This may conjure up in your mind some confusing ideas. Many people ask me what exactly takes place at a Spaniel Trial and there are many differing misconceptions in respect of the discipline and the type of dog required.
Field Trials are governed by the Kennel Club who originally introduced them about 100 years ago to find the best shooting dogs about. The KC over the years has laid down the rules for competition which must be strictly adhered to and you break these at your peril.
Spaniel Trials are held in a real live shooting environment and normally have 16 competitors (runners) who have been picked at random from all the entries. Two KC judges are appointed before the day for their opinion on the competitors. The dogs together with their handlers in turn are asked to hunt their ground in pairs running side by side under the watchful eye of each judge with the low numbered competitors placed on the right hand side. After each dog has run under their respective judge they are then asked to change sides and run under the other judge. Of course not all dogs complete their first run without mishap. If you commit an eliminating fault such as passing game without flushing it (missing game) moving on a flush (running in) making a noise (giving tongue) - failing on a retrieve or abandoning game, you are asked to leave the competition. It is for the individual judge to assess your dogs performance marking privately in their judges book from A+ downwards giving extra merit to pace and style. At the end of the competition the judges compare notes add up their marks and award a winner. As you can imagine Lady Luck does play an important part in failure or success but hopefully evens itself out over the trialling season. Competitors are always keen for an opportunity for their dogs to shine an eye wipe (finding a retrieve that your brace mate has failed to find) could put you ahead of the pack. A long runner (an unclean shot retrieve which must be picked swiftly) could impress the judge as to your dogs outstanding abilities! Dogs start their competition careers at Novice level which is a level way above that of the average shooting companion. Once they have won at Novice they are then excluded and must then enter an Open Stake win an Open Stake and you have gained entry into the Championships. Win two Open Stakes and your dog becomes a Field Trial Champion.
As with all competitive sports Field Trialling attracts quite an eclectic mix of people throughout the UK. From the dedicated professional who has to be commercially motivated as well as the middle aged male still desperate to prove himself through to the casual hobbyist just wanting a pleasant day out happy to drive home having stayed in the trial and perhaps having even gained a Certificate of Merit. The camaraderie is generally good and Field Trialling is at present the only means of publicly proving the quality of our shooting dogs. Personally I take great delight in breeding training and Field Trialling my own stock of Contrail Cockers and if I can hold my own against the best in the country I can take great satisfaction.
So does a trialling bred spaniel make a good shooting companion (can you go to the supermarket in a Ferrari) you bet it is does. To quote the late Keith Erlandson A trialling dog is just an extremely well trained shooting dog. People have questioned the stamina of the trial bred spaniel. I have had some 45 minutes hard hunting runs in a trial when game was scarce without a break. Something I've never experienced while working the retired Trial dogs for walked up rough shooting parties. Hard to handle - not really given a modicum of common sense. Lively most certainly, but aren't most Spaniels.