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This article is about a competitive event for hunting dogs. For a scientific examination of an intervention in the real world, see field experiment.
A field trial is a competitive event at which hunting dogs compete against one another. There are field trials for retrievers, pointing dogs and flushing dogs. Field trials are usually organized by kennel clubs or other gun dog organizations. Field trials are generally considered more competitive than hunt tests in that success at a field trial requires a higher level of training than success at a hunt test requires. For example, in Retriever Field Trials, dogs retrieve over longer distances with a more complex path than a Retriever Hunt Test would generally provide. Field trial dogs must be finished in their training in order to enter. Their purpose is also different, as they exist mainly for breeders, while hunting tests are made for hunters.
The term is confusing as it means different things to different breed organizations. Spaniel field trials demand that dogs compete against one another, whereas retriever field trials are more similar to hunt tests among other breeds. In most hunt tests, on the other hand, dogs are evaluated against a written standard and all of the dogs in the hunt test may qualify if they meet the standard. To further complicate the issue, various kennel organizations have differing definitions of field trial.
Field trials come in various grades including Open, Amateur, Sanctioned and non-sanctioned. An Open field trial permits entry from any handler or trainer while an Amateur trial only permits non-professional handlers/trainers. Sanctioned trials are ones that are held under the control of a national kennel club or organization, while the non-sanctioned can be organized by a local club.
Field Trials in the UK and Ireland
A field trial that is held under the auspices of the Kennel Club, the UK's governing body in respect of working gundogs, can be described as a competition to assess the work of gundogs in the field. By definition this means that all field trials are held on live, unhandled game that is shot for the purpose of that field trial. Game that has been handled in any way, whether it be live or dead game, may not be used for testing dogs in any part of a field trial. The only exception to this rule is where dead game may be used in the conduct of a water test at a field trial. The reason this exception exists it to acknowledge the fact that game will not necessarily be shot over water, although for dogs to qualify for titles in field trials will be required to demonstrate their ability to retrieve from water.
Gundog clubs and societies that are registered with the Kennel Club and which have been authorized to organize and run field trials may do so, provided that a license is issued to that club or society for every field trial. Field trials not licensed by the Kennel Club are liable to be deemed as unrecognized canine events.
In the US, retriever field trials are held under the auspices of the American Kennel club.
Field trials can consist of one or more stakes, which can be considered as separate competitions within a field trial. Such stakes can be run for any of the four sub-groups of gundogs recognized by the Kennel Club. The four sub-groups are;
- Retrievers and Irish Water Spaniels
- Sporting Spaniels other than Irish Water Spaniels
- Pointers and Setters
- Breeds that Hunt, Point and Retrieve
This is a stake in which the dogs have the opportunity of gaining a qualification towards the title of Field Trial Champion (FTCh in the UK and Ireland, FC in the US) and towards entry in the Championships or Champion Stake for its breed.
All Age Stake
This is open to all dogs of a specified breed or breeds without restriction as to the age of the dog, but which may be restricted by other conditions that are deemed necessary by the organizing club or society. Four placements plus a Reserve JAM and JAMs (Judges Award of Merit).
This stake is confined to dogs that not have gained the following awards:
- Retrievers; First, second, third or fourth award in a 24 dog Open Stake; or first, second or third award in a 12 dog Open Stake; or first award in an All Aged or Novice Stake
- Spaniels; First, second or third in Open Stakes; or first in an All Age or Novice Stake
- Mixed Breed; First
Qualifying Stake (US)
In the U.S., this stake is for dogs that have not yet placed first or second in a Qualifying stake nor completed an Open or Amateur stake.
Confined to dogs whelped not earlier than 1 January in the year preceding the date of the field trial. If a Puppy Stake is run in January then a dog that was a puppy in the previous year is deemed to still be a puppy.
Derby Stake (US)
In the U.S., this stake is for dogs at 6 months of age and no more than 2 years of age.
The judges at field trials are appointed by the Field Trial Secretary of the organising club or society, after having been instructed to do so by the committee of the club or society. It is considered an honour to be asked to judge at a field trial and the highest standard of judging is expected from appointed judges. The club or society running the trial must satisfy itself that the persons being invited to judge at a trial have practical experience of both field trials and sporting shooting. Judges may not shoot at a stake at which they are judging nor may they enter a dog for competition at that trial (except for retriever stakes where someone else may handle their dog in a stake other than the one the owner has been asked to judge).
Judges are classified as either A or B "Panel Judges and Non-panel (NP). However, an A Panel Judge must be present at all field trials. Judges are appointed to panels after recommendation from a Field Trial Secretary of a club or society which is approved to hold Open Stakes for the appropriate sub-group of gundogs for which he or she has judged within the past three years. The opinion of all previous A Panel judges with whom he or she has judged field trials over the previous three years will be sought by the Kennel Club's Field Trial Sub-Committee. The experience of the perspective Panel Judge over the last number of years is taken into account but this must include having judged at trials for at least two different clubs or societies and with at least five different A Panel co-judges.
In addition, judges appointed to the B Panel must have a minimum of three years judging experience and six stakes, with at least five A Panel Judges. For appointment to the A Panel, judges must have served at least three years as a B Panel Judge, judging at a minimum of six stakes of which three must have been Open Stakes and with at least five different A Panel Judges.
In the U.S. the American Kennel Club requires a minimum total of 8 points between the two judges for each stake. Judges for major stakes (Open, Amateur) must have at least 8 combined major judging points and judges of minor stakes (Derby, Qualifying) must have at least 8 combined points of any type.
Awards & prizes
It is the judges at field trials who decide whether or not awards are to be made. In tests where the dog and handler team are judged against a standard, in some instances it has been adjudged that none of the dogs reached the required standard and awards have been withheld. This is, however, an unusual occurrence. It is more common for awards to be limited to one or two places than not to be awarded.
An award is any placing in a stake decided by the judges which may be first, second, third or fourth position. The following can also be conferred at the discretion of judges:
- Diploma of Merit
- Certificates of Merit
Regulations for retriever & spaniel breeds
Dogs competing in retriever or spaniel field trials must not wear a collar of any kind when under the order of the judges. Leads can be used when dogs are not under the order of the judges, but these must be removed prior to the dogs entering the competition line. Any dog that, in the opinion of the judges, does not reach the required standard for the breed will not receive an award. Judges will eliminate dogs from the trial if they have committed an "eliminating fault." Where the judges eliminate a dog for hard mouth, the handler must be given the opportunity of examining the game in the presence of the judges. Their decision, however, is final and binding.
In general, all dogs must be steady to the shot and the fall of game and should have the ability to retrieve on command. Handlers at field trials must not send their dog on a retrieve until they have been instructed to do so by a judge. Because all field trials in the UK are conducted in live shooting environments, judges will have instructed their guns not to shoot directly over a dog when it is already out working on a retrieve. All wounded game is gathered and dispatched at the earliest possible opportunity and is normally retrieved before dead game. It is possible that game cannot be gathered by the dogs in competition and in such cases the judges would assign this task to picker-up appointed for this purpose.
As good marking is essential in a retrieving breed to avoid the disturbance of game in the vicinity, judges will give full credit to a dog that goes directly to the fall of the game and gets on with the job of locating and retrieving. A clean pick up is preferred but judges will normally not penalize too heavily dogs that set game down to get a better grip. They will, of course, make a distinction between this and dogs that are guilty of sloppy retrieving or that deliver short of the handler.
Whilst dogs are required to be obedient and respond to its handler's signals, good game finding dogs will be scored higher than those dogs that need handled to the game. Usually the better dogs require less handling, appear to have an instinctive knowledge of direction and make a difficult find look simple. In the UK, Judges will call up dogs that are performing indifferently on a runner and another dog will be tried on it. The work of subsequent dogs on the runner will be assessed in the order in which they are tried. Missed game that is picked by the second or subsequent dog constitutes an "eye wipe." All "eye wipes" will be treated on their merits but dogs that have had their "eye wiped" during the body of the stake will be discarded by the judges. Where a dog shows ability by acknowledging the fall of game and making a workmanlike job of the line to the fall, it should not be barred from the awards by failing to retrieve the game if that game is not collected by another dog, tried by the judges on the same game.
All retrieved game is examined by the judges for signs of "hard mouth." Because hard mouthed dogs seldom give a visible sign of hardness by damaging the skin of game, the retrieved game should be placed in the palm of the hand, breast upwards and head forwards. Judges will examine the rib cage of the game, looking for any signs of the ribs being crushed by running the index finger and thumb along each side of the rib cage. If a judges suspects hard mouth, he or she would normally consult with their co-judge who will also examine the game. Where judges are in agreement that the damage has been caused by the dog crushing and not by the fall or the shot, the handler will be given the opportunity of inspecting the game in the presence of the judges. The decision of the judges is final and the dog will be eliminated from the trial.
In the United States, results of retriever field trials are published in a monthly magazine called Retriever News and in a website (www.retrieverresults.com).
American Field Sanctioned Field Trials for Pointing Dogs
Definitions of field trials differ based on the organizations around the world that sanction them. The above definition for trials in Great Britain, for example, is quite different from American Field sanctioned field trials for Pointers, English and Red Setters, German Shorthaired Pointers, Vizsla and Brittanys in the United States, Canada and Japan. The American Kennel Club also holds field trials with a different standard for awarding titles.
Pointing Dog Field Trials
Field trials are competitions for a class of sporting dogs called pointing dogs that have been selectively bred for well over a hundred and fifty years specifically to search for and point upland game birds for hunters. Dogs detect the scent cone in the air given off by birds; they do not track foot scent. Field trials, first conducted in England in 1865 have been used to greatly aid with the selective breeding of dogs with desired characteristics thereby improving the various breeds of pointing dogs both for competition and for upland bird hunters to enjoy. On October 8, 1874 near Memphis TN, a solid black setter named “Knight” won the first ever field trial held in the United States. In 1900 the American Field published the first Field Dog Stud Book (FDSB), establishing the oldest purebred dog registry for sporting dogs.
Dogs are entered in field trial stakes for puppies, derbies, and adult dogs in Walking and Horseback Shooting Dog and All-Age categories. Dogs are drawn to run in braces but compete against all dogs entered in the stake. Handlers show their dogs to best advantage to two judges, each assigned to cover a dog and handler, switching in the middle of the stake so each judge has the opportunity to witness both dogs in the brace. Braces are generally from 20 minutes for puppies to 30 - 60 minutes for derbies and adult dogs. Championships are one hour or more and sometimes require a second series for dogs selected as the best from the first series to compete again. People are invited to judge based on their experience training and competing with their own dogs as well as their experience upland bird hunting. Dogs are judged on their genetic characteristics and their training. Each dog is judged on their ground effort (race) demonstrating their ability to intelligently search, using the wind to their advantage, and accurately locate and point game birds. Dogs must handle, always to the front, moving efficiently and attractively with high tail and head carriage, displaying confidence and boldness, wasting no time hunting unlikely cover. As derbies, they should show their potential to become finished, polished dogs. As adults, they must display perfect manners on birds being broke steady to wing and shot and honoring their bracemates’ points. Whether Shooting Dog or All-Age contender, a field trial dog’s performance both running and pointing, should always display “class” and excite the judges and gallery attendants.
A field trial is hosted by a field trial club and run to a set of Minimum Requirements established by the American Field in order for the dog’s win to become part of their permanent record. American Field sanctioned trials — whether a day or two of various stakes or championships — are observed by a reporter invited by the host club. Along with the registered names, registration numbers, handlers and owners of the winning dogs, field trial reports are published in the American Field’s weekly publication so field trialers across the country have an opportunity to read about the dogs’ performances if they were unable to attend and watch the trial. Reports record the history of the sport.
The American Field’s weekly newspaper also announces field trials (open and amateur) in the USA, Canada and Japan. Dogs must qualify by winning field trial placements in order to compete in championships and be awarded Championship and Runner-Up Championship titles. There are primarily horseback Shooting Dog and All-Age stakes, Walking stakes (including grouse and woodcock trials, referred to as 'grouse' or 'cover dog' trials) held throughout the US and many Canadian provinces on various species of upland game birds. In many parts of the country, trials are now held on released or liberated game because wild birds no longer exist in those areas or because there are no available wild-bird grounds suitable or attainable to run field trials on. Enormous efforts by conservation groups supported by field trialers have been made to reverse this situation by land management efforts to restore the natural habitat for wild upland game birds.
The Amateur Field Trial Clubs of America (AFTCA) was established in 1917 specifically for amateur handlers to compete against one another.
The Amateur Field Trial Clubs of America (AFTCA) Guidelines to Field Trial Procedure and Judicial Practice Definitions
"The familiar, capsule description of the all-age dog, attributed to old-time trainer Jim Advent, declares that he (or she) is a dedicated hunter of upland game birds which 'runs off — but not quite'. The all-age dog is a free spirit and fills up all the available country (plus a little) in a bold and sometimes reckless manner, yet ultimately acknowledges the control exerted by his handler and course to the front in such a pattern as to maintain periodic, suitable contact with the handler. The real intelligent and accomplished all-age dog exhibits the knack of "showing" at strategic, distant, forward points on the course during the progress of his heat. He may frequently pass from view, only to show again after a lapse of time, or to be discovered by handler or scout pointing game.
All-Age Standard reads as follows: In any given All-Age Stake, it may be very difficult to place a dog which totally meets the exalted standard; therefore, out of necessity, there will frequently be a need to accept a dog whose qualities and character can only begin to approximate the standard. The standard, when applied, should examine the total performance of the dog with range being kept foremost in mind. Range is the “sine qua non” of an all-age dog and it should take precedence over and not be compromised for a short, practical, methodical, uninspiring performance, no matter how immaculate the bird work of the latter.
Shooting Dog Stake
“A Shooting Dog Stake is held for the purpose of promoting the ideal shooting dog, one that will find and handle correctly all game birds on the designated course. “The superior shooting dog is one that excites constant admiration for the quality of the performance and does nothing to displease or annoy. Without giving his handler any unnecessary effort, he will, in an artistic and polished manner, give him the most quality bird finds that are to be had on the ground covered.
Shooting Dog Standard reads as follows: In any given Shooting Dog Stake, it may be very difficult to place a dog which totally meets the exalted standard. Therefore, out of necessity, there will frequently be a need to accept a dog whose qualities and character can only begin to approximate this standard. The standard when applied should seek out a dog which displays superior bird dog characteristics in the form of natural qualities such as pace, range, bird sense, nose, stamina and style. The contender sought after should render a balanced, biddable performance, search intelligently and exhibit bird finding ability with quality always superseding quantity, manifest accuracy of location, loftiness and intensity on point. Subservience to the handler and proper handling response without the benefit of scouting and excessive handling are the “sine qua non” of a shooting dog. Excessive range on the part of a shooting dog is not considered desirable. When considering bird work, the judges should be swayed not by the frequency of occurrence but rather the quality of the performance.
Exact definitions of field trial dogs and stakes and their interpretation have differed, no doubt, from the beginning of field trial history. There is much subjectivity based on individual understanding, experience and preference brought to the judicial saddle. One aspect of field trials generally agreed upon is the necessity of good, experienced judges of great integrity.
Field Trial Judge Attributes
1. They should be of strong moral character and integrity, and respected for these qualities in their hometown, business, and field trial community.
2. They should be in good physical condition with the stamina to ride (or walk where horses cannot be used) for days on end and see all the entries in the stake through to their proper conclusion, and possess keen eyesight to see all the action as it transpires.
3. They should be of even temperament, blessed with common sense, possess an alert, analytically decisive mind, and have sufficient conviction in their abilities to stand up for their decisions.
4. They should be a good horseman (or women) and have full knowledge of the outdoors and an understanding of the behavior of game birds and dogs, and have background of practical bird-hunting experience.
5. They should be familiar with the proper procedure of training and breaking bird dogs and must have successfully run dogs in field trials, and should have “broke” dogs of their own.
6. They should have a thorough knowledge and understanding of the AFTCA's Guidelines to Field Trial Procedure and Judicial Practice.
7. They should have experience running All-Age and/or Shooting Dogs to understand the difference between these types of performances and their different standards. This knowledge should be applied when decisions are rendered.
A dog’s field trial wins are recorded with the FDSB (Field Dog Stud Book) and are a permanent part of their record shown on their pedigree. Field trials have always been and continue to be a critical tool for the continued successful breeding of superior bird dogs from which the upland game hunter has benefited.
- ^Guidelines to Field Trial Procedure and Judicial Practice, Amateur Field trial Clubs of America, Inc., March 7, 1988.