Just like there are many different breeds of hunting dogs, and many different ways to train hunting dogs, there are many different ways to test a hunting dog. Even with all the different organizations, and tests or trials to participate in by far the best way in my opinion to evaluate a hunting dog (especially a GWP) is to go hunting. Not just a little hunting, but lots of hunting in many different areas, and on many different types of game, both fur and feather. You need to spend lots of time hunting a dog allowing them to show you what they are naturally before you do any training. You have to know what they have naturally first then you can see how trainable they are after you know how good they are naturally. Most people start training dogs to perform in a test or a field trail when they are too young to know what they are naturally. That is fine if you are not interested in breeding, but I think it can be a drawback for a breeding program. Testing and field titles are just part of what goes into evaluating your hunting dog. I see people that never hunt their dogs and just run them in field trials. They think that because they are good field trial dogs they are good hunting dogs. A good field trial dog doesn’t always mean a good hunting dog. Two of the worst hunting dogs I have ever had as far as being able to find game had dads that were national field champions. I think that other hunting titles are testing the trainer’s abilities to train dogs, more than the dog’s natural abilities. I’ll list what I think are the positives and negatives of hunting tests or field trials.
I have trained dogs from start to finish and put Amateur Field Championships, Field Championships, and Master Hunter titles on dogs. I have also judged hunt tests and field trials in many states watching many pointing breeds perform. A few times I have attended the German Wirehair Pointer Club of America national field trial which is held once annually. A few other times I sent a dog or two with someone else to run for me. Every year one of my dogs has competed at least one has come home with a placement at nationals. I understand what it takes to get a dog competitive on a national level, but I prefer to spend most of my time in the fall hunting, and not going to any field trials even the national trial. During hunting season it is not uncommon for me to spend over 40 hours a week watching up to 10 different GWP’s that we have bred or co-bred hunt.
I’m not at all against testing your hunting dogs, and I think there can be a lot of good information coming from a test and you can learn plenty about your dogs while training for the tests. You can also learn from other people that have trained dogs. When I spend time at tests or trials communicating with other trainers I always listen to what they think and file that information away to see how it fits in with how I think. There are however some things about testing that I don’t like. One thing that I always question is how did a dog get the title, and who trained and handled the dog to the title? A great trainer/handler can take an average dog and make them look good or even great. A poor handler, or someone new to the test or field trial game can take a great dog and the handler can make that dog look like an average dog. Like anything that is subjective and judged by other people, sometimes these judges are your close peers, the relationship between the handler and the judge will come into play. It doesn’t matter how unbiased the judge is, if a judge knows you or doesn’t know you they will have made up some opinion as soon as the judge sees you and your dog. No matter what anyone says, every test or field trial can be manipulated and that can mean some dogs get titles they don’t deserve, and some dogs don’t get titles they deserve. The German Shorthair pointer national field championship is held at the same place in Kansas every year. I don’t think this is a good thing. The German Wirehair pointer stills travels around the country to different locations for it’s national championship. Some people think that what the German Shorthair pointer club is doing is what is best for the breed. I think that breeding a dog to compete at high level on one small 1500 acre patch of land in the middle of the country, on one pen raised species of quail is not a good idea. How will that dog handle ruff grouse and woodcock in the thick woods back east, how will that dog handle blue grouse in the rocky mountains, how will that dog handle sharp tail grouse and Hungarian partridge on the prairies of Montana or the Dakotas, how will that dog handle three species of wild quail in the desert southwest, how will that dog that is bred to run the flat lands of Kansas handle the deep canyons of Idaho, Oregon, and Nevada on a chukar hunt???? The centralization of the national field trial is what is best for the people in the central part of the nation, not what is best for the breed.
Field trials can bring out the worst in people as well. Fist fights, lying, cheating, bullying, are things I have observed and heard of happening in other parts of the country. I’m not sure if this is because it is a competition or if it’s just people not wanting to believe their dog isn’t as good as another dog according to a couple of judges opinions. In testing where it isn’t a competition a dog can get a passing score, and be way less impressive than another dog with a passing score. All the dog needs to do is meet a minimum score to get a passing leg. It doesn’t matter what kind of a scale you use to rate the dog people will look at the titles for their evaluations. The differences in judge’s opinions and how they see the dogs will affect the numerical value of the dog. There have been times when I was judging that my numerical scores were quite different than the other judges. Does that mean I’m too harsh and the other judge is too lenient, or maybe we just see things through a different color of lens? So if I’m judging with some who thinks like me a dog might get poor scores, and if the other judge is judging with someone like them the same dog might get good scores. It is very difficult to get knowledge dog people to all see things exactly the same way. Therefore to just assign a number score to a dog has to be taken as just part of the dogs evaluation as a hunting dog because that number can be, well just a number. Too many times an owner will say look at that score my dog is great, but maybe it actually is just average. I think that competing is the best way to evaluate a dog especially if the dog is competing against many pointing breeds. While judging hunt tests I have on occasions had someone question scores I gave the dogs, but no one has ever been upset enough to have a confrontation with me. I have seen handlers go after judges verbally in trials and hunt tests. The thing about tests and trials is they are judged by humans and the dogs are not machines. The combination of the two means there is a lot of possibilities of imperfections and sometimes people just can’t seem to understand or accept it.
In my opinion most of the time field titles are more for selling puppies and people’s ego than to benefit the breed. I have seen GWP breeders with very poor coated dogs, that didn’t naturally retrieve, but won at field trials be really proud of those dogs. It doesn’t matter where you live in the world if you are breeding dogs you will be breeding dogs with faults. It’s up to the breeder to be honest with themselves and the people buying puppies or older dogs from them, because your integrity is all that counts. If you are moving forward with a breeding program you must identify the faults of the dogs being bred. If you are using dogs from another breeder if that breeder is honest about their dogs then they will tell you the faults of their dogs so you can avoid doubling up on faults.
The use of pen raised birds is another thing that I don’t like about field trials or hunting tests. I know at least some of the American Field trials are run on wild birds which is a way better test for the dogs. A dogs ability to find game not only varies from dog to dog, but from game to game. Some dogs are better at finding deer than another dog, but that other dog is better at finding sharp tail grouse. Very seldom do I see dogs point any of these pen raised birds at a distance or indicate that they pickup them up at a distance. It doesn’t mean they won’t be able to handle wild game at a distance, but there is nothing to tell me they can point wild game at a distance where they won’t flush the game by getting too close. They are not required to be a good hunting dog because they are not actually hunting in my mind. Dogs quickly figure out human, or horse, or 4-wheeler scents leading them to a bird that has been tossed in a bush. If the dog is smart and trainable and has been rewarded for finding these birds in the past it will become very efficient at the test or game like a field trial. These smart test or field trial dogs will rarely run outside the areas where the scent paths exist because they have learned nothing is outside these boundaries. This is a major flaw in the testing or field trials that most people don’t even think about because they don’t hunt their dogs on enough wild game to understand what the dog is doing at the testing or field trials. I also don’t like how much noise the handlers (myself included) make while running their dogs at field trials. It’s obvious none of these loud handler/dog combinations are doing much hunting. Wild birds would simply leave the area if someone was doing as much hollering and blowing of the whistle as they do at a field trial. Late in the season you and your dog need to be pretty much in stealth mode to get any game pinned down. One other thing to remember is the testing is not done over a long time period. Most testing is half an hour and some trials are an hour. There are three hour American Field trials which is what I think is the longest test or trial. With a hunting dog many times the dog will be hunting for many hours even all day long. In my experiences after hunting your dogs four to six hours you start to see the true dog. A lot of field trial type dogs have been bred to perform at a high energy level for an hour or so, but lack the structure or mental makeup to perform for a long day. Field trial people tend to like smaller dogs because they zip around and look like they are working faster and harder than a larger dog. I actually like a larger dog for a long day of hard hunting. I have heard people say larger dogs won’t hold up long term, but I have noticed the smaller dogs don’t hold up especially while hunting any type of cover that is not wide open. I always go back to the Canadian wolf as a reference. Those are huge animals that have the endurance to run all day through any conditions. They can sprint or run marathons.
Another thing about the field trials and hunt test is that you have to not care about a lot of birds getting killed for the tests. Annually during tests or trials thousands of pen raised birds, mainly bobwhite quail, and some chukar are released for the dogs to find. Very few of these birds will be found by a dog and shot by gunner. Some might get caught by a young dog, and a small percentage might live for a few weeks. However the largest percentage of these birds will die of starvation or dehydration because they are not wild, and have no clue how to live in the wild. Many hunters have a mutual respect for the game they are hunting and always work to maintain good populations and habitat. To see birds being killed and wasted just for a test for our personal satisfaction can be a bit disturbing to the hunters who respect the game they are pursuing.