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Field Trials - Definition

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Definition of a Field Trial

Having been asked numerous times "What is a field trial like?" I have decided to post this web page for those people who ask this question. For purposes of simplicity I will describe a typical AKC or American Field Horseback Field Trial.


Field trials were started when two people got in a discussion about who had the best bird dog. Then of course came the question of who would judge it and how would a competition be carried out.

 And today the modern field trial is based on that model.


All field trials are sanctioned by some group such as The American Kennel Club (AKC), The American Field (the oldest - commonly called The Field), The National Shoot to Retrieve Association (NSTRA), and others. Most of the trials are held by local clubs with support from the parent organization. There are also championships and national championships which are club supported.

The hosting club must follow strict rules in setting up a field trial. You can see the rules HERE. A "premium" or invitation is published with all of the information about an upcoming trial. Click HERE to see a sample. The club then receives all of the entries and does a "drawing" to determine a running order.

Dogs are categorized into appropriate "stakes" for their age and type of hunting style. These are:


Puppy Stake:

The youngest dogs from 6 months old to 15 months.
These young dogs are judged on their desire to hunt and find game. They are not required to find birds and there is no penalty for not doing so. What we look for is potential! Is this pup going to be a great bird dog - one that we would want to take home with us!
Derby Stake:

Adolescents from 6 months to 2 years old.
Derbys are a lot like puppies except they ARE required to find and point birds. However, they do not have to maintain point and can go in in "bust up" the covey or birds. They are judged on desire, intensity, intelligence using the lay of the land and obstacles / objectives - and again - is this a dog that we would like to take home with us!

This derby held point just so long before he went in for the bird. That's why I only photographed his back end!
Gun Dog:

Adult dogs who hunt at a closer range (like that of a shotgun).
Adult stakes require that the dog be steady to wing and shot. In the Gun Dog Stake the dog is in sight most of the time.
Shooting Dog:

Adult dogs who hunt between a Gun Dog and All Age (not AKC)
Same requirements as the Gun Dog Stake and you may see a little less of the dog as he / she has a greater range.
All Age:

Adult dogs who hunt at extreme range
Again, same steady to wing and shot requirement. In the gallery you may see very little of the dog in this stake, but when you do it is usually thrilling as the dog handles at a distance.

Young dogs CAN be entered into adult stakes if they are "broke to wing and shot" and the owner wants to enter them in adult stakes.

There are "amateur" stakes and "open" stakes. The amateur stakes can only have amateur handlers and scouts. The open stakes can have professional handlers and scouts as well as amateurs.

A "string" of dogs - To be handled in the open stakes by a pro means
lots of competition!

Once all of the entries are in and the drawing completed a "brace sheet" is printed and distributed on the day of the trial. This sheet will list the dogs and the handlers in the running order as determined by the drawing.


Plan to get up at first light! The course can be:

A Loop
You end where you start
Out and Back
you leave with one brace and come back with a different one
A "dog wagon" follows with kennels / crates and dogs. At the end of a specified time (30 min. to 1.5 hours) the first brace is picked up and a new brace is put down. This is continuous throughout the day.

And you better plan for the weather. The trial goes on rain, snow, shine, ice, wind, heat ... The only reason for delay is fog or darkness, when you cannot see the dogs, or lightning, i.e. dangerous situations.

At the beginning of each brace the handlers, judges, marshal, scouts and gallery assemble where the dogs will be released, called the "break away".  Usually two dogs are released for each brace except in special circumstances (such as when an odd number of dogs are entered in the stake) where only one dog is released, which is called a "bye" brace. The dog first on the list is called the "top dog" and the other the "bottom dog". Traditionally the top dog wears an orange collar and the bottom a yellow. AKC allows up to two collars to be worn during a competition and a lot of people put a "tracking collar" on which gives radio telemetry to a receiving unit. Tracking collars are used to find a lost dog ONLY after a judge calls "time" on a missing dog. "Shock" or "E-Collars" may not be used.

The "Break Away" - These dogs know that they are in a race to the first find!

The dogs should run and hunt the most likely places that wild birds would be found, usually the edges of fields or open areas. These areas provide excess crop food not complete harvested by machine and provide close cover for the birds when predators are present.

Two handlers ride and occasionally "sing" to their dogs with a "ohhhhh" or "hupppp" or any other sound to let the dogs know their current position or to give the dogs some direction. Behind the two handlers are two judges on horseback who watch the dogs and debate the dog's performance. 

Behind the judges there is a marshal, usually a member of the club sponsoring the event, who knows the course, can answer questions from the judges, and to keep the onlookers, the "gallery", at a distance behind him to let the judges have enough privacy to do their jobs. Large events sometimes include multiple marshals who may also include a marshal at the rear of the gallery to make sure there are no stragglers or problems.

The gallery follows the action and watches from horseback. There can be no gallery, as is often the case in really terrible weather, or a hundred people in the gallery.

Rule #1 for the gallery, "stay behind the marshal and judges".

A large gallery at the ABC National Open Championship

Each handler can have one "scout". The handler can ask the judges if the scout can go out and ride apart from the gallery to check the areas to the left and right of the course for a dog on point that might have been passed by the handler. The scout may not go in front of the judges and may not "handle" the dog.

Occasionally there is a "dog wagon" which not only serves the purpose of bringing the next dogs to the starting point but may have seating for spectators who do not wish to watch from horseback. The view from the dog wagon can be quite different from the gallery and can offer a unique and interesting perspective.

"Dog Wagon" with spectators in the background


The objective of course is for the dogs to find birds. When a dog finds a bird he or she is supposed to "point" the bird. Puppies are exempt from this. A point should be an obvious "stop" and the dog should "lock" into position.  The intensity and concentration that the dog has on point is called "style on point" and is part of what the dogs are judged on.

A very stylish point

If both dogs go on point at the same time it can be called a "divided find" in which both dogs are given credit for the find. If one dog finds the bird and goes on point and the other sees the first dog, then the second dog is required to "back" or "honor" the first dog by pointing the first dog. Points are not awarded for backing but failure to do so can mean disqualification.

A dog might also go on point when a bird suddenly flies up from some distance away, this is called a "stop to flush". If however the dog runs up too fast on a bird it is called a "bump" and the dog is disqualified or "picked-up" (the dog is picked up and either tethered, carried in the handler's arms on the horse or put into the dog wagon).

A "Back" in a training situation (note the harness on the first dog)

Leeway is given in judging a derby stake. These adolescents only have to point for a moment. Then they can be puppies and do what they like, in other words, chase the fleeing bird.

The handler, upon seeing his dog on point, raises his cap and calls "point". Then the handler rides over to the dog and gets off the horse at a distance as to not disturb the dog or the birds. At least one judge follows the handler and waits for the handler to look for the bird. The gallery follows the marshal and judge. After all, what are you here for?

The scout usually comes up to help by holding the handler's horse.


The handler goes into the brush, usually where the dog is pointing, to get a bird to fly, or "flush". When the bird flies the handler fires a blank gun. The dog is supposed to stand completely still for all of this except for watching the bird. This is called "steady to wing and shot". Sometimes a dog will pivot in position to watch where the bird flies. This is called "marking the bird". An over-aggressive mark, such as taking a step, can disqualify a dog and is up to the judge's discretion.

The handler then goes to the dog, takes him or her by the collar, and leads the dog away from the area of the flush. Some handlers will handle the dog only by voice commands instead of "collaring" the dog.

Going in for the flush, blank gun in hand.

Occasionally the handler will ask the scout to lead the dog away from the area while the handler re-mounts.

If a dog does not demonstrate steadiness to wing and shot he or she is usually "picked up", or removed from that brace, by the handler and leashed or harnessed.


The ultimate goal is for the dog to find birds in an excellent hunting method, show style on point, steadiness to wing and shot, and to finish as strong as he or she started. I like the quote:

"To measure up to field trial standards a bird dog must posses speed, range and style. He must manifest method and an intelligent pattern in his negotiation of the terrain. He must exhibit character, animation, independence, and initiative. His work must be incisive and merry. He must show intensity and steadiness on game. He must handle well. The ideal bird dog, in short, is the polished product, a high-class, thoroughly broken performer that excites constant admiration by the excellence of his work."

William F. Brown
"Field Trials - History Management and Judging Standards"
New Revised Edition
American Field Publishing Company


At the conclusion of a day the completed stakes for that day are usually awarded their placements. AKC awards a ribbon for 1st through 4th place. American Field Championships have winner and runner up with possible honorable mentions. AKC points are accumulated to achieve levels of accomplishment such as AKC Field Champion (FC) or AKC Amateur Field Champion (AFC).

Pictures for the magazine

Ok, it's time to hitch up the horse trailer, load up the dogs and horses, go home, take care of the dogs and horses, get a long deserved bath and go to bed. After all, next weekend you have another trial to go to!