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Scott Rall: Field trials, hunt tests and my tracer dog

By Scott Rall

Outdoors columnist 

It is a statement of fact that if you don’t like the weather in Minnesota, just wait a minute or two and it will change.

For the first part of the summer all it did was rain and now it won’t rain at all. When the winter of 2012-13 wouldn’t go away, it was only a short time and now the temps seem to like the mid-90s all the time.

It is a state of extremes. I think that our neighbor to the west, South Dakota, has the greatest range of temperatures of any state in the union. From 30-plus degrees below zero to 115 degrees above makes for challenging times for wildlife. It is the current high temps that are making my dog training efforts difficult this month.

I am in the middle of training my almost 2-year-old Labrador. A dog that has this training has the ability to be sent to a downed bird or retrieving dummy that it has not seen, and it will do so only with hand signals and a whistle. Tracer is doing great and is about 65 percent done. We either do it at 6 a.m. or late in the evening to keep him from overheating.

As I was working with him one morning, I wondered just how many people were familiar with the terms “hunt test” and “field trial.” Both of these are dog competitions, but they operate in very different ways and attract a very different kind of dog owner/competitor. Both events are held all over the United States.

In both of these organized dog competitions there are certain rules and regulations that are followed. Both have different levels of competition. You can run your inexperienced dog in the junior stake in a hunt test and in the derby at a field trial. There are multiple levels in each type of competition.

The big difference between these is how a winning score tallied. In a hunt test a passing score will result in a ribbon being awarded to the dog/owner team. If every dog at the test does the work properly and performs to the pre-set standard for that division, then it is possible for every dog that enters to win a ribbon on that day.

It is also possible that not even one dog would get a ribbon at any one test. It is very unlikely that every dog would perform either perfectly or horribly all in the same day at the same test, but it is theoretically possible. It takes a certain amount of ribbons/passes to be titled in that classification. At a hunt test there is a junior, senior and master classification. It takes four or five passes, depending on the division, to be able to claim your dog has achieved or passed that particular division.

Hunt tests are designed to mimic hunting situations from the most basic to the most advanced. A junior dog will have to complete two basic land retrieves, one at a time, and two basic water retrieves, one at a time.

In the master level there would be triple retrieves on both land and water and then several blind retrieves. Blind work is what I am working on with my dog Tracer. This is a very high level of performance for your hunting dog to achieve.

The field trial game is a totally different game. In a hunt test many dogs can pass and receive a ribbon at any one test. In a field trial there is a 1st, 2nd, 3rd and JAM (or Judge’s award of merit), like 4th place. If every dog is performing perfectly, the test just gets harder and harder until only the top four dogs can be determined and selected.

This means dogs doing things that the average hunter would never do.

After all the dogs have participated in a few stakes, many will have been eliminated. The tests get harder and can often require the dog to do four consecutive land or water retrieves from memory at distances of 300 yards or more and then run very difficult blinds over difficult cover in order for the judges to narrow the field to the top four dogs.

These field trials often take more than one day to complete. Your dog has to be at the very top of its game to place in the top four when entries can exceed 100 or more dogs.

Many, but not all dogs running in the top class at a field trail are being trained and handled by professional trainers. Keeping your dog on a professional trainers’ truck chasing the title of field champion can cost upwards of $800 per month. A dog in that place is often there for multiple years. The ultimate goal is for the dog to reach the title of field champion, but very few ever make it. The field trail game is far too expensive for the average dog owner.

I will most likely never have a field champion lying on the rug at my house unless I win the lottery.

Both types of dog competitions have their place. What you, the average dog owner, might benefit as a result of these efforts is substantial. If you were to purchase a puppy from a parent that had achieved this high training standard, it will greatly increase your odds of getting a dog with natural talent and birdiness. They have been shown to train easier because mom and dad were trained to a high level.

I have never had the desire to run the field trial circuit, mostly because the money it costs and the time it takes. Hunt tests are also not very common around here.

Tracer is going to make a great hunting dog and by the end of summer he will be doing everything I could ask of him as a hunting dog goes. My dad used to say that there is always going to be someone a little stronger or a little faster than you, and in the dog world it is no different.

I don’t and won’t ever have the very smartest or best trained dog on the planet, but I will be proud to say that mine are in the top two percent of all the dogs that travel in my circle. And for me, that is more than good enough.

I need to go get Tracer. We have a little more work to do.