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What’s ahead for field trials in 2021?

The pandemic played havoc with last year's schedule of trials and tests, but David Tomlinson is feeling optimistic about 2021's events

field trials for dogs

All being well as we come out of the paralysis of lockdown, field trials for dogs will return once again.

Pointer and setter handlers will have missed the early spring grouse trials on the moors and the East Anglian pheasant and partridge days that are traditionally held in April, but there’s optimism that trials will resume on 12 July at Lauder, when the Dukeries Gundog Club is planning to hold a novice/all-aged stake.

The highlight of the pointer and setter season, the IGL’s Champion Stake, is scheduled to take place at Bollihope in County Durham on the early dates of 28 and 29 July.

There seems to be no reason why the spring and summer field trials for dogs shouldn’t start soon. This year’s Game Fair at Ragley Hall (23 to 25 July) looks set to have its most interesting ever line-up of tests, with two significant innovations — the Working Test Challenge and the HPR Challenge.

The former is split into two sections, spaniels and retrievers, and open to dogs that aren’t Kennel Club-registered, so sprockers, for example, can take part. In the past, HPRs have been conspicuous by their absence in Game Fair competitions, so the new challenge for the continental breeds is a major breakthrough.

Last year was a season almost without dog shows, though Crufts squeezed in before the first lockdown. This year, Crufts is being held in the summer for the first time, from 15 to 18 July. All being well, it will be back at the NEC in Birmingham. The centre has been retained by the NHS as a potential overflow hospital, something that fortunately it hasn’t been used for to date.

Exhibitors in the BASC Gamekeepers’ Ring traditionally dress as for a shooting day. It will be interesting to see what they will wear indoors in high summer, as tweeds will hardly be suitable.

field trials for dogs

Golden retriever running in test

Field trials for dogs

Tests, trials and shows may be traditional competitions for gundogs, but they are by no means the only ones. There may be a few working gundogs that do heelwork to music, but I have yet to meet one. I have, however, met a number of gundogs that compete successfully in agility. It’s a pastime that should be within the capabilities of any reasonably fit Labrador or springer, but if you want a dog that’s competitive with the best, then a small, fit and fast working cocker is right up there.

The essentials for agility are speed, the ability to jump neatly, turn quickly and to obey commands. The best dogs are bold and unfazed by whatever challenges they have to face, ranging from going through a pipe tunnel to jumping through a hoop. Learning to weave through poles is essential, as is jumping water and walls. It’s fast and furious stuff, with the added bonus of keeping the handler fit, too.

One of the Game Fair’s have-a-go competitions is the scramble, which is a bit like a shooting dog’s version of agility. I once won a bottle of champagne running a springer in the scramble.

We only did one run and I was confident that we could have gone quicker. We were beaten by a golden retriever that was half a second faster.

Agility is a great way to build up a dog’s fitness and confidence, and most dogs give the impression that they enjoy it as much as their handlers. It’s fun at any level, but it does get serious at the top.

spaniel in agility trial

Spaniels are generally good at agility

Size matters

Competitions are divided into size divisions — large , intermediate, medium and small — so Labradors don’t have to compete against cockers. There’s a scoring system with five faults for most errors and mistakes, such as refusals or failure to make contact with the handler in a contact area. There are, of course, eliminating faults, including fouling the ring, and there’s a strict ban on bribing dogs with titbits in the ring.

Competitive obedience is another discipline suitable for working gundogs, as most of them are already trained to a reasonable standard. There are seven levels of obedience classes at shows.

By gaining a series of first prizes, dogs qualify for class C, which is the highest and most difficult. There’s nothing that’s beyond a well-trained gundog, as long as it can walk to heel and manage a two-minute stay. As with all KC activities, docked dogs aren’t allowed to compete at shows where the public pay to enter.

Rally is another competition to consider, with handlers and dogs having to navigate their way round a pre-set course with up to 18 stations. Each station has a sign instructing the handler what is required of them and their dog. Competitors start each round with a perfect score of 200, with points deducted as they go. There are six different levels.

Just as a field trial champion can have FTCh in front of its name, a top rally dog can have RL6 after its name. To be both a FTCh and an RL6 would be impressive.