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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.
"A GOLDEN DECADE"
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.