been, and are, two significant groups, neither of which has much familiarity with the other's passions.
Having too little in common, hunters who never have watched a field trial will seldom read what to them is a dull report of that activity. Conversely, field trial cognoscenti often view the "me and Joe" personal aspects of some guys foot-slogging through brush or sitting in a waterfowl blind as boringly masochistic.
Those who belong to the field trial fraternity probably doubt that any writer knows as much as they know about their dogs and game. They have a point. The trial game is full of nuances with fine points that are oblivious to most hunters. What is demanded of field trial dogs and their handlers would be dismissed by most bird shooters as minor "nitpicks" and nothing required to meet their needs.
Nevertheless, every man who appreciates hunting dogs should understand something about field trials and take in as many as he can, if only to see just how proficiently a dog can be trained to convert superior inherited qualities to stylish, top class pointing, flushing and fetching under the gun.
Above all, hunters should refrain from knocking trials for being some kind of fancy show that has little if anything to do with real hunting dogs -- despite the oft-repeated claim, all trial dogs are not high-strung, runaway idiots.
At the same time, field trial followers should button their lip even if they think "trials are just like hunting, except the dogs are better bred and trained" and stop decrying those efficient "walking boot polishers" which may better suit a hunter's individual style because he can "shoot a coat full" gunning over that "meat dog."
Field trials are not hunting. They simulate it in many ways. But even when shooting dog and hunting dog stakes are included in field tests and trials, they do not duplicate "the real thing."
Field trials are highly competitive. Hunt tests are non-competitive. Winning and placing is the objective of a field trial. Hunt tests award "passing grades." In the latter, via the prescribed standards established for passing various degrees of trained performance, dogs attain titles and kudos.
Trialing bears about the same relationship to hunting birds as clay target shooting (trap, skeet, sporting clays, etc.) does to actual wingshooting of feathered targets in the field. A game in itself, its participants need make no apologies for their sport, nor do they need to justify its existence.
More than any other group, from the standpoint of producing dogs valuable to hunters, trial enthusiasts have maintained and improved the field performance of dogs which hunt for the gun.
The place to really prove a field dog's worth, granted the artificialities and politicking that surround it, is a field trial. Here, knowledgeable, objective and fair appraisal of gun dog performance is rendered attentively by judges who (one hopes) have hunted birds with good dogs and trained more than one of their own.
Qualified judges become harder to obtain as native gamebird hunting loses ground each decade. As this is written, even major field trials which prided themselves on showing classy dogs on "wild birds" (including the venerable National Championship at Ames Plantation near Grand Junction, Tennessee) are now releasing artificially reared birds in order to furnish adequate game on which pointing dogs can display their skill and manners.
All field trial dogs and the majority of proficient hunting dogs share some common bloodlines, at least to some degree. But training approaches differ. As native bird hunting decreases and the use of planted or released birds increases, however, training procedures may become more similar.
Trials and tests might eventually be carried on using dummies and artificial bird replicas with simulated shooting. Goody Two-Shoes political groups continue to wax fat and probably will continue to successfully support bans on animal training, restrictions on owners and breeders, etc. Desperate to keep their sport alive, sportsmen may have to settle for using fake game.
Such a pessimistic look at the future doesn't mean you should waste the time remaining for you, however. Should you decide to try dipping a toe in the field trial waters, you'll quickly get a line on your dog's abilities. Some really darlin' dogs are capable of being both trial performers and hunting buddies. Try yours and find out. Is he a flash in the pan or a lightning stroke of luck?
How much fun you get out of competing or testing will depend on your frame of mind. You'll get more practice being a good loser than a gracious winner. But trialing and testing will give your dog more experience and bird handling finesse and keep him conditioned year around. It also will force you to train oftener and better. Even if you don't expect to win, you won't want to enter a dog that will shame you.
What's more, you'll meet a pile of fine, interesting, highly competitive people who are interested in the same things you are -- good bird work by good gun dogs. If you jump into this game, don't expect to make a big splash. Like everything else, the cost of trialing has gone up. When I started retriever trialing about 60 years ago, I bought my first Labrador retriever out of field trial breeding at a farm fair for $12.
She was good. But for the next 20 years or so, I refused to pay more than $50 to gamble on a Lab pup -- and I didn't have to. However, those who could afford it in the 1960s (when $10,000 bought nice houses or three or four cars) spent tens of thousands of dollars before coming up with open all-age retriever field trial champions. Now, over $100,000 isn't exorbitant.
Amateur stakes are offered so devoted trainers don't have to compete with pros in the "open" events. There are stakes restricted to a single breed and to puppy and derby age dogs. But bear in mind that the only thing really "amateur" about the stake is the handler; although proclaimed pros are barred, most dogs have been extensively worked by professional trainers prior to running in these stakes.
Wade in gradually by watching some trials at first. Ask questions of others attending and prepare to have your arm talked off. Then try your dog in some of the "small time" events in your locality or just a "fun" trial put on by a local dog or gun club.
Do yourself and your bird dog hunting compatriots a big favor by joining a dog or gun club. Individually and collectively, live-wire members are a big factor in extending the time we'll be able to enjoy hunting in the future. Orchestrated rumbles from distressed wheels get more attention than solo squeaks.
Should the field trial "bug" really bite you, be prepared to wind up up to your hips in dogs. For if you envision fame and fortune, you'll have to go through quite a few dogs before achieving it unless you catch an exceptionally lucky break.
If you take up this sport for recreation, perhaps you can have both a "fun" trial dog and a good hunting dog under the same hide. But if you're inside the perimeter or must win to satisfy your ego while still continuing to enjoy hunting, you'd better figure on having at least two dogs -- one for trialing, one for hunting.