Craney Hill Kennel gets many telephone calls from people that are looking for a hunting dog. Many times, I am told that they do not want one of those field trial dogs. Considering this strong statement, I cannot help but start to question the person’s reasons for not wanting a field trial dog and the logic behind the reasons. The typical response is because the field trial dogs are to “hot” and difficult to control.
I find it amazing at how little this person must actually know about the field trial world. I really want to say “So that means you do not want a dog that hunts in range, does not chase missed birds and sits when the whistle is blown?” The truth is that the field trial community demands a level of control over their dogs that most people would crave. The reason that the general public has this impression is likely due to the limited exposure they have to “field trial washout” dogs. These dogs are eliminated from field trial competition for a multitude of reasons and most of those reasons will never be an issue to the average guy that hunts his dog.
Let me begin by highlighting some of the negative experiences someone can have when purchasing a “washout” dog. We need to eliminate the case of some professional trainer or field trial amateur being deceitful and dumping an untrained dog on some poor guy. I have no suggested cure for that situation.
The most common negative issue is that the dog takes off and does not come back when it is called and does not listen around the house. From a dog training view, this is a dog being a dog. In this case, the dog is just trying to be the leader and the new owner needs to establish who is in charge. A few obedience sessions prior to going to the field should clean this up for the new owner.
Another negative issue is that the dog gets tired too quick. This is because the field trial is a relatively short event (spaniel trials) so that each dog can be looked at over the course of the weekend. Field trial dogs are typically trained on two or three birds each time and run in a field 100 to 200 yards long. This creates a sprinter. If switched to a hunting environment, most dogs will learn to run more of a typical hunting pace. If you give it time and work on it gradually, it will all work out.
All dogs need to be steady-to-wing-and-shot for the spaniel field trials. Many hunters are of the opinion that an unsteady dog gets to the crippled pheasant better and results in less lost birds. My experience has been the complete opposite. First, a dog that is steady is under much better control in ALL situations due to the level of training that is required to make a dog steady. This means that a steady dog listens to the whistle better, hunts in range better and is more obedient. Also, a dog that is steady marks the fall of the bird better than one that is chasing. As such, it gets to the exact fall quicker to start tracking as compared to the dog that needs to hunt to the fall because of a poor mark. Now I know many of you are disagreeing and I know you have seen unsteady dogs make great retrieves. I have as well. But if you really pay attention, watch how many times the dog did not actually go directly to the fall. If you are looking at it truthfully, you will see my point. As far as tracking the crippled bird, a dog can or cannot take moving birds. It has nothing to do with being steady or unsteady.
This is a summary of negatives that I hear regarding field trial dogs. I hear the reasons, but I disagree with them. The reason that I think you SHOULD be concerned with getting a field trial dog is because of their lack of hunting exposure. Our spaniels all come from field trial genes…either our own or dogs we have purchased elsewhere. The pedigrees include many prominent names in the field trial community. However, we test our dogs in a real hunting environment on wild birds. We do participate in field trials; however, our focus is on creating quality hunting dogs, as the field trial should be a test of the “best” hunting dogs.
By participating in the field trials, it keeps our training standard at a top level. Sit means sit and here means here. By hunting the dogs on wild birds each year, we can keep our breeding stock producing proven bird-finders. So why do I think the bird-finding qualities are suspect with field trial dogs? I think most of the field trial dogs would be fantastic hunting dogs if they were raised and trained in the environment and methodology at Craney Hill Kennel. However, a field trial washout that is three or four years old has lost the opportunity to maximize its learning at a young age.
Most field trial dogs do not get ANY pheasants until well over one year of age. All of our puppies hunt wild game prior to one year of age that includes any combination of pheasant, sharptail grouse, quail, ruffed grouse, blue grouse, spruce grouse and Hungarian partridge. After this exposure, I do not know if any of the puppies will make a good field trial prospect but I DO KNOW that they can go hunt and find birds. This is the priority at MY kennel. It is not, nor does it need to be the priority at EVERY kennel. Some kennels have specializing in the field trial games as the priority. We believe your dog should excel at both.
So what does this mean to you? If you want a well trained dog with strong genetics, a field trial dog is the best way to go. However, be careful to be sure that it will hunt the way you want it to. Many times, the seller shows the dog in the same field that it has always been trained in. Trust me; it will never look as good as it does there…my dogs included. If the owner/trainer runs the dog in one direction, ask to see it work in another direction or different cover. You are buying a trained dog so make sure the transmission works both forward and reverse.
Many years ago, a gentleman purchased a trained field trial dog and went to hunt wild birds in Iowa. The dog walked at his side the entire time. Of course the guy was upset. Through a number of sequences, he called to buy a dog from me and was certainly filled with reservations. Needless to say, he loved the dog he got from me. This does not mean that my dog was any better or worse. It means that our dogs are trained and exposed predominately to real life hunting situations and the field trial dogs are trained and exposed to predominately field trial situations.
Another time, I went to Kansas with some field trial people and their dogs. They had a miserable time. They could not handle their dogs when the cover was over their head. The dogs ran behind them a lot and really struggled to produce birds. Our spaniels and labs were also struggling to produce birds; however, they hunted much more aggressively, were less confused and handled the conditions much better. Again, our dogs were on their “home turf” so to speak and the other field trial dogs were not used to a bird running 400 to 600 meters.
In summary, most field trial dogs will make a good hunting dog for you. Some will be better than others. To maximize your dollars spent, make sure you see the dog work in multiple covers, on multiple birds and in a situation that you think most closely resembles a hunting situation. Be sure you are comfortable with the owner/trainer and that they will stand by the health of the dog. Also be sure to get some help understanding the commands and how to handle the dog.