It requires discipline, skills, planning, and a lot of time… on your part and your dog’s. No doubt, preparing for and entering a field trial or hunt test will make you both better hunters. But you don’t have to score well – or even enter – to accrue big benefits from these events.
I recently helped out at our club’s field trial, and while wrangling handlers, pitching tents and planting birds, I was struck by the treasure-trove of knowledge scattered like gemstones among the trailers, chain gangs and tents. All you have to do is pay attention.
Watch handlers: you’ll see how and what they feed their charges. You’ll hear their commands in the field and at camp, the vocabulary of high performance canine athletes. Observe how they prepare themselves and their dogs for their run, mentally and physically. Learn basics from how to stake out a dog, to backing a trailer, to which end of a horse to avoid.
Pay attention to the dogs: in one place on one day, you’ll have a concentrated dose of pack dynamics – how dogs relate to each other on the chain gang and in the field. You’ll learn what riles them up, and what calms them down. You’ll come away with a statistically-valid sample of everything from top-performing breeds, lines and handlers to the best tie-out stake to buy.
Ride or walk along in the gallery: heed the judges, scouts, marshals and handlers. Learn how hands-arms-whistles-voice are used to move dogs in the field. Track body language and comments from everyone for indications of good and bad dog work. Diplomatically ask questions of gallery members about why a dog or handler does what he’s doing. Suss out each handler’s strategy and tactics, how they cope with wind and terrain, the other dog and handler, what happens when a find is called, a bird flushed and shot.
Hang out: get the skinny on local clubs, find out who’s got a litter on the ground. Cock your ear toward hunting advice and good spots to try next season. Learn what e-collars work, find a shotgun for sale. Start the process of finding a new human hunting partner.
Watch a variety of runs: acquire a realistic perspective on what’s expected of dogs’ and handlers’ performances at each level. Yes, for the most part these are the overachievers, but you might be pleasantly surprised at your chances should you decide to enter the next event.
Adopt a helpful attitude and pitch in: “many hands make quick work,” and put you alongside knowledgeable folk. Be circumspect about your opinions, humble about you and your dogs’ abilities. Some field trials can make or break a pro trainer’s career, so watch what you say and do. They may be gruff, but cut them some slack – it may resemble a pastoral setting when below the surface it’s a simmering cauldron of emotion.
There are tests and trials of all shapes and sizes for dogs of all kinds. Finding the best fit for you and your dog is simply a matter of shopping, just as you did for your pup. Keep an open mind. To me, the drive was worthwhile if I picked up one useful tip.
You may never enter a dog game. But simply showing up will arm you for the hunting or training you’ll be doing the next day or the next season.