Pointing-dog field trials can be interesting stuff

Another Monday morning at the desk, and we’re catching our collective breath after another hectic but enjoyable field trial weekend. As soon as we’re finished unloading dogs, horses, and gear, we’ll organize everything so we can head off in a couple of weeks to the next distant trial to test our own pointing dogs and watch (or judge) others run theirs.

Field trialing has an emotional appeal that keeps trialers in the game for a lifetime. Jan’s father purchased his first Brittany from a Kansas kennel back in the 1950s, helped found a club in the Chicago area, and began attending trials not long afterwards. Hunting with him for years, Jan caught the competitive “bug,” and I got pulled in even before we married. Except for a decade in the 1990s, when we had logistical problems getting to trials, we’ve trialed ever since.

One thing you learn pretty quickly is that trial dogs, trained well, make superior hunting dogs, thanks to their manners in the field. The reasons for staunch points — releases only on definitive commands to find other birds, locate downed birds or retrieve birds to hand — are apparent to any experienced hunter or guide.

Contests for pointing dogs have been run by individuals and clubs for some 140 years, ever since setter and pointer owners competed for prizes and pride on Southern plantations (quail), on northern prairies (native prairie chicken and, later, pheasants), and in eastern and Midwestern woodlots (ruffed grouse and woodcock). As native wild birds became more scarce, beginning 80 to 90 years ago, trialers began to work more and more with birds raised specifically for the competitive events. Except for a few “wild bird trials” or “cover dog trials,” pen-raised quail, chukka partridge, and pheasant are now set out during trials for adult dogs to find and point. (Note: there are separate trials for retrievers and flushing spaniels as well, and so-called hunting tests are just as popular as the trial game.)

Adult pointing dogs in gun dog, shooting dog or all-age stakes are expected to work in smart, forward ground patterns with continuous drive and desire, point birds hard and in a stylish fashion (think “standing like a stone wall” with head and tail erect as if posing for a classic painting!) until the handler arrives to walk up and flush the bird. In a non-retrieving stake, a blank pistol is fired and the standing dog is led off before being sent on to hunt for another bird. In a retrieving stake, gunners try to kill the flushing bird, and the dog waits for a command to retrieve the fallen bird to hand. Perfect manners show the dog is “steady to wing and shot.” Juvenile “derby” dogs point their birds with lesser manners, though their ground pattern is judged the same way, while puppies over 6 months but less than 15 are judged on ground pattern alone and have no birds set out on their courses.

Interesting things take place in real trial situations. We’ve seen many derby dogs with admirable adult manners, and just last weekend, we judged a puppy stake where a few youngsters had lovely steady finds on some woodcock that had drifted in the night before.

Field trial clubs always welcome newcomers and spectators. Many of the stakes at trials are run with handlers, judges and observers on horseback, and wranglers bring rental horses. If you’ve had a little riding experience, try to ride, because you see the panorama much better when you’re eight feet off the ground. For years trialers would climb on these gaited, calm walking horses wearing nothing more than their usual hunting apparel, boots and hats included. Today, more and more field trialers wear riding helmets and riding boots for safety.

It’s hard to walk behind a horseback “gallery,” but it can be done if conditions are dry and the brace you’re watching isn’t a “barnburner.” Rugged hiking boots are important, and, as anyone in the East knows, tick repellent, liberally applied to both skin and apparel, is part of everyday hiking in fields and woods. Because many courses loop around the field trial areas, you can often see quite a bit of the trial through field glasses once you figure out where on the perimeter you should stand. Trialers are generous folks who love to talk about their canines, and the traditional “happy hours” or club dinners on Saturday nights are ideal for meeting them and talking “dogs.” Incidentally, trials take place rain or shine!

The best local opportunity to see a trial is to come to the Sarnoff area off Route 104 in Southampton where the Long Island Pointing Dog Field Trial Club is holding an AKC-licensed weekend trial on May 1 and 2. For trial details and a sample premium, contact the trial secretary, Patricia Amato, at [email protected], or 722-3832 before 10 p.m.