This is my first article for the Spaniel Journal and I wanted to
start with something a little different from the normal aim of training
articles. For this piece, we are going to assume (I know, don't say it) that
your dog is well trained. So well trained, in fact, that you would like to try
your hand at field trials. Maybe you have done trials before, maybe not.
Following, are some tips that are meant to help you out when running your dog.
It must be remembered that Field Trials are nothing more then a game that we play
with our dogs. There are certain rules to this game, and many nuances that
mean the difference between success and failure. As a beginner, you will make
mistakes and you will not be able to remember everything that you are supposed
to do. However, the more prepared you and your dog are before you get to the
trial, the better off you will be. I'm hoping, also, that these tips will be
used by Field Trial, as well as other judges, too. Remember, we can all learn
something as none of us knows everything.
"Most judges at a field trail are looking for the best dog, nothing more, nothing less."
First off, let's go over some thoughts about judges - to get into their heads, so to
speak. Often, the first point I hear new people bring up is the "politics"
involved in judging. Poor decisions have been made at times in the past due to
political reasons and I have been the victim of them before. That being said,
the sport of Field Trialing Spaniels is remarkably politics free. I am
continually amazed at how people who sometimes really don't like each other
will ignore that to do what is right when judging. There are certainly issues
with politics on the Bench side of things, and other breeds have much
political hogwash in their competitions, but we are very fortunate to have a
lot of honest people who try hard to be fair. It has been my observation that
those who are most worried about political considerations are the ones who are
the most political. Stay away from people who believe everyone is out to get
them, remember that we do this for fun.
Most judges at a field trail are looking for the best dog, nothing more,
nothing less. Some of them have been running dogs and judging since before I
was born. Some of them are just getting started.
Field Trial judges in the U.S. now have to go through an apprentice program
before their first judging assignment. They are then matched with an experienced judge at their first few
trials. This system does not guarantee perfection in the judging ranks, but it
does help give people a little bit of experience and guidance before they
The important thing to remember is that everybody makes mistakes. Every
judge has made some bad calls. Good judges will not make many and will try and
reverse them - if there is time to do so. But the point is stuff happens and
mistakes are made, deal with it and move on.
What makes the best dog? Different judges look for different things. Some like
speed. Some like big exciting things to happen. Some like an even flowing
pattern. Some like little animated dogs, some like big, long striding dogs. No
matter how good your dog is, not all judges will like it. However, there are
some things that most judges do like and some things that most judges do not
In the do-like column, strong bird finding is the key to everything. Many
judges will forget a lot of bad things your dog did if it can find birds very
positively. By that, I mean the instant your dog smells a bird, which should
be from a fair distance away, it speeds up trying to get to the bird as fast
as possible. A positive find is much more important then a positive flush.
Very few people care if your dog jumps up after the flushing bird. I have seen
many dogs that have stopped to look and listen then have broken the point to
jump after the bird is flushed. That won't get you anywhere. What will get you
somewhere is a dog that races as fast as it can to the bird to flush or catch
it. If the bird flushes and your dog sits down without a four foot leap into the
air, no one will notice if their hearts are in their thoughts because of the
speed of the find that was just displayed.
Also, in the do-like column is pattern. By this, I mean how your dog uses the
wind to cover the course. Simply running from gun to gun doesn't always work
well. As often as possible, your dog should be running perpendicular to the
wind - and always smelling fresh ground. Your dog should always be turning out
at the edge of each cast, even in the downwind. Turning in only insures
recovering ground that should already be covered. This is a simple paragraph
that I'm sure will turn into several columns worth of information as it is the
most important aspect trialing. Why? In the previous paragraph we spoke of
positive finds. Proper pattern will put your dog into position to have long,
positive finds. Long, positive finds will win you Field Trials. Simple as that.
if you find yourself complaining that a judge isn't tapping you fast enough,
that really means that your dog isn't steady enough."
You can see that the do-like column is fairly short. It really only contains
one point; which is fast hard finds and how to get that type of find. Most
other things that judges like are not universal. Speed helps, but isn't everything.
Style helps, but won't do you any good if you can't find birds. A dog that can
mark birds well is a good thing to have, but that just keeps you out of
trouble more then it catches a judge's eye.
The do-not-like column is more encompassing. The theme of the do-not-like column
is keeping your dog out of trouble. You want your dog to have a clean run with
very few issues for a judge to ponder.
We'll start the do-not-like column with mouth. Very few judges will tolerate
many dead birds coming back to them. There will be trials when your dog will
trap multiple birds. Your dog should be prepared to handle that, and should
not injure the caught bird. Of course, there is always an occasional exception
with a powerful flushing dog, sometimes a wing or a rib is broke. If that
happens very often, then that is a hole that many judges will notice.
From the same body region is tongue. Your dog should be quiet. We get away
with a lot of noise here in the states, but it is generally not tolerated past
a certain point by most judges. Your dog should not whimper or whine while
waiting on an honor or to be cast off. (Not really interestingly, that is the
most W's I've ever used in one sentence before.) Train your dog to be patient.
Your dog should not bark at missed birds or yip when sent on a retrieve.
Delivery is also important. You should not be wrestling with your dog to get
the bird away from it. The dog should not be jumping up and grabbing the bird
out of the judges hand. The dog should come in, give you the bird, and wait
for the next command. Speed is important. Get the bird quickly and give it to
the judge without making a big production of it. This is generally the last thing a
judge sees before making their grade of your dog's performance. Leave the
judge with a good feeling about your dog, not with a feeling of lack of
Control is very important. Your dog should be able to run with only an
occasional whistle. Whistling on each cast looks poor. Loud retriever whistles
annoy many judges. Your dog should be able to be steady without a long,
constant whistle blast. One or two reminder whistles is okay, if necessary. But
if you find yourself complaining that a judge isn't tapping you fast enough,
that really means that your dog isn't steady enough. "Quiet is better" is a good
motto to have.
How should you relate to the judge? I like to be cordial but not obnoxious.
(We'll pause here while those who know me well pick themselves up off the
floor.) Some judges are all business. Some like to talk way to much.
If you are a new handler, identify yourself as such when you come to the line. Listen to
the judge's instructions and then do your job - which is to show off your dog as
much as possible while covering up your dogs shortcomings as much as possible.
Judges do not like to be told how your dog is performing or what just happened
in a given instance. Let them decide. It is better for you to be to quiet
instead of talking to much. If you are unsure of what is happening in a given
situation, ask, but don't argue. You will not get bonus points for arguing
with a judge. Sometimes something very confusing happens and I just don't know
what is happening. So I'll ask the judge what they would like me to do and then
I'll try to do it. Otherwise, I'm focusing on showing off my dog.
That leads us to the next point. Try to make a judge think as little as
possible. The very best work your dog can do is to go out, find a couple of
birds fast, flush and retrieve them, and then get out of there. You don't want
a judge thinking too much about your series - trying to decide if it was good or
bad. In the end, more often then not the dogs that didn't make them think, but
instead just went out and did good are the ones who get the placements.
Be polite to judges. It is okay for you to ask, after the placements, how your
dog was judged. You must do so in an inquisitive manner. Let the judge know
that you are just trying to learn more about how to properly run you dog. Ask
for suggestions. And be short with it. Get some answers and then leave the
judge alone - they most likely have a long trip ahead of them to get home and
other people who want to talk to them.
Most people are amazed, when they start competing with their dogs, at how many
things can go wrong. What we do is very simple, but it is incredible how many
ways dogs can find to mess things up. When that happens, take a deep breath,
come back the next weekend, and show them how good your dog really is!
I see that I possibly created a lot of questions with this article. Perhaps I
raised more then I answered. What I would like you, the reader, to do is email
the Spaniel Journal with those questions and we will go through the more
popular ones in the next issue. Until then, good luck and don't forget the
Send your questions for Jason to: