A Look Into The Challenges Of Transitioning From Hunt Tests To Field Trials
Part 1 “Marking”
One of the most common scenarios I encounter at workshops and day-school is someone’s desire to transition from hunt tests to field trials. Or to experiment with cross training for both venues. The focus of this article is to point out some of the challenges in achieving that goal and to provide insight on making the effort a little less daunting. I’ve separated this discussion into 3 parts and will publish one each week. We will follow this series with a deep-dive discussion during a FREE Purina Masterclass in June – registration details to come!
In this article I will discuss the challenges in adjusting from hunt test style marks to field trials. I’ve identified the main challenges below, and provided a short description. I then picked the top 3 stumbling blocks and provided some training tips so you can get to work!
Here is my list:
3. Bigger Swims
4. Visible Guns
5. More Extreme Factors
6. Long Water Entries
7. Learning to understand a fall area in reference to the gun station.
8. Line mechanics for watching marks
9. Longer duration of tests
10. Accepting gunner help
The first and most obvious difference is the longer distances of the marks. Teaching a dog to go 250-400+ yards on a mark is only one of the hurdles you are likely to face. Just seeing the bird thrown is another. Driving long past shorter retrieves can give dogs trouble, especially when the shorter bird is a live flyer.
Originally, I called this section drag back scent. However, it is not only drag back scent that dogs need to deal with. In each test, these dogs experience scent from drifting feathers from the flyer station, foot scent from other running dogs and gunners in the field. Not to mention the tracks that are laid by ATV’s and vehicles servicing the stations. Make no mistake about it, all these scents are providing information for our dogs during their retrieves.
In most Master Tests, the length of the swims on the water marks are relatively short. The biggest reason being time management. Everyone is well aware of the large entries in today’s Masters. There is only so much time in a day. Therefore, the length of swims require trimming. Often that is not the case in Field Trials. Big swims can be intimidating to dogs as well as exhausting.
Visible gunners in white jackets can throw dogs for a loop. Learning to look past shorter, more obvious gunners in order to see and retrieve longer marks is a taught skill. Hunt test dogs are accustomed to retired gunners. However, having a gunner be visible when they throw and then disappear takes getting used to. The other challenge to retired guns is that they are complicated by the non-retired gunners that are still visible. Hunt test dogs quickly adapt to short, retired guns, but might be challenged by long retired guns. Those require the most amount of exposure for all field trial dogs and especially ones coming over from hunt tests.
More Extreme Factors
The factors that are affecting a dog on a mark are more extreme in longer retrieves. Holding a line in a crosswind is significantly more challenging on a 350 yard retrieve than a 100 yard mark. Losing sight of a destination due to terrain changes and throwing a dog off course is a common challenge faced in field trials. Water, cover and terrain are all factors that play a roll in a challenging mark. These factors are often magnified and require greater attention when preparing to compete in a field trial.
Long Water Entries
Long entries into the water brings on a whole new meaning to what a dog needs to be prepared for on a typical weekend event. The temptation to take an easier route is multiplied when you back off the water a 100 yards or so.
Understanding the Fall Area in Reference to the Gun Station
Learning to efficiently hunt a fall area using all available information is something the seasoned field trial dogs get really good at. They reference the gunner or the previous location of a retired gunner to systematically find their marks. The better they get at this, the more successful they are.
A good marker is obviously important. However, a good finder is equally valuable.
Line Mechanics for Watching Birds
Accomplished field trial dogs learn to accept very subtle communication from their handlers while the marks are being thrown. Anticipating the next mark to be thrown and not being surprised is a huge factor in a dog’s success rate. Small movements tell a well-trained trial dog to look left or right for the next mark to be thrown. Many hunt test dogs are cued by the sound of a duck call coming from the field. That is not going to happen at a field trial. You can’t mark what you don’t see. One exception is in HRC where most dogs are taught to pivot in reference to the handler’s movement. I am a firm believer that more sophisticated mechanics on the line will pay dividends during competition.
Longer Test Duration
The time it takes to complete the last series set of water marks often exceeds 15 minutes. The concentration and physical conditioning it requires to excel under these conditions should not be underestimated. General George Patton said, “fatigue makes cowards of us all.” The duration of field trial water setups is just another example of extreme factors.
Accepting Gunner Help
If I had to train dogs to do advanced marking tests without the use of gunner assistance, I would be at a loss. The decision to handle a dog on a mark versus having the gunner help a dog is significant to me. I choose to handle in an effort to communicate something a dog has done fundamentally wrong. For example, cheating the water, switching, or returning to an old fall. I will have the gunner guide the dog to the mark when the dog is making a good effort but just can’t come up with the bird. Handling the dog is a form of correction. Helping the dog is a form of encouragement. Many hunt test dogs don’t understand what it means for a gunner to help them on a mark. They are accustomed to being handled. There are many possible negative side effects of a dog being handled too much on marks.
Now that we’ve identified some of the challenges, I’d like to expand on a few and give you some tips to work on them.
Getting Dogs Comfortable with Longer Distance Marks
There are several things we can do to help our dogs conquer the distance barrier on marks.
1. Get BIG bumpers: I often use large white boat bumpers on long birds. I am talking about real boat bumpers, not 3” training dummies. You can pick them up at Walmart in the sporting goods section. Get a couple that are about two feet long. You can see them easily from 300 yards and further. Often times you can see them on the ground at a distance. I will either throw another bumper or a bird when the dog gets close. The dogs have trouble actually retrieving the boat bumper due to its size. That visual target is a real confidence booster when trying to stretch a dog on long marks.
2. Fire Drill: Utilize a marking “fire drill” by having your gunner throw multiple objects for the dog while they are in route to the retrieve. A sharp thrower can time the additional throws when they see the dog starting to lose focus. Don’t add a lot of factors in the early stages of teaching long birds. High success rates are what you are striving for.
Tackling Tough Scent Conditions
Teaching a dog to push through drag back scent is a lot like conquering the distance barriers. Using some of the high success tactics I previously described. It’s hard to create drag back scent unless you have multiple dogs bringing back retrieves. You can go out and artificially drag birds through cover to simulate drag back and do both marks and blinds through the scented area. Be careful using too much pressure when dogs break down in the scented area. You don’t want to make a dog fearful of honoring their nose.
Introduction to Big Water
Exposing dogs to big water and longer swims is an important step. Once again using highly visible targets in big water gives your dog something to focus on while navigating an intimidating situation.
Just getting your dog comfortable swimming in larger pieces a water is half the battle. Using a kayak for conditioning in the water will increase their comfort level. Taking multiple dogs can create competition that will make big swims more fun. Resist the urge to make all your bigger water marks full of challenges. In an effort to get your master hunter ready for this weekend’s field trial, don’t have all 3 birds on your water triple have significant challenges. Do plenty of easy therapeutic water retrieves. It can be very difficult to rehabilitate a dog that develops a sour water attitude.
I hope this article will provide you with some insight into your journey from Master Hunter to Qualified All-age. In Part 2, I will talk about the challenges of Qualifying level blinds. Also keep your eyes open for the Masterclass where I will have a guest speaker, Colby Williams! We will do a deep dive into a lot of these subjects.
And Happy Training,