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Are field trials champions REALLY the best?

David Tomlinson asks whether these competitions are fulfilling the original aim of finding the best gundogs and improving the breeds

Running dog

Trialling requires high-performance dogs

Field trials are a tricky subject for a gundog correspondent to write about, especially as I’ve never competed with a dog in my life.

I have watched AV spaniel, cocker, retriever, HPR and pointer and setter trials, and been to the championships of all five, so I do write with some knowledge and experience. However, I have found that many triallers are wary of even the slightest criticism. An article I wrote some 20 years ago that was mildly critical resulted in both verbal abuse and hate mail.

My chief complaint has always been that many trials fail to resemble a typical shooting day, despite the J-regulations (the lengthy rules that control trialling) stating: “A Field Trial should be run as nearly as possible to an ordinary day’s shooting.”

The trouble is that an ordinary shooting day and a competitive field trial are very different and running one like the other is extremely difficult to do, for obvious reasons. No ordinary shooting day ever has to accommodate a dozen or more dogs and handlers that are not actually doing anything, let alone judges, stewards and spectators.

dog in field trials

Does trialling really improve the breed?

Field trials based on walked-up shooting

With retrievers, it’s particularly tricky, as most (but not all) trials are based on a walked-up day, a type of shooting that has become increasingly rare in recent years. Most retrievers are worked as picking-up or peg dogs and the majority go through their whole lives without ever experiencing a walked-up day.

In contrast, many retrievers that run in trials have never been picking-up, let alone worked as peg dogs, and their experience of the shooting field has been gained exclusively on special training days.

It’s easy to see why walked-up days are much preferred to driven shoots for testing dogs, as they are so much easier to organise. With a walked-up day, the shooting is continuous, whereas a driven day is a stop-start affair, while the time it takes to test the dogs after a drive means that a typical six or seven drives is impossible to achieve on a short winter day.

Positioning the gallery of spectators is also challenging, so much so that it would be next to impossible to base the championship on a driven day — where would you put 100 spectators without them getting in the way?

dog in field trials

Trialling requires high-performance dogs with attributes not ideally suited to the shooting field

No interest in shooting

One of the surprises I had when I first went to trials was discovering that some of the handlers had no real interest in shooting. Many of them had never shot in their lives, or worked their dogs on shooting days.

Their interest was purely in competing with their dogs — and their knowledge of the etiquette and traditions of the shooting field was sadly lacking. Some competitors, I found, had no idea how to humanely despatch a wounded bird, treating game as little more than a feathered or furred training dummy.

To be fair, it’s also true that many shooting people know little about trials, how they are run and how dogs earn the title of field trial champion. Many will proudly tell you that their dog was bred from top trialling stock, assuming this to be a good thing.

There’s a parallel in point-to-pointing. These races started as a test of the best horses out in the hunting field, but have developed to the point where races are only won by thoroughbreds, not always the sort of animal you would want to sit on for a long day in the hunting field.

High performance animals

I speak from experience, having hunted ex-pointers. Similarly, almost all of the top trialling dogs have been bred for competition. They are high-performance animals, not necessarily what you want for a shooting day.

Trialling started as a way of establishing the best shooting dogs and improving the breed. Whether that is still the case today is debatable. For example, the J-regulations insist that only one dog can win a trial, so if two dogs are tied at the end of a day, there has to be a run-off to find the winner.

If two dogs have run so well that there’s nothing to choose between them, why not have joint winners? This is something that has happened in the past. The 1938 Retriever Championship, for example, was shared by labrador bitches Greatford Shy and Cheverells Amber.

When retriever trials started in the early years of the 20th century, there were rich rewards on offer. A three-day, all-aged stake for 20 dogs, held at Horstead Hall, Norfolk, in November 1906 offered a first prize of £50. That’s the equivalent of about £6,500 today.

Stud fees

Prizes in trials have not kept up with inflation, so nobody gets rich from prize money, but there are considerable rewards to be had from stud fees, with the possibility of making significant sums if you are lucky enough to win a championship with a potential stud dog.

I have no objections to anyone getting rich from stud fees, but there is a serious concern that overuse of the same stud dogs (some have sired more than 1,000 puppies) is deeply damaging to a breed’s genetic variety. It’s a sad fact that the most successful field trials champion stud dogs may be inflicting serious long-term damage on their respective breeds, not improving them after all.