Retrievers are bred and born to work. In the early days, their job was to retrieve the birds that their human companions harvested during hunting seasons. Retriever competitions came about as a way to continue training and conditioning when it’s not hunting season. Titles resulting from competitions are closely followed by good breeders to improve their bloodlines.
So What Is the Difference Between Field Trials and Hunt Tests?
The main difference between the two is that in field trials each dog’s performance is judged against the other entrants for an overall champion, while hunt tests are judged by a pass/fail system as to whether the dog can meet a set of standards determined by judges.
The sport of field trials came to the U.S. in the 1930s as a pastime for some of the more aristocratic citizens from Britain or Scotland who settled the eastern seaboard. Field trials are judged dog against dog and are extremely competitive because there are often a hundred or more dogs competing to be one of the few top winners.
Hunt tests came about in the early 1980s when some of the more common people wanted to test the skills of their hunting dogs. Hunt tests are designed to portray a common day in the field hunting. The dogs and their handlers are judged for whether or not they meet a standard and not against each other’s performance. In a hunt test, it is possible for all of the dogs to be winners if they perform up to the set standard.
Any registered retriever breed can be entered in field trials or hunt tests. Labrador Retrievers are the most common competitors, but Chesapeakes, Goldens, and Flat Coats have been known to show some impressive credentials behind their names also. Some dogs compete in both field trials and hunt tests.
In order to weed out a large number of competitors quickly, field trials are more difficult by design. Field trial dogs are required to make double or triple marked retrieves of 300 to 600 yards. In a marked retrieve the dog sits at heel with their handler and watches as a series of two or three birds drop one at a time. They are then sent to retrieve the birds one at a time. The second and third birds that dropped are referred to as memory birds since the dog did see them fall but some time has passed before they get to retrieve them. Retrieves are done through water, on land or both. Due to the long distances, all gunners and handlers wear white so they are more visible to the dogs at long distances.
Blind retrieves test the teamwork, trust, and capability of both the handler and dog. On a blind retrieve the bird is put out in a place where the dog didn’t see it fall. It is up to the handler to direct the dog to retrieve the bird through whistles and hand signals. Blind retrieves are shorter than marked retrieves, but distances of over 100 yards are common.
During retrieves, the judges observe the straightness of line that the dog takes, how accurately the dog judged the distance if it needs to be handled or directed in order to find the bird and general style of the hunt.
Each dog must also honor at least once during a series. In an honor test, the dog must sit unrestrained at the handler’s heel and observe another dog’s retrieve without whining, bark, or break from the heel. It is a test of tractability and manners.
There are many reasons a dog can be disqualified, so with each series, only the most skilled individuals return to compete in the next session.
Classes of competition for field trials include Derbies for dogs under 2-years old, Qualifiers for intermediate dogs, Field Champion for the most advanced dogs with professional trainers/handlers, and Amateur Field Champions for advanced dogs with amateur trainers/handlers.
Since hunt tests are set up to portray a day in the field, the retrieves are much shorter than in a field trial. Most of the time they are less than 100 yards, but rarely up to 150 yards. The same retrieve concepts (single, double or triple marks, blinds, and honors) are used, but the shorter distances allow the handlers and gunners wear camouflage or dark colors, yet still be visible to the dogs.
The set up in a hunt test generally uses props like decoys, collapsible blinds or the handler may carry a gun. On a walk up scenario, the handler carries an unloaded gun and has the dog at heel. As they walk toward the line, the gunners are signaled to throw and shoot the bird. As the birds are thrown and the shots heard, the handler raises the gun to his shoulder and points it toward where the bird fell while keeping the dog at heel. Only after the judges call the dog’s number can the handler release the dog to retrieve. Sometimes, dogs have to cleanly swim past a decoy set up to get the real bird on a water retrieve.
There are a number of sanctioned organizations that sponsor hunt tests. The rules for each are slightly different, but most have three levels to participate. AKC hunt tests have Junior (started dogs), Seniors (intermediate), and Masters (advanced).
Whether the human/dog team participates in field trials or hunt tests, it is a great way for both to master teamwork, discipline, and patience while doing something they love and meeting others with common interests.
AKC Hunt Test Rules. Accessed August 2, 2018.
AKC Retriever Field Trial Rules. Accessed August 2, 2018.