Skip to main content
Original Issue


Field trials are a fast-growing sport which thrives on the true hunter's love for the out of doors and the eternal fascination of training an animal

On a blustery October morning in 1874 a group of Tennessee sportsmen gathered together in a field near Memphis to settle a long-standing argument about who had the best hunting dog. They didn't know it then, but they were holding the first public field trial in America. The event attracted only nine dogs of local reputation but it so fired the imaginations and the fancy of sportsmen who heard about it that soon more of these dog contests were being held and a new sport was born. Since then there has been a steady growth in their popularity, and today field trials are held in all parts of the country for all of the sporting dogs—pointers, setters, retrievers, spaniels and various breeds of hounds.

To an uninitiated observer a field trial sometimes resembles a ritualistic ceremony in which dogs and people run about, invariably in foul weather, in pursuit of rewards which seem to be far outweighed by the discomfort and cost involved in achieving them. To the devotee, however, the tribulations are a challenge and the rewards are real.

If called upon to explain their addiction to the sport, field trial enthusiasts are apt to go textbook on you and talk loftily of "improving the breed" and "demonstrating the performance of a perfectly trained dog in the hunting field." But over a second drink around the fire they will confess that the thing which drives them more than any other is rivalry, plus the love of dogs.


Whether it is hounds chasing rabbits, bird dogs pointing or retrievers and spaniels retrieving, the challenge of a field trial is a constant incentive to anybody with a good hunting dog and a sporting instinct. Field trials have become so popular since the end of the last war that the sport is enjoying its "golden decade." Last year there were more than 2,000 trials sanctioned by the American Kennel Club—about 400 more than the previous year. In addition, the 160 member organizations of the Amateur Field Trial Clubs of America, which specialize in the pointing breeds, each held from one to three trials of their own.

Training your own dog and handling it in local field trials is not an excessively expensive pastime. It takes about a year to train a bird dog and if you don't want to do the job yourself a professional handler can be hired. If you catch field trial fever in some of the costlier breeds—particularly bird dogs or retrievers—and get the itch to prove your dog's worth on the big-time circuits, then be prepared to support an extra family of two—the dog and its handler—and pay the cost of junketing back and forth across the nation on field trial tours. Be prepared, also, to say goodby to your dog. Between its training and campaigning it might be able to fit in a couple of months with you at home per year.

Despite this, thousands of field trial fans are bitten by the big-time bug and it is in these major circuit trials that the sport has been brought to its most professional peak. The major circuit for setters, pointers, Weimaraners and Brittany spaniels begins each year in Canada on pheasant, prairie chicken or Hungarian partridge and swings down through the South in the winter. Culminating event of the year for bird-dog men is the National Bird Dog Championship trial at Grand Junction, Tenn. in February. Last year's winner was Warhoop Jake, a liver-and-white pointer owned by Dr. H. E. Longsdorf of Mount Holly, N.J.

The favorite dog at these events used to be the setter, but in recent years the pointers have taken over the field. Procedures at bird dog trials differ slightly from place to place, depending on what game is used and whether or not natural game is plentiful. Where natural game is not available, birds are planted.

Bird dogs, as their name implies, specialize in scenting and finding game birds such as quail, grouse, partridge and pheasant. They are run in braces during a trial, and because they range over a lot of ground, judges, handlers and the gallery follow on horseback.

The dogs sweep the course trying to locate and point the hidden birds while the judges score them for their bird sense, speed, range, style and stamina. To control the dogs, handlers use a variety of hand and whistle signals. When a dog comes to point, the handler flushes the bird out of cover and fires a blank from his revolver. The dog must remain steady to the shot. It is also a rule that the dogs must back the point of their bracemate, which means if one dog points a bird the other dog, who may not see or scent anything, must automatically honor it and come to point himself.


Another popular division of the field trial sport is that for retrievers—Labradors, golden retrievers and Chesapeake Bay retrievers—who perform at returning fallen game in a series of land and water tests. Unlike pointers, who must find their own game, retrievers generally work with birds released and shot in front of them. They must retrieve all kinds of game birds, whatever the hazards. Blind as well as marked retrieves are given.

In the marked retrieves a dog is allowed to see where the bird falls. On blind retrieves the birds are hidden in cover beforehand and the dogs must retrieve them by obeying directions and signals from their handler. Sometimes more than one bird is shot for the same test and the dog is required to mark and remember each position and retrieve them one after the other with as little handling as possible.

A spectacular retrieve by Champion Chesapeake Dilwyne Montauk Pilot some years ago is a classic example of the way a good dog works. He was given a blind water retrieve of two ducks. One fell dead but the other was only crippled. Pilot noticed the other duck escaping and immediately dropped the dead one to go after the cripple. He reached it in spite of heavy tides and winds but it started to dive.

Undaunted, Pilot dived after it time and again and finally caught the bird and retrieved it. Then, swimming in ever widening circles and looking back for directions from his handler, Pilot managed to locate and retrieve the dead duck.

The instinct which is as much a part of a champion retriever's qualities as his training was eloquently illustrated in the 1954 National Champion Stake, held in November at Weldon Springs, Mo. Major VI, the black Labrador who won the title, made his first retrieves far from the hunting field—according to its owner, Mrs. Fraser M. Horn of Southampton, N.Y., his first training was retrieving empty beer cans from around a Long Island bar.


The biggest boost to field trials, however, was given by a little hound called the beagle. There are now more beagles registered with A.K.C. (52,262) than any other purebred dog in America, and of the more than 2,000 A.K.C.-sanctioned trials held last year approximately 1,700 were for beagles. The beagle's climb to the throne is due in part to the fact that it comes nearest to being an all-purpose dog, equally in demand as a pet in the home and as a show dog and sporting dog. Also, almost any section of the country has the game it chases—rabbits—in abundance. Beagles do not require the same degree of expertness in handling as do some of the other sporting breeds, and they are easier and cheaper to keep.

The hard core of this segment of the sport is a passionately dedicated army of "single houndmen"—farmers, weekend hunters, city workers with a hobby—who own just one or two hounds and enjoy them as pets and hunting dogs. A smaller, but no less dedicated, group in the beagle fraternity is the pack masters, people with more time and money who prefer to run beagles as individually owned packs with much of the formality of a fox hunt.


At the great majority of beagle field trials the dogs are run in braces, with the judging being carried out on a points system which can lead to championship status. The beagle's object in the trials is to find game and drive it "in an energetic and decisive manner, showing an animated desire to overtake it," according to A.K.C. rules. The amount of game found is not as important as the quality of working the ground. Accuracy in trailing, endurance and obedience are the points watched for by the judges.

Teamwork and not individual performance counts in the pack events. The ideal pack of beagles—whether four, eight or 16 are hunting together—should, when their turn comes, briskly apply themselves to the search for a rabbit, stay close together and turn to the huntsman's horn. When a hound opens—the hunters' term for barking on finding the scent—the others should fly to him, and when the scent is certain in their minds and to their noses they should all pursue it as one with great drive and cry, and should push their rabbit to a definite end—to a kill or to ground.

Top event for single hounds is the International Beagle Federation Spring Derby Trial held near Pittsburgh, which annually attracts so many challengers that its stakes have to "be held in four different places at the same time. The top annual event for packs is the National Beagle Club's pack trials held at Aldie, Va., won by Reese Howard's newly formed North Country Beagles from Michigan.

A milestone in the field trial sport was reached last year with the establishment of a Field Trial Hall of Fame. Instituted by The American Field magazine, the Hall of Fame is restricted to pointing dogs but now that the pattern has been set it is likely that other breeds will be similarly immortalized. Four outstanding pointers of the past and one comparatively modern dog were named to the new Hall, as well as five sportsmen who pioneered the sport in this country.

There are no greater devotees of the sport of field trials than those owning spaniels, either cocker or springer. From the East, where it originated, the breed's popularity has stretched right out to the West Coast. Spaniel trials are similar to those for retrievers in that the dogs retrieve game, but they also have to find and flush it for the gun. Most tests are run over land on pheasants, but a nominal water test is given with ducks to prove the dog will enter water upon command.

While searching, spaniels are not allowed to range deep into the field but must stay within about 30 yards of the gun, its normal effective range. Tested in the customary braces, the dogs hunt on parallel courses and must not interfere with each other. They are supposed to cover the ground briskly and quietly in the zigzag fashion known as "quartering" the course. Upon flushing a bird, the dog must drop to the ground so that it doesn't charge on and flush others while the gun is empty. If the bird falls in the other dog's course he must fetch and his bracemate must leave it alone.

Winner of the 1954 National English Springer Spaniel Field Trial Championships run on the Crab Orchard Lake Refuge, Herrin, Ill. (Dec. 2-5) was a 2½-year-old named Ludlovian Bruce of Greenfair, the youngest dog ever to win it. Owned by Mr. and Mrs. Joseph C. Quirk of Greenwich, Conn., Bruce beat out a field of 34 and was handled by Lawrence MacQueen, who also handled the winner of the National Cocker trial (right). For some of the hand and whistle signals used to direct and control spaniels during field trials, see below.






FLYING LEAP is made by black Labrador as it begins water retrieve. Dogs must enter water boldly without help from handler, who directs dog by hand and whistle signals.


FISHEL'S FRANK (1904-1916)


LUMINARY (1937-1948)


MARY MONTROSE (1915-1922)




JOHN PROCTOR (1910-1923)


PUBLIC FAVORITES both as pets and field trial dogs are beagles, which require less-expert handling than other sporting breeds and are usually easier and cheaper to keep.


MIXED PACK of best hounds in National Beagle Club trials at Aldie, Va. move off at start of a three-hour stake followed by masters, whips, judges and the gallery.


HOUNDS ARE PAINTED with identifying numbers before the three-hour stake.


SQUIRMING ARMFUL is held by Anne Wing, Joint Master of Sandanona Beagles.


CHAMPION COCKER Shawfield Glenfire poses with Handler Larry MacQueen after winning 1954 National Cocker Field trial.


HANDLER'S SIGNALS are demonstrated by Arthur R. Eakin, a top spaniel trainer. These are the only permissible means of controlling dogs during field trials. 1) The "high on," which directs or "casts" dog to the right. 2) A left-hand cast. 3) "Hupp," or stop signal, given with one short blast on the whistle. 4) The turn, two blasts on whistle with handler pointing out a direction for dog.


Known among connoisseurs as "the father of the modern pointer," Fishel's Frank was a titan of the breed and sired 57 winners before he died in 1916. The only modern dog honored with pillars of the breed was Luminary, who sired 95 winners and died in 1948. Mary Montrose was the only bitch elected to the Hall of Fame. She won the National Championship three times. Muscle Shoals' Jake was the controversial dog of its day but earned its place with the greats after siring 97 winners. John Proctor, a son of Fishel's Frank, won 23 placements, including 14 firsts, and sired 49 winners. These portraits of the dogs were painted for Hall of Fame by noted artist Iwan Lotton.