Field Trials Matter

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Most scouts yawn when linemen run 40’s, but not at the 2020 combine. Mekhi Becton, a 6-foot-7-inch, 364 pound offensive lineman out of Louisville ran a blistering 5.1. Heads didn’t turn so much as they spun off of heads, for what current lineman of Beckton’s size runs what used to be speed of yesteryear’s fullback? My, my have times changed.

But here's a question for handlers: if footballers now are bigger, stronger and faster than they were half a century ago, are our dogs better? Me thinks they are, and we have field trials to thank for their improvement. Field trials winners are highly coveted, and their genetics are passed forward through selective breeding programs. Those sire/dam matches result in breed enhancement, so if you think today’s dogs are the best, wait until what is running 50 years from now. In 50 years, a lineman of Becton’s size might be running a 4.5 in the forty… But until then, let's visit with some trialers to see why they are so passionate about competition. Maybe more of us will join in on the fun.

For Chris Mathan, a field trialer, hunter and co-owner of Strideaway, a digital magazine devoted to field trials, life is all about the dogs. “The purpose of field trials has always been primarily for the betterment of the breeds. Competition allows breeders to witness their dogs’ performances compared to other dogs while they are being evaluated by knowledgeable judges against a very high standard. Breed on qualities like great nose and pointing instinct, composure on game, a strong natural tendency to run to the front, intelligence and biddability as well as stamina, and an easy, flowing gait are all characteristics looked for in field trial dogs and are undeniably important for the upland hunting dog. Without the opportunity to compare our dogs to others, we all tend to be kennel-blind — breeders, handlers, and owners alike.

"Field trials are not perfect, but competition drives us to produce better dogs. Many people are confused about field trials and tend to think the dogs are “run-offs” and not primarily driven to find birds. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and we field trialers haven’t done a great job communicating our sport. Most hunters have not had the opportunity to witness the top wild bird field trial dogs in the country, whether in the grouse woods, on the prairies or in the piney woods. They are awesome bird dog athletes!

"The majority of pointers and English setters hunted over today are a direct result of the past well-over 100 years of field trialing. Upland hunters are the fortunate recipients of the efforts of field trialers as almost every field-bred dogs’ pedigree attests.” In 2019, Strideaway undertook an important project, Youth Field Trial Alliance promoting youngster’s involvement in field trials, bird dogs and exposure to our great sporting life, including the conservation of wild places and creatures.


In 2020, Al Arthur won his second U.S. National Open Retriever Championship for the top retriever in the country. The Georgia native and owner of Sandhills Kennels, isn’t the first in his family to win on the big stage; his late father Hugh won the top dog award in 1985. When it comes to field trials the Eukanuba Pro Trainer said field trials get in your blood.

“A lot of good dogs and handlers run the circuit,” he said. “The higher the level, the greater the stakes. At the start there are a lot of dogs and handlers. After every run the field narrows until there are the winners. When a few days have passed and you and your dog are standing in the winner’s box then you know you’ve both done a great job. For that trial on that day you were the best. If you’re competitive in nature then you know that there is a lot of value in winning.

“The best part is that the next day you get to start preparing for the next one and so on. Competition motivates me, it always has. That drive to win brings out the best in all of us. It makes us dig down deep and see what we’ve got. When a dog’s performance and a handler’s ability come together and form a winning team it’s absolutely terrific. The bigger the stage the harder we work. Field trials are motivating, satisfying and humbling, all at the same time.

“But field trials bring out the best in dogs. If a dog gets a JAM (Judge’s Award of Merit) in 50% of the trials he’s really done something. If he wins a blue ribbon then he’s really made a statement. When I run dogs every day I look for ways to bring out their best so they have a shot at winning. Derbies, Qualifiers, Opens, they’re all part of the process. Work hard, work smart and when you win then for that day you know you’re the best. There never is an end to them, for next year’s trials will make me and my dogs to be better than this year. Breeding is critical to success, and with every litter we look to make our dogs better than the last one. Everyone benefits from competition which is why field trialers make up such a special and unique community.”


Thor Kain, a field trialer and co-owner of Coverdog Setters, is part of a breeding and field trial program that has produced some of the top dogs in the cover dog circuit. Pennstar, Full Blast, Body Guard, Straight Forward, Super Storm, Super Storm Liz, the list of champions is long. When he’s not breeding, training and trialing, Kain serves as the secretary of the Grand National Grouse Futurity, the super bowl of cover dog trials in the country. He's also the President of the Pennsylvania Grouse Trial Club, the oldest club in the country. "Most folks who enter field trials seem to do so in their later 30's through early 40's. Their progression usually starts with a dog for bird hunting. As they gain experience they continue to look for better and better performing dogs until one day they enter a field trial.

"I started trialing in my late 20's for two reasons: I love bird dogs and I enjoy working them. I like studying possible sires and dams for breeding always looking to produce dogs better than what I currently have. I enjoy the development process of introducing and training pups, breaking and conditioning derby and adults, and competing with them. At the end of the trial season we spend some time hunting, and with the exception of a few snowy weeks per year I'm always working my dogs.

"Some folks believe that field trialers are cliquey, and that may be true. But my experience has been that trialers are kind, generous, competitive and passionate about their dogs. They share information and training tips to interested beginners who ask. More recently, women are entering competitions. While they handle dogs differently than men, many are excellent handlers who are winning awards. If you like bird dogs, grouse, woodcock and being in the woods then come and see a trial. Start by being a spectator in the gallery and follow the competitors. You'll learn whether or not trialing is for you. And at the very least you might find yourself a great next dog for your string."


Think field trials are dead? Not if Marty Robinson and his team can help it. Robinson launched the Southern Bird Hunters Association, a new venue in 2020. “A bunch of us recognized declining field trial participation and believed that a fresh approach might be in order. We looked at strengths and weaknesses, and arrived at the SBHA model which focuses on pro and amateur divisions, gentlemanly competition, and a family approach that includes women and kids. Though a new organization, SBHA’s sensible ground-up approach has been working. We had 94 dogs entered in one trial, and 132 dogs in another. Club fees and individual memberships add up, so we don’t charge those. Instead, we generate sponsorship revenue to help underwrite the costs. We’re thankful for sponsors like Gun Dog Central, SportDOG, Eukanuba, Gun Dog Supply and others. To keep everyone connected in between trials we’re adding a series of newsletters, updates on winners and organizational news, and useful articles on training and health care. Having entire families involved is a whole lot of fun, and it’s a way to breed better dogs. Hopefully enough new trialers will be inspired to continue in the future and to help keep field trials alive.

In looking back on the Golden Age of trialing and bird hunting I think of William Harnden Foster. He was a proponent of skeet, the author of New England Grouse Shooting, and was an avid hunter. But he was a field trialer, too. Foster said "in New England there should be no distinction between a field trial dog and a shooting dog. The former is merely the latter on public display." Foster suffered a fatal heart attack during the running of the New England Bird Dog Championship in 1941, and that fact speaks volumes. Passing away doing and activity you love is what many of us hope for. But leaving behind a legacy of championship dogs? That's priceless.

 


About the Author

Tom Keer
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Tom Keer owns The Keer Group, an outdoor marketing company which works perfectly with his freelance writing career. He casts his four English setters in Northeast upland coverts and Southern quail fields with fortunate regularity. Hes been lucky to be surrounded by people and dogs that are much smarter than him. Visit him at www.thekeergroup.com or at www.tomkeer.com

 


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