Field Trial seeks to find top dog

By Gwen Keane

Yes I knew there was a sport called Field Trials in which people and their dogs participated. However, I wasn’t really sure what happens at one of these events.. So I set out to see for myself why people get involved in this sport. I asked a “seasoned” Field Trial person, Mitchell Forrester, if I could attend an upcoming Field Trial. In early November I got the call for me to be at a 250 acre farm the next morning around 7 a.m. to witness this sport first hand . I was told I could “ride the wagon” and that there would be plenty of “good food” to eat. Although I have no sense of direction, amazingly I got to the farm without getting lost. But the reason I didn’t get lost was because when I wasn’t sure what direction I should take, I just waited for a pick up truck to pass by that had dog boxes in the back. Sure enough, he was headed for the field trial.

Participants mount up for Field Day activities


It was a gorgeous Fall day when I turned off the secondary road and headed down a gravel road. The fields on each side of the road were freshly cut and the trees surrounding the edges of the fields were filled with beautiful fall color leaves. As I turned off the gravel road onto a dirt road I immediately saw all of the horses, the trailer/RV combination rigs, the dogs “on line” and the grill etc. where the kitchen was set up. I realized I must be the only “spectator” present as all of the other vehicles were pick up trucks. After I exited from my mini-van, I walked over to a couple of men that were talking and introduced myself. They told me “the wagon” would be coming back shortly. I still didn’t know what “the wagon” was all about, but the weather was the best and the people were warm and friendly so I was ready for the unexpected.

The wagon is a hay wagon that has been modified to hold benches. A tractor pulls the wagon. Once the wagon rounded the corner I could see a group of people aboard Some got off and some got on, including me. Everyone welcomed me and then the education began. You ride “the wagon” so you can see the dogs and their handlers demonstrating their skills. On the night before the field trial there is a drawing that decides the order in which the handler and dog will run. The Derby, which is for the young dogs and their handlers, was the Category underway when I arrived. I could now see a man and his dog standing out in front of people on horses. The wagon remained at a standstill until the next run began. I was then told the first rule is no one, other than dog and handler, get in front of the judges. The judges ride horses and there are always two judges. They also have a “scout” on horseback, who if asked by the handler, can go locate (but not touch) his dog, who is not in sight. Spectators on horses can also ride behind the judges and spectators in ATV’s (All Terrain Vehicles) can also follow the horses or ride beside the wagon. I realized at that moment what a marvelous experience this was to see how both the traditional (handlers walking and riders on horseback) and the modern (the ATV’s) modes of transportation work so well together in this sport. Each run is 30 minutes long. With the handler and dog lined up in front of the judges, the judge will tell the handler when to let his/her dog go. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen at this moment but I can tell you those dogs knew why they were there.

Before the trial begins live birds are placed out in the brush along the course. The dogs have to find a bird, not touch the bird and stand there pointing until their handler walks up. The handler then has to “kick” around where the dog is standing to try and “flush” the bird. The object is to get the bird to fly up and the dog not to move. Once the bird flies, the handler shoots “a blank” and then gives a verbal release command to his dog. The judges must witness all of this. Of course, what is supposed to take place doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes the dog may put his nose down on the bird----------a real no-no or the dog will turn his head, another real no-no. These behaviors result in disqualification. But even if the dog does what seems to a novice, like me, as a perfect job, the judge may disagree. In addition to not breaking any of the written rules there are other desirable qualities judges look for which distinguish winners from non-winners. Some of these qualities include how fast the dog runs once given the command, the intelligence the dog exhibits, handling responses, manners, intensity, etc.

After the Derby trials, the older more experienced dogs ran. This time there were two handlers and two dogs. So one judge watched one dog and handler’s performance while the second judge watched the second handler and dog’s performance. The draw held the night before also determined this line up as to which dog and handler would be paired up with the second dog and handler. Therefore, luck plays a role because there is always the risk of incompatibility between dogs/handler skills being teamed together. At the end of each run an ATV is driven out on the course to replenish it with fresh live birds. Before putting the birds on the ground, they are gently swung back and forth to disorient them. This will allow the bird to stay on the ground longer in hopes the dog will pick up the smell and point the bird.

At the trial one man told me his dog is a great bird hunter but walks right past pen raised birds. He said pen raised birds have a different smell; therefore his dog isn’t interested.

Lunch was as good as I had been told.. There was homemade barbecue, homemade bean soup, hot dogs on the grill and all the trimmings. And the cost was-------whatever you choose to put in the donation box.

I rode the wagon, driven by Butch Haywood, until mid afternoon. Then I decided it was time for me to try the more modern mode of transportation available. So I hitched a ride on an ATV driven by Kimberly Bryant. Kimberly’s day had been good thus far as her puppy, Cameron, earned a third place ribbon in the Puppy Category. She took pity on this old body of mine that has a hard time making the knees bend but slowly I managed to straggle over the back of this ATV. We then took out over the fields, following the judges and others on horseback. It was great fun. I thoroughly enjoyed riding both the wagon and the ATV but decided to pass up the invitation to ride a horse.

To my amazement my introduction to Field Trials destroyed my perception that the sport is for Men only. There were several women running their dogs, including a Mother and Daughter team in the Shooting Dog category. These were experienced women. Anther handler, Ashby Morgan, told me she’d been doing field trials for about eleven years. While there were only a few young people at this trial they were having a great time following the dogs. It’s a good clean fun sport. You can enjoy being a spectator or you can get yourself a dog with a good sniffer and train it up to compete. It’s an opportunity for a family to have a fun day together and the best part is everyone seems to have a great time. The trial I attended was hosted by the Warsaw club and other participating clubs were from Hanover, Gloucester, Goochland, and the Northern Neck.

The sad part in discovering this wonderful sport is that its’ not a growing sport. While the members are anxious to have people join in this sport, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of interest. They really want more people involved and would especially like to introduce the younger generation to the sport. Spring Trials begin in March. If you are interested in seeing what Field Trials are all about, you can call Johnny Lewis, President of the Northern Neck Field Trial Association at 804-580-5518 for more information. Tired of watching television and need a change? Go to a Field Trial and enjoy a day with the dogs, friendly people and mighty fine food.