For better or worse, this is written from a setter enthusiast’s perspective but still is just as applicable to any pointing dog breed that can compete in cover dog trials (AKC or American Field sanctioned). Many have heard about field trials but far less understand how they work, in their basic form they’re setup like two hunters, with two dogs going for a walk in the bird woods, here’s an attempt to explain how they differ in the particulars…
Earlier this month, I entered one of my setters in a field trial which had the luxury of being close to home. All stakes were “open” meaning both professional handlers (and trainers) as well as amateurs were able to enter as handlers. This particular trial is commonly referred to as a cover dog trial meaning wild birds in grouse and woodcock cover.
Generally, there’s three stakes in an average cover dog trial:
Puppy- younger than 1.5 years old, 20-30 minute course
Derby- 1.5 to 3 years old, 30 minute – 1 hour course
All Age- Any age but requires completely broke bird work – the dog must stand through flush and shot, 1 hour or more.
Stakes are made up of braces. A brace is composed of the following:
Courses- predetermined path that was intentionally timed upon it’s creation to match the length of the type of stake with marked trees to follow
Dogs- each brace has two dogs, if there’s a pulled entry (for example a female went into heat) or there was an uneven entry amount of dogs and a dog does not have a bracemate, that space is referred to as a bye
Handlers- each dog has it’s own handler (two)
Judges- two judges ride behind the handlers, they determine the placements
Scouts- help find dogs believed to be on point deep in cover or as an extra set of ears and eyes if the handler temporarily “loses” the dog.
Gallery- spectators, generally dog owners, breeders other handlers or anyone else who would like to spectate who are behind the judges.
Handlers are on foot, but often in All Age cover dog trials the judges are on horseback. A horse allows judges a better vantage point with eyes ahead on dogs and less worried about their footing. Most importantly, hour-long braces with a 30-dog or more entry would mean 15 hours of hiking to complete a trial.
Cover dog trials are beneficial to just about anyone who is involved with pointing dogs, those looking into getting a grouse dog, present pointing dog owners and of course the breeders. You would be hard pressed to find a group of individuals that have their finger on the pulse of present grouse populations and cycles better than those who actively campaign dogs in cover dog trials. They are in the woods and running nearly all year long.
Puppy is a great stake for newcomers, whether they be new to trials or even pointing dogs. Generally there are no birds on puppy courses, and bird work isn’t judged. Puppy stakes are young dogs putting on displays of their individual potential from handling, hunting, range, casts/patterns and class. Class means how it carries and cracks its tail on the move, its gait, speed, athleticism and just how much it “looks” to be loving what it’s doing.
Classy dogs catch your eye. I use elk and deer to illustrate class. A running elk and deer (in the woods) can both effectively move through it, but deer are classier. They move with particularly impressive acrobatics, and of course that waving white tail waving catches your eye. For me, that’s class in a nutshell.
Since there is no bird work, these are great for new handlers. Keep your dog aware of where you are, get his attention on course turns and keep them moving and out in front. For those new to pointing dogs, they can get a good look at dogs of various range (distance) as well as being able to figure for themselves an average while getting a good glimpse of some of the different characteristics of not just the different breeds, but the lines (kennels) within a breed. Many also might discover here that range, even what is considered short range, is still out of shotgun range.
Derby stakes are for more mature dogs, although there are always a few older puppies that are a viable choice for derby stakes. Courses generally are 30 minutes long with the bigger stake marquis being an hour. Again much of what is judged is continued potential, but now as expected, bird work plays an integral role in a dog’s success. Dogs must find birds and remain staunch until flush allowing their handlers to do the flushing. Dogs that flush birds before the handler are picked up and out of judgement. Generally advanced dogs that are broke or nearly broke (taking a step or two) are not at any advantage in judgement unless two dogs are close and it comes down to splitting hairs between the two.
The other element introduced into derby judgement is style (how the dog looks on point). High tails (relatively straight and vertical) are preferred while a high held head or raised for leg plays second fiddle to the dog’s intensity. Sometimes due to the logistics of particular trial grounds there may not be birds on derby courses, as the premium courses are reserved for All Age stakes. If needed at times call backs are done which involve a small area with planted birds that a selection of prospective placement dogs are brought in to be judged on bird work.
If a dog flushes a bird and is out of judgement, the first reserve dog (the first of three that would essentially be 4th, 5th and 6th place dogs if there were that many placements) is brought in for the potential to place third. Derby stakes are often a great place to look at dogs from a prospective stud, dam or breeder. They provide a great look at all of a dogs potential and some bird work before the breaking process begins (where things can go wrong in a dog if training goes wrong to which the dog is largely not at fault).
All age, especially open stake all age, is the best way to view traits of a breed and even traits of a certain line of dogs within a breed. This age group, generally four years or older, is also the breeding stock. As I’ve heard Bird Dog Hall of Famer and professional trainer Dave Hughes call them “automatic grouse dogs”, they’re finished, you put a bell on their collar, put them down on the ground and let them know where you are or the direction your headed on occasion. This is a great way to catch a glimpse of a prospective pup’s parents, but generally under much more pressure – competing with another dog (bracemate) to find the birds first (this competitiveness is really evident with some dogs), a judge’s horse directly riding up behind them on point and a host of people spectating in the gallery.
In the realm of setters and pointers that makeup the majority of the cover dog trials I run, I can usually get a great hour-long look at everything I need to see in a pointing dog – things from its pattern (not just location to the handler and range, but is it hitting the likeliest cover to hold birds), how it responds to the handler, athleticism (which becomes more evident the later into the course it gets), how it handles and looks on its birds (being composure, intensity and style, and often over looked class). All Age usually has the most professional trainers and handlers, which to an aspiring field trialer or first time pointing dog owner, watching the pro’s handle can be just as beneficial.
For the existing dog owner who campaigns in dog trials, not only are they continuing to learn and hone their handling skills with a unit of measure of ability (against what else is out there), but it usually provides a great outlet during the offseason for keeping dogs in shape. It can also be an enlightening experience in areas they may have short-changed their dog in training and places upon which to improve.
For breeders, the competition validates, whether right or wrong, many of the decisions they’ve made on which dogs to breed, keep or cut from their program. Regardless, it’s no surprise these competitions continually raise the bar for each breed standard. I’ve heard more than one professional trainer say the standard of today’s (fill in breed blank) far exceeds the standard of 20 years ago. This trial thing . . . it works.
Whether or not you’ve got a dog in the “race”, trials are a great place to ask, and have answered, many questions about dogs, training and so on. In regards to springtime trials for me, I’ve found no better activity to renew that old feud with the brambles and tangles of a ruffed grouse cover.