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Helping You Get the Most From Your Hunting Dogs

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Of course, the shooting part of field trials can bring difficulties. Misses hurt a lot because your dog gets points for retrieves, too. So, if you do not shoot the bird he cannot retrieve it. This means you will want to make your shots (or bring a designated shooter to hit’em for you). Your dog also gets points for honoring the other dog’s point (trialing is done with two dogs at a time, called a brace). Judges also watch to see how he obeys and how he covers the ground. Best score at the end of the day wins. If your dog accumulates enough placements at trials (first, second or third), he gets to add NSTRA Champion to his pedigree, a recognized title.

NSTRA trialing is simple and very straightforward. It looks like hunting, it feels like hunting, and in some ways, it is hunting. Granted some dogs know the difference in pen raised birds and the “real thing” but I guarantee you even those dogs would rather be at a trial than back in the kennel!

Amazingly, it is not just the past-the-close-of-the-season-hunting that keeps me going back to NSTRA trials. The first thing you notice when you pull up to a trial is that there are more dog trailers, kennels, dogs and dog people than you have ever seen before. Hanging out between runs with all those other gun dog lovers is a great experience. You will meet old-timers with lots of experience and plenty of good advice. Someone will be there running your breed of dog and he will be happy to stand over to one side with you and make wisecracks about how every other breed of dog is obviously insufficient — “Just look at that one there!” There will be laughs about misses, congratulations for good dog work, and plenty of talk about how to solve the world’s problems. Building relationships with other dog owners is great fun, can lead to good contacts to buy more dogs, help you learn to train better, and maybe even find a good hunting spot for next season.

What I really like about trialing is how it makes me stay sharp, and keeps the dog sharp. Admit it: over the season we let our dogs slip. On opening day we demand nothing but retrieves right to hand, no exceptions. By the end of quail season, particularly if a covey is running some, we will let the dog fetch a bird halfway home, spit it out and turn back to track the rest of the covey. We run up, grab the bird off the ground and think nothing of it. What kind of retrieve was that? What about the dog’s obedience? Whistle commands and coming in every time when called is great in September, but somehow by late January we may be tolerating some bad habits. If we end the season like that, those bad habits can set in for six months. It will take some real work to get the dog back to what he ought to be again. Field trialing ends all of that. Obedience isn’t just important. It is scored. Retrieves do not count if the dog does not bring the bird in all the way. Makes you think, doesn’t it? I have a buddy who won’t field trial and I believe the real reason is his dog does not really mind, and he knows it. He is ashamed to run that dog in front of his peers. He ought to train the dog and get in on the fun — and he would have a better dog with which to hunt! Nothing will make you realize that your pup needs some work faster than seeing someone run a fully trained hunting dog. No, it won’t be his style that wows you, but those good solid points, with no creeping, being steady to wing and shot, and making real retrieves with good obedience that impresses. Come to a trial and you will be quickly reminded what we all want our dogs to be.

Field trialing is not exactly hunting, and for me, it will never replace the real thing. However, until quail season runs year around it will do. Try it — you may find that “making do” isn’t so bad after all. May and June are coming up fast. Don’t look for me to be languishing around the house waiting for September 1. I am going quail hunting!

The NSTRA runs a fine web site where you can learn more and find out about local chapters (now numbering thirty and covering the entire lower 48 states). If you need any additional information contact the NSTRA office at (317) 839-4059 or e-mail: Tell them Gundogs sent you!
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