Having spent many hours watching gundog tests, I’ve got a pretty good idea of how to make sure that your dog performs to the very best of its ability. You may not win the rosette and the bag of dog food, but at least you can give it a jolly good try and hopefully not embarrass yourself or disgrace your dog.

If you’ve never competed in a gundog test before, it’s a good idea to go along the first time without your dog and watch carefully what goes on. The word “test” is all-embracing, ranging from a friendly competition put on by your local gundog club to events that are so serious it would be easy to mistake them for a fi eld trial. It’s worth remembering, too, that the word “novice” refers to the dog, not the handler.

As a general indication, tests that are all-embracing, for any breed of gundog, tend to be the most fun, especially when they are being run for charity. There’s usually no requirement for your dog to be Kennel Club registered, so if you have a sprocker or even a talented border collie, you can have a go. You will find that the judges are usually friendly and encouraging, and that your fellow competitors will chat to you.

Moving up to the big league

At the other end of the spectrum are events such as the Kennel Club’s annual tests, held last weekend at Chatsworth. These are, of course, for KC-registered dogs only, and you will find that many professional handlers will be taking part with dogs that they trial during the season. There will be a sprinkling of field trial champions in the entry but, for the most part, top handlers use events like these for getting their potential trialling dogs used to competition. The judges will all be KC-panel judges and the only smiles you are likely to see all day will be when the winners receive their prizes. Last year at Chatsworth there was an objection to the winner of the Novice Retriever competition, an indication of how seriously handlers take these events. As a result, first place was never awarded.

At many tests there are separate events for spaniels and retrievers and my experience suggests that it’s the latter that have the most fun. The spaniel tests usually put a great deal of emphasis on quartering and rather less on retrieving, so if you work your spaniel as a picking-up dog you will be at a disadvantage. You can usually enter a spaniel in the retriever section if you ask the organiser nicely and there’s nothing more satisfying than beating the Labradors at their own game.

Having decided to enter a test of whatever standard, it’s essential to get your dog both fit and competitive. Flabby, unfit athletes don’t win competitions and it’s just the same with dogs. If your dog hasn’t done much since the end of last season, some fitness training is essential. One of the easiest things to do is to give the dog memory retrieves on walks, ensuring that it has plenty of opportunity to gallop decent distances.

Practising the sort of retrieves you are likely to be asked to do is also vital for success. Here the key to success is recruiting a friend or family member to throw the retrieves for you. Dogs that are used to retrieving dummies thrown for them by their own handler can get confused when someone else throws the dummy. If possible, borrow some dummies from a friend, as some dogs hesitate to pick up another dog’s dummy. Train with as great a variety of dummies as possible, as you never know what your dog might be asked to retrieve in the competition.

Most tests use starting pistols to gain the dog’s attention, so some practice with a pistol is also important before the event. This shouldn’t be fired by you, but by the person throwing the dummy for you. Some of the more sophisticated tests now involve remote dummy launchers, but these can confuse even highly competitive dogs if they have never encountered them before. Again, if you practise beforehand you will be much better prepared.

Almost all tests include water work, so do make sure that your dog is a competent swimmer. I watched an HPR test last summer where many of the dogs clearly didn’t want to get their paws wet: watching their handlers trying to get their dogs into the water was very entertaining. Even if your dog is a great swimmer, remember that it will be penalised if it puts the dummy down for a shake when it emerges from the water, so practise your deliveries.

When the day of your competition dawns, make sure that your dog has a good walk before the start. If it pauses for a long pee when coming back with the dummy, you will lose points. If possible, walk the course beforehand and study exactly what your dog will be asked to do and note the mistakes other dogs and handlers have made. The better prepared you and your dog are, the higher your chances of success.