Pointing Breed Field Trialsp

Competing on the World Stage
By Bill Dillon

Fourteen countries were present April 18, 2008 at the Coupe d'Europe (Euro Cup) for Continental Pointing Breed competition, which was held this year in Mlada Boleslav in the Czech Republic. The Coupe is representative of the best dogs from the continental breeds in the world. For the first time in history the U.S.A. was represented on this world stage. With the blessings of the American Kennel Club and the Federation Cynologique Internationale, and with the approval of the Continental Field Trial Commission, I was proud to be standing with all the other teams with the American flag and two of my Epagneul Bretons (French Brittanys), CH.Tatoo du Bois Courcol, Tr. and CH. Ultra de la Source Aux Perdrix, Tr. as the official representative for the U.S.A. I can't put into words how I felt when the national anthem was played.

Competing at this level has been an interesting and rewarding journey. I began traveling on an annual basis to France in 1999. At first I simply attended the spring field trials to observe. I saw a style of competition that closely resembled actual hunting conditions. Having been a hunter for nearly fifty years and owning a wild bird hunting lodge in South Dakota, I respect the challenges that only wild birds afford, and thus my interest was piqued because the Spring trials in France are held strictly on wild Hungarian partridge. The dogs are expected to quarter and thoroughly search the ground, and no field is ever covered twice. There are several judges and the courses are run concurrently. The dogs must be absolutely steady to wing and shot. The Continental breeds and the British breeds have separate trials but utilize the same rules the only difference being the British breeds run wider. Each dog is judged according to its breed and the running style that is correct for that specific breed. This means that the judge takes into consideration the run, the movement, the range, the style of point, how the head is held while on point and during the dog's run and assesses it according to its breed. A Brittany works differently than a GSP and a Griffon is different than an Italian Pointer etc. I was very impressed with their field trial system and being able to see so many dogs of different breeds being handled and judged by rules and standards of the countries of origin. I decided this was something I wanted to learn.

For the next three years I traveled to France each spring to walk with judges to learn the rules and how they are applied and to be with my French friends that are handlers in the trails to learn the nuances. I first began handling in the Spring trials in France in 2005, winning my first awards with Tatoo. He obtained his Trialer title (Tr. = dog must receive an Excellent rating in both a spring and fall trial plus an Excellent rating in a conformation show) and a ranking of "Recommended Stud". In 2006 Ultra obtained his trialer title and championship title. By my third year of competing I had dogs that were qualified to run in the French Cup. In 2007 Ultra was awarded a reserve CACT in the Cup. I was the first American to compete in the French Cup and was very proud to receive this award. The next level up is the Euro Cup (Coupe d'Europe), but because America is not a country in the European Union, the F.C.I. had to approve the entry of an American who would be officially representing the U.S.A. The F.C.I. only recognizes one kennel club from each country. Because the AKC is the national kennel club recognized by F.C.I. for the United States, any dog from the U.S. competing in an F.C.I. Championship event must be official nominated by the AKC. I obtained my official nomination letter from the AKC Performance Event Department in January 2008.

The Euro Cup rotates between countries. This year it was hosted in the Czech Republic. In 2009 it will be hosted by and held in Spain. 49 dogs entered this year representing 14 countries. There were three judges, all from different countries, judging each dog as it performed. The fields were good and the weather was fine but the wind that kept constantly changing direction, the scarcity of partridge and the abundance of hares and deer made it one of the toughest days in the field I've experienced in trials. Though Ultra performed to perfection there was, unfortunately, no birds on his course and thus no placement was possible. Tatoo encountered hares five different times as well as two chevreuil (deer) during his run. So much distraction can be too much temptation for a dog, and some good dogs were eliminated due to that, but both my boys honored the hares without giving chase and both gave performances throughout their courses that one could be proud of and which impressed other drivers and attendees alike. Tatoo had multiple finds and did a great job. I can not express the emotion of receiving resounding applause at the awards ceremony as I accepted Tatoo's Tres Bon award.

The U.K and European countries are the origin for most Continental and British breeds. The F.C.I. trial system in France that I have been involved in has been used to test the hunting ability for many generations, creating, maintaining and improving the breeds over the decades. The Federation Cynologique Internationale is the international regulating body for all European dog events, both field and show, with each country having their own national registering bodies. F.C.I. has 84 member countries and recognizes 339 different breeds.

The biggest difference between the trials in Europe and venues in the States is the requirement of the dogs to quarter and thoroughly search the field rather than running to objectives and then beginning the search, and the fact that the spring trials in Europe are always on wild birds. Though there are trials in the late summer and early fall that are held on birds that were released prior to the day of the event, once hunting season starts and the birds can be shot, the late fall and winter trials (all referred to as Autumn trials) are also on wild birds.

The trials begin at a central meeting location called a rendezvous where you find out which concourse you are assigned to and who your judge(s) will be. The spring trials average about 150 dogs per trial. Some may have entries nearly twice that amount. If a trial has 150 dogs, it would be divided up into ten concourses of 15 dogs each, each concourse having an assigned judge and a guide, which is a person from the local area knowledgeable of the area and the land that is to be utilized. Each group will run in a different area, sometimes several miles apart because each dog will run on a field just once because of the wild birds. You wouldn't hunt the same field over and over again, so each dog begins where the last dog ended. The fields are very large and the cover varies in density and height.

There are hare (very large rabbits) and deer that can also be encountered in these natural conditions. Your dog must honor and not chase any game but continue on in its pursuit of partridge. At the completion of a point with no faults the driver leashes the dog while the dog remains steady and they return to the judge. The dog is then released again to continue its search until the completion of the course. The dog must cover the ground completely with perfect running style to achieve a top score (CAC). Should a bird be missed anywhere on the field the dog is eliminated. Should the dog slightly lift a foot while on point it's eliminated. The rules are demanding and strictly enforced. How much drive and enthusiasm is displayed by the dog has a part in the scoring. How you handle the dog and how much you have to handle the dog also plays a part. Then you also have to figure in that about 25% of the time your dog will not encounter any birds during its run. These are wild birds and though the areas utilized for the trials are chosen because they historically hold birds, there is no guarantee that they'll be located on your concourse. It's just like actual hunting, wild birds are not always found on every field. It's pretty unfortunate when your dog's worked perfectly only to come up empty at the end of its time, but it's a part of the scenario and everyone who competes realizes that.

The awards system is made up of three levels of awards, the CAC, Excellent and Tres Bon. Only the CAC counts towards a championship title. To be awarded a championship title, males must earn 4 CACs and females must earn 3 CACs. In addition to the field awards the dog must also be awarded at least a "Very Good" placement in a conformation show prior to the championship title for the trials being designated.

The average qualification for an award in a trial of 150 dogs is around 10%. At the Coupe d'Europe where Tatoo was awarded a Tres Bon, out of the 49 dogs entered there were only 8 qualifying dogs that received awards. The spring trial season begins late February and runs to mid April when nesting begins. Only 1-2% of the dogs competing in the spring trial season progress to the championship level. The average time that it takes a dog to complete its championship title in spring trials in France is two to three trial seasons. There are about thirty trials every season with people from many countries participating and hundreds of dogs competing for a few select awards.

With the internet and communications that we have today the world has become a much smaller place. When we first began communicating with people in Europe it took two weeks to send a letter and another two weeks to get one back and phone calls were very expensive. But today with email, text messages and low phone rates, communication is as simple as contacting someone here in America. I have many friends I talk with on a weekly basis in Europe. Friends from France, Ireland and Germany have come here to visit and hunt with us and have gone back with a better understanding of America. By visiting their countries I was able to see so many breeds of hunting dogs in their country of origin and I learned the traditions and methods that have been used through generations of hunting, breeding and trialing those breeds that have maintained their consistency and natural abilities over decades. It opened up a new understanding of the breeds and their working styles for me. In reverse, my immersion into their culture has erased many misconceptions of Americans.

If you hunt a GSP, or a Weimaraner, or if you hunt test a Vizsla or Griffon, if you field trial a Brittany or a Pointer or any other pointing breed you may want to visit these trials to see your breed of interest competing and to talk with owners of the breed that love them as much as you. If it's just for one visit or the beginning of a competing journey, I promise you it will be worth it.

Bill Dillon lives in South Dakota and can be reached by e-mailing him at bill@bigspur.com.