An American Perspective
on Field Trials and Hunt Tests
from Evan Graham

                                                                                                                                              Photo by Dale Tolmsoff 

American dog sports for retrieving breeds have a relationship to actual fieldwork that is sometimes less than obvious, and that is the focus here. It doesn’t require much imagination to understand that hunting dogs get better with experience on game birds, and these events are a vehicle to accomplishing that. But there is much more. Like the UK trials, American dog sports promote competition, and that tends to elevate standards. Field Trials provide competition in a dog vs. dog venue, while Hunt Tests offer a ‘dog vs. an established standard’ platform for testing. 

The intent of this commentary is to provide a brief history of the events, and what will hopefully be a useful insight into these pursuits. It’s significant to note that even in the U.S. there is a great deal about Field Trials, and even Hunt Tests, that many casual observers have difficulty understanding.

In the beginning

The history of American Field Trials, as events governed by the American Kennel Club, dates back to the 1930’s. Prior to that there were trials held according to traditional British rules, with the fortunes of the Retriever breeds in America, and the Labrador in particular, being tied to the fortunes of wealthy, Eastern estate owners who, being accustomed to shooting in Scotland, began to import Labs from the British Isles in the late 1920s and early 1930s.  

The first Labrador Retriever was registered with the AKC in 1917. Not only has the Labrador become the most popular breed in America, the Lab clearly dominates the retriever gun dog sports here, as well. The loveable Lab is welcomed in many ways in U.S. households, with 165,970 of them being registered with the AKC in 2001, ranking them well ahead of any other breed of any type. 

Still, American Field Champions have been crowned in other breeds over the years. Goldens, Chesapeakes, and even Flat Coated Retrievers have earned those titles. The same is true of Hunt Test titles, such as MH (Master Hunter). 

There are several organizations that sanction Hunt Tests, each with its own distinctive style. The objectives are sufficiently alike that I will forgo listing the rules for each. Instead, I would like to offer a descriptive commentary on the events in order to promote a better understanding of them for those who have not had the opportunity of seeing them. The end result in both events (hunt tests and field trials) is the revealing of core attributes in dogs for selective breeding, while providing an enjoyable pursuit for dog enthusiasts.  

Field Trials, the least understood of American dog sports 

1931 saw the organization of the Labrador Retriever Club, which put on the first field trial for Retrievers in America on an eight thousand acre estate in Chester, New York-deliberately holding it on a Monday so that it would not attract a gallery. The event of that day, and of this are separated by far more than an expanse of time! 

There is a provision in the AKC rulebook for retriever field trials that, while it has been present for decades, has become purely ornamental: Under Basic Principles, “1. The purpose of a Non-Slip Retriever trial is to determine the relative merits of Retrievers in the field. Retriever field trials should, therefore, simulate as nearly as possible the conditions met in an ordinary day's shoot.” 

While U.S. trials continue to provide evidence of “the relative merits” of Retrievers in the field, the only way in which the “conditions met in an ordinary day's shoot” are observed is with regard to the very difficult natural terrain in which they are conducted, along with the retrieval of game birds; principally ducks and pheasant. 

The cosmetic appearance of today’s Field Trials is a two-edged sword. While they are the vehicles that allow the conducting of uniform tests with uniform objectives, they are of such a contrived appearance that the casual observer is left scratching his/her head, and wondering, “what on earth does this have to do with hunting dogs?” Opinions vary. 

These events have come to test isolated attributes in working retrievers to the extent that they have an almost clinical appearance, even in the beautiful wild areas in which they are conducted. The clinical-type dynamics, and the diverse natural environment have become a team of logistical bedfellows. Because the nature of the event has evolved, both are necessary. 

The degree of difficulty in the tests for these events has swelled exponentially, creating the need for a more contrived looking set up, while consideration for the dog has necessarily remained. The variation in cover and terrain, along with the need for certain types of water, shoreline, and combinations of all of these, must exist to test the core attributes of working retrievers, insomuch as that may be done uniformly. It is, indeed, the testing of those core attributes that has become the central focus of the dynamics of today’s trials. 

It has long been recognized that distance has the effect of making all retriever work more difficult, so exceptional distance has become the hallmark of many tests in American Field Trials. It causes the erosion of control by a handler, and exacerbates the effects of all the diverting influences that retrievers face in their work. That deserves some explanation. 

Distance 

Judges in trials must possess sufficient dog knowledge to understand how dogs are influenced by certain conditions. A marked retrieve at twenty yards on a surface as featureless as a putting green should be a minimal challenge, even to a puppy. Make that same mark two hundred yards and the challenge is much greater. Add in cover, changing terrain, a crossing wind, water, re-entries, and so forth, and you continue to up the ante. 

On a blind retrieve the erosion of control that occurs over extended distance is universally understood. Therefore blinds, especially in the upper classes, can be in excess of 400 yards, and can cover some amazing terrain.

 
Just an example of typical Midwestern terrain.
 

Marks

Here is an example of a fairly typical all-age marking test. 

“G” indicates a gunner/thrower in the field. “X” denotes the area of the fall. This is what is known as an indented triple mark. The center mark is a memory bird, and is made difficult by being the ‘indent’ bird, along with several other considerations. 

It is the second bird thrown, following the live shot flyer on the left. Then a long ‘control’ bird (dead bird) is thrown on the right. The dog will cross water, drive through a strip of dense cover, then across an open area, and out across an expanse of ploughed ground to get his first mark. Upon returning with that fall, his first memory mark is the indent, which is often retired; the gun/thrower becomes hidden so as not to provide a visual cue that would make the mark easier.  

There are several natural tendencies in dogs that make this particular mark difficult. First, it is a memory mark. Then, it is placed so that a dog will tend to cheat both water and cover en route to it, placing them on a potentially perilous course toward the flyer on the left. If that fall is retrieved second, it establishes a preconceived notion about the line to be taken subsequently, and makes it even more difficult to succeed on the indent. 

What’s being tested in a set up like this? 

Let’s dissect this test to determine what is actually being tested. First, what is being tested is pure marking and memory. Bird placement and distance promote this. Second, trainability coupled with a willingness to cooperate with the handler. After all, from the perspective of most dogs, it would be far more enticing to go for the flyer on the left second. Only significant schooling (and trainability in the dog) are likely to allow the dog to retrieve that very difficult ‘indent’ mark second. 

The third quality tested here is sagacity – a special type of intelligence in dogs that allows them to problem solve in highly challenging circumstances, such as a test like this one presents. Most dogs of hunting quality possess intelligence, but only the best are sagacious enough to sort out a test as fraught with challenges as this one with any consistency. In the upper classes of today’s field trials, most dogs entered are quite adept at this level of work, so the standards must be kept high. 

Blind Retrieves 

Since a blind retrieve is purely the result of training, control is the focus of such tests in U.S. trials. Dogs are judged against each other on the basis of comparative merit, so great emphasis is placed on constructing tests that challenge control to very high degrees.

This is just one example of how a simple pasture and stock pond can become a viable test of control on a blind retrieve. This one is in the set-up phase, which allows its components to be easily seen. The close gun station is setting up to shoot a flyer mallard, while the blind is being placed on the far hill (about 250 yards). The line to this blind passes closely behind the gun station in order not to miss the water altogether. The hill drops down slightly beyond the gun station, so the handler will have to move up as the dog passes the gunners to keep his/her dog in sight. The dogs did not want to stay on line toward the far end of the pond, and many drove left instead of straight up the far hill to the bird. 

Less direction given by the handler, coupled with stylish and accurate responses from the dogs, will keep a dog well positioned in the competition. Accuracy is a key feature, as it clearly demonstrates trainability and willingness to take direction from the handler. In order that these key traits are tested to a great enough extent to demonstrate the best of the field of dogs, these tests are carefully contrived with immensely challenging components. 

Because the level of competition has continued to rise, a trial is rarely won with a good blind, but a poor one often loses them. Marking is of primary importance. It is of primary importance because is reflects most of the finest core attributes of a quality retriever, and that is what provides selective breeders with a tangible yardstick by which to continue to preserve and advance the retriever breeds for future generations. Marking is one way in which genetics are quantifiable. 

The distinctions between Hunt Tests and Field Trials 

In the late 1970’s a group of people, largely comprised of sporting dog writers and retriever trainers, decided that retriever sports needed to move in a different direction from the increasingly competitive, and more artificial looking field trials of the U.S.A., and set out to contrive a new game for the retriever enthusiast. Essentially, the point of greatest agreement appears to have been restoring an atmosphere in testing that conformed more to the ‘conditions met in an average day’s shoot’. It was felt that there were portions of the makeup of working retrievers that had disappeared as considerations in field trial testing, and that this new sport may help to promote them. 

In addition, there were aspects of competition that these organizers were opposed to. Certainly more people would be apt to participate if they weren’t faced with early elimination because their dogs couldn’t perform well enough to be considered a potential winner. As long as they can do the work prescribed by the sanctioning body as being at a level appropriate for a dog in their class, a hunt test dog has an opportunity to continue in the event to earn a qualifying score toward a title at that level. 

The ribbons are all the same for most of these events because there are no placements. A dog either meets the criteria for the class (in the judge’s view), or fails outright. The perspectives remain somewhat polarized between those who run hunt tests and those who compete in field trials. Most field trial competitors appear to maintain that the non-competitive venue erases the distinction of the better dogs for the sake of selective breeding. One dog with a Master Hunter title may have earned it in successive scores, for example, while another required years, attending dozens of tests to barely eek out enough scores to attain the same title, and neither had ever been required to distinguish itself as being the better dog in any given event or on any given day. To the hunt tester, it is enough that a dog was able to work at that level successfully enough times to acquire the necessary scores. 

I view the differences in testing as being largely a matter of cosmetics and distance. A mark or blind retrieve of more than 300 yards would be the exception rather than the rule in a hunt test in any of the sanctioning organizations. Guns hidden vs. guns visible – and/or retired, handlers and guns in white vs. handlers and guns in camouflage – these represent the bulk of cosmetic differences between the events. Of course the primary difference is that dogs in field trials are competing to win, while hunt test dogs compete to match a standard set by the organization sanctioning it. 

If the standard of performance rises in the hunt test venue, it will be the result of consensus within a governing body, rather than anything that occurs during a single event, like a field trial where someone must be declared the winner; the best of the best that weekend. 

Gun stations in hunt tests are very rarely visible. Normally, the guns are hidden, but may walk out from a ‘hide’ to shoot a diversion mark, for example. Guns may also be visible for a ‘walk-up’ mark, as well. They’re great fun, and the judging is often very creative due to the effort being made to provide the look and feel of hunting conditions, while essentially testing the same traits that are tested in more clinical ways at field trials. 

Photos by Dale Tolmsoff

All participants are required to dress in either camouflage or natural colors. Often handlers carry guns, or mock guns. As in trials, game birds are used, and many concepts in marking and blinds are also used that are merely different looks at the same ones used in trials. 

In both events, onlookers and newcomers are welcomed. In both cases, the dogs are the central focus, with a majority of participants being avid hunters. 

 

Evan with FC-AFC Trumarc's Too Hot to Handle ("Lucy")

 

 

A Brief Biography of Artist and Author Evan Graham

 

Evan Graham was born November 6, 1946 in Long Beach, Ca.. He is a retired professional dog trainer, and ex-paramedic. He now works as a Registered Nurse in a metropolitan hospital. He is married and has four children and nine grandchildren. He is also a columnist for The Retriever Journal, and has trained and handled many dogs that earned positions on the National Derby List, including five in a single year; one of them being number three with seven wins. At least three of the dogs he trained as a professional became Field Champions. The driving force for his development of the Smartwork method was the belief that one can never know how good any dog is whose Basics were not thorough. As a portion of method refinement, he maintained a strong focus on efficient, effective Basics.

 

Evan Graham
5020 N. Topping
Kansas City, Missouri 64119
USA

816-452-2335

EVANEvnG@aol.com

http://www.rushcreekpress.com/

 

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