Bird Dogs & Training  |  04/08/2014

The Difference between Field Trials and Hunt Tests

Lots of hunting dog owners, especially newbies, aren’t sure what the difference is between a field trial and a hunt test. While both are great things to do in the offseason to keep us and our dogs in shape, training, and having fun, it can be confusing to figure out what’s right for you and your dog.
Basically, field trials are competitions and hunt tests are not competitive. In a field trial, one dog wins, or depending on the structure of the trial, one dog in each division wins. In a hunt test, each dog is judged individually, not in comparison to other dogs, and is awarded a score based on its performance. At the end of a hunt test, there may be several dogs with perfect scores, several not passing, and all possible combinations in between. The objective of a field trial is to pick a winner; the objective of a hunt test is to assess each dog independently.
Both field trials and hunt tests help breeders evaluate their lines. Both are fundamentally geared towards producing a better hunting dog by way of developing the dogs’ inherent abilities and fine-tuning their training. Both have events running on local, state and national levels, from puppy age to adult dogs.
Whatever level you’re at with your dog, there’s a program you can participate in. And hooking up with a group of bird dog owners training for trials or tests can be one of the best ways to enhance your dog’s training program and connect with people who share the passion.
There are many different organizations running field trials, and the format and style vary. One major difference is that some are walking trials and others are done with handlers, judges and galleries on horseback. Criteria for judging differ depending on whether it’s a pointing dog trial, retriever or spaniel trial. Some field trials use pen-raised birds; others conduct the search on wild birds. There are non-shooting stakes and shoot-to-retrieve stakes.
The American Kennel Club, American Field Sporting Dog Association, and National Retriever Club sponsor most of the national field trials, but other groups – such as the National Shoot to Retrieve Association and National Bird Hunters Association along with a variety of amateur field trial groups and breed clubs – also host trials.  
As far as hunt tests go, the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (for pointing dogs), AKC, and United Kennel Club (for both pointers and retrievers), and North American Hunting Retriever Association (retrievers) developed hunt test programs with the initial goal of providing a non-competitive yet standardized method of evaluating breeding. Parent breed clubs and multiple breeds clubs like the German Jagdgebrauchshundverband (JGHV) also have developed their own testing systems. The wonderful byproduct of these programs is the training that’s offered for the tests provides handlers and their dog’s outstanding preparation for hunting in general whether or not participants ever end up taking the tests.
Depending on the trial or test, pointing dogs usually must demonstrate their ability to search for game; hold point; remain steady to wing, shot and drop; and retrieve downed game to hand. Versatile pointing dogs will also be expected to search in the water for game; mark and retrieve downed waterfowl; and track game on land. Retriever and spaniel events judge the dogs’ hunting ability, ability to remain steady, mark downed birds or waterfowl; make blind retrieves; and deliver birds or ducks to hand.
Whereas in a field trial the dog usually just has one run in a day, in most hunt tests, the dog performs several times. For example, in a NAVHDA Utility Test, each dog does a 30-minute field hunt, a minimum 10-minute duck search in a large body of water, a heeling course, a long tracked field retrieve, and a combination of steadiness and retrieving tasks from a water’s edge blind. Both field trials and hunt tests have complex scoring criteria designed to make the judges’ evaluations as objective as possible.
One of the liveliest – okay, let’s be honest and say super-heated – discussions you can find in the gun dog world is whether field trials or hunt tests produce the better hunting dogs. Speed, style, practicality, hunting instinct, finish work and a bird bag full of other elements fuel the debates. What’s important to most of us, however, is what program appeals to us and what we want out of our dogs. The best advice is to attend a couple of field trials or hunt tests, ask your dogs’ breeder for recommendations, and do a little local research to find out what’s available. Then grab your dog and have some fun.
Nancy Anisfield, an outdoor photographer/writer, sporting dog enthusiast and bird hunter, serves on Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever’s National Board of Directors. She resides in Hinesburg, Vermont.