Dog Sports---Field Trials

By Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

In the wild, dogs depend on their athletic abilities for survival. Speed and agility are required to successfully procure the next meal or to avoid being the next meal for a predator that occupies a higher level on the food chain. Canine survival instincts aren’t essential to domestic dogs living in safe homes that come with meal plans, but inherited survival skills still reside deep within our canine companions.

Humans also hunted for survival in days of old and many people still enjoy hunting for food. Humans and dogs satisfy their shared ancestral tendencies combining canine instinct and human prowess for a more successful hunt.

In fact, many of our favorite dog breeds were refined to assist their owners with hunting. Cocker Spaniels flushed out game; Labrador Retrievers fetched game in the field, and Pointers and Setters found birds or rabbits and notified their owners of their next meal’s location. Field trials focus on this team-hunting concept and allow humans and their pet dogs to rekindle their hunting instincts in a fun, competitive format.

What are field trials?

Field trials are outdoor competitions that are designed to spotlight hunting instincts in domestic dogs. These athletic events began in England around 1866, judging dogs on their field performance of the four components associated with hunting: pointing, retrieving, trailing, and flushing out prey.

Field trials are designed to mimic an actual hunt in the wild, so guns are involved. Dogs are expected to work with animals and birds that would likely find their way to a hunter’s dinner table, such as rabbits, partridges and pheasants.

How do we get started?

Most dogs have inherited abilities to hunt but some breeds are better than others. Over generations, many of our pet dogs have lost much of their hunting instincts and are happy to be lovable family members proficient at couch sitting, snuggling, or fetching. Some dogs are athletic and enjoy jogging with their owners or competing at other canine sports such as agility trials. Still others work as herding dogs or guide dogs.

If you and your dog are interested in getting back to your roots and want to become involved in field trials, here’s what you should do:

  • Find a dog from a bloodline bred for working. There are several breeds of gun dogs most suitable for field trials: Retrievers and Irish Water Spaniels, Sporting Spaniels, Pointers, Setters, and HPRs (other breeds that hunt, point, and retrieve).
  • Find people in the know. Talk to breeders of working dogs. Go to local events to observe working dogs in action and talk with their owners for advice on getting started.
  • Subscribe to a publication such as The American Field, a weekly newspaper that announces open and amateur events, or magazines such as The Shooting Times, The Field, and Shooting Gazette that have articles about training your dog and listings of upcoming events. The Kennel Club publishes a Field Trials Newsletter with more helpful information.
  • Make sure that you AND your dog are in top physical condition and can withstand the rigors of training and competing. Good eyes, good ears, good noses, and good joints are all needed! Endurance is a must as dogs navigate complicated paths and uneven terrain for great distances. Vision and hearing must be acute to spot prey and respond to verbal commands and hand signals.
  • Be prepared to dedicate lots of time to training your dog and competing. Joining a Field Trial society or gundog club will help you find training opportunities. You may decide to participate in group sessions or become involved with a private trainer who can give you and your dog one-on-one attention.

Can we practice before entering a serious competition?

Most dogs aren’t ready for real competition for a couple of years. Gundog Working Tests are sporting events that provide more relaxed competition and foster training. Unlike Field Trials, Gundog Working Tests do not involve shooting live game. Dogs work with dummies much as they do in training sessions, only in a contest format. Gundog Working Tests focus on three of the Gundog groups: Retrievers, Spaniels, and HPR. Competing dogs are assessed on their ability to find game (dummy), retrieve it, and swiftly return it to their owners. Setters and Pointers are not included in these events because it is difficult to assess pointing with an artificial test.

What about actual field trial competitions?

In contrast to working tests, field trials require a higher level of training. For example, in a Retriever Field Trial, a dog is expected to navigate more complex paths and retrieve over greater distances than a dog competing in a Retriever Hunt Test. Entry into a field trial is also more restricted. So what do you have to do to enter a real field trial?

First, you should join a local Field Trial Society. Training your dog could take years of hard work, dedication and persistence. A Field Trial Society will provide encouragement as you work alongside other members and their dogs gaining knowledge through observation. Your dog will compete in the company of many other people and dogs. Working with members of a field trial group will also help train your dog to focus while surrounded by distractions.

"Training your dog could take years of hard work, dedication and persistence."

The Society can individually assess your dog and provide helpful training tips to improve his technique.

Finally, you must be a member of an organized club to enter field trial competitions. Over 600 field trials and gundog working tests are held annually, and preference is given to club members. Most competitions are held in the fall and winter months. This time of the year is called the “shooting season.” Trials for Pointers and Setters may be held in the spring and late summer.

It is smart to attend a few trials simply as an observer before actually committing so that you can be prepared for what’s expected of you and your dog. Then you can determine if Field Trials will be a fun way to rekindle your inherited hunting instincts.

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