I was attending a dog event last summer and overheard a conversation that I found mildly annoying if not outright insulting. The gentleman doing most of the talking was asking a small group of dog-people if they knew of a young dog that might be suitable for his friend who “just needed a hunting dog”.
This gentleman went even further to say that a “field trial washout” might make a good prospect for his friend who was only interested in hunting, not competing in field trials or hunt tests. The implication being, of course, that hunting dogs were somehow inferior to field trial dogs. The term, “field trial washout” refers to a dog that has not performed well in his training or in any field trials and could therefore be relegated to the subordinate duty of hunting.
The person making this comment was an experienced handler and participated in both AKC field trials and HRC hunt tests with his dogs. There is no question that he understands the rules, requirements and rigors that challenge the participants at these events. What I question is how much he knows about hunting in real-life field situations.
Hunt tests and field trials both have their origins in hunting. The seminal idea behind both of these sports was to provide some form of objectivity in the measurement of a dog’s ability to do his work. Unfortunately, the longer these sports exist, the farther they drift from their original intent. Humans’ egos and fierce competition have driven these games to a place where they are no longer so much a measure of a dog’s abilities as they are a training contest.
This is not to say that these events no longer have value in measuring a dog’s abilities, especially in the lower ranks where the youngest dogs participate. Here the performance of the dog is a more reliable indicator of his or her natural ability because the dogs haven’t lived long enough to acquire all the training and experience that goes into a 3 or 4 year old dog.
In the upper ranks of these endeavors, money and human ego become more relevant factors. The top echelons of these sports are filled with wealthy owners, professional trainers, and professional handlers. The dogs are carted from one event to the next in large, air conditioned trailers. With each new title or win these dogs become more valuable. The pages of dog sport journals are filled with glossy, two-page ads offering fresh or frozen semen for artificial insemination to produce the next generation of super pups that can further the legacy of the sire and stoke the ego of the proud owner.
It is perhaps no wonder that the owner of such a dog would look askance at a mere “hunting dog”. Having invested thousands upon thousands of dollars in breeding, raising, training and campaigning his champion, he is unable to see the value in a good hunting dog. This fellow’s idea of hunting is a day spent “afield” at a game farm where there is no competition from the public and risk of injury is carefully assessed and managed by the game-farm owner who is acutely aware of his liability as hundred thousand dollar dogs slash across his field in search of planted birds.
The lowly hunting dog, on the other hand, is cast forth on public land where he and his handler have to deal with other hunters of varying ethics and skill level. The birds are not planted. They live in that habitat and they fully intend to continue living there. Having already escaped coyotes, hawks and other predators, these birds don’t give up easy. There are hazards everywhere and the hunting dog needs to understand and manage risks like barbed wire, hidden ditches, cliffs, shale slides, raging rivers and wild predators just to name a few of the obvious pitfalls. None of these hazards are a factor on the trial or test grounds.
About a year ago I was present at an AKC event where I witnessed several dogs run a blind retrieve that was in excess of 250 yards. For those of you not familiar with the terminology, a blind retrieve, in field trial parlance, is a dead bird planted out of sight before the dog comes to the retrieving line. The dog must then take an initial line towards the blind and accept direction via hand signals from his handler. I was very impressed to see several dogs in succession that took the initial line and flew like rockets straight to the blind and returned with equal speed and intensity. As a measure of training ability, this was an impressive display. It’s also worthy to note that in over 35 years of bird hunting I have never seen a situation that called for a 250 yard blind retrieve.
My dogs and I find that most of our retrieving happens inside of 50 yards with an occasional bird landing outside 100 yards. Our biggest challenges come in the form of birds that fall in heavy cover, rivers or creeks, tidewater or below cliffs or other hazards. Those of us who regularly hunt wild birds expect our dogs to be able to negotiate these and other hazards, with or without our assistance. On nearly every hunt I find my dogs making retrieves where they are completely out of my sight. In the areas that I hunt, the cover is so heavy that I cannot imagine being able to see either the bird or the dog at 250 yards.
On a recent hunt, Kaia flushed a ruffed grouse that I shot just as it crossed a good sized stream. The bird fell in heavy cover on the other side of the creek. She stopped immediately at the sound of my shot. When sent for the retrieve, she had to get through a barbed wire fence, crawl down a steep bank, thread her way through some nasty sticker bushes, cross the creek, and find the bird in thick brush without my help. Her return was just as smart and graceful as she once again negotiated each hazard while carefully holding our prize. Upon reaching me she went to the heel position and held the bird up for me to take as she looked me straight in the eyes.
Of course it would be an impressive display of dog talent and training ability to run 250 yard blinds on a regular basis. But we’re just “hunters” or perhaps “field trial washouts”. Of course there are other ways to look at this so, as always, your comments are welcome whether you’re a field trial veteran or “just a hunter”.