Since 2000, a group of field trial enthusiasts have attempted to hold Flat-Coat only Qualifying and Derby stakes on an annual basis, whenever possible, in conjunction with a Specialty.
Past field trial events have provided an incredibly fun and friendly introduction to the field trial world. Some who've entered "just for fun" have been amazed at what their dogs could do, and many who came just to watch (or work) have found themselves inspired to greater ambition in training. All handlers with advanced dogs are warmly invited to enter the Qual, and those with steady young dogs (under two years of age!) to enter the Derby.
What to expect
Derby and Qualifying are competitive stakes, with a winner and placements or awards of merit for dogs who complete all series. Superficially, the stakes resemble WC/X tests, with throwers and gunners wearing white jackets and standing out conspicuously for the throws, and the shots are fired from the gun stations and not from the line. But marks are significantly longer and incorporate more terrain factors, such as cover changes, slopes, and obstacles, and dogs are judged according to how well they persevere against those factors. The rules are intentionally vague about the length of marks, allowing for judges’ discretion and regional cover and terrain differences, but advise that some elements in each Qual test might involve retrieves of several hundred yards.
Both stakes require delivery to hand and steadiness, though a controlled break is allowed. The rules recommend two shot flyers for each dog. Decoys on water are also required.
Derby is a stake for young dogs, between the ages of six months and two years. (Dogs are not eligible if they have reached their second birthday on the day of the trial.) Although steadiness at the line is required, handlers are allowed the option of bringing dogs to the line on collar and lead, which must be removed before the marks go down. Derby is a test of marking ability, with doubles and challenging singles, and handling results in elimination from the competition. Doubles at past Specialty Derbies have been straightforward, with clear separation between marks and no attempt to trick the dog. (At one Specialty Derby, the marks in the first two series were the same as the Qual marks, but run as singles rather than as a triple, although handlers should be prepared to run doubles, as the far more typical scenario.)
Qualifying marks are long multiples, often tight. Handlers can expect gunners to retire on some marks. The rules allow for walk-ups, but handlers usually have time to point out the guns to the dog before signaling for the birds. Handling on a mark will almost always result in elimination, depending on what the judges see in the other entries. The rules require at least one blind, but recommend two, one on land and one in water, and the blinds are often run as separate series. An honor is usually required.
Other differences from hunt tests
As in the Specialty Singles stakes, competition drives the Qual and Derby, with the difficulty of set-ups determined by the strength of the field and how much the judges need to see to make distinctions among the entries. On marks, the area of the fall tends to be more precise than at hunt tests; on blinds, the line will be tighter.
Many elements of hunt tests are absent from trials. Handlers do not carry guns to the line, or wear camo. (Most wear white jackets in all series, certainly while handling on the blinds.) There are no duck calls, and no sending from a boat or a bucket or from behind a blind, diversion shots or marks on the way back with a bird, or very rarely any short breaking marks. Steadiness is likely to be less of a factor on marks of typical Qual length, though it’s definitely an issue for Derby-age dogs.
How to prepare
Training for trials is a little different from training for hunt tests, but the concepts are both relevant and useful for hunt test training.
Both Derby and Qual dogs need marking, marking, and MORE marking. Dogs need to be confident and keep focus while going long. They also need to be taught to look long from the line—over considerable distances, and past the distraction of shorter guns. (And for dogs used to hunt test duck calls, a distant single popper shot isn’t much of an attention getter.) Also crucial is the introduction to concepts—up, down, across, and angles across slopes, into and through changes of cover, across obstacles such as ditches, logs, brush piles, paths, as well as angled entries and multiple re-entries into water, and channel and shoreline swims. Teaching a dog to resist wind and terrain factors challenges the trainer to introduce a wide variety of situations—fun for both dog and trainer, and also relevant for hunt test preparation.
Since 2003, the FCRSA newsletter has often carried detailed accounts of the FCRSA trials, with photos &/or rough diagrams, and these will help give an idea of what to prepare for. Look in the 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, Specialty issues, and Fall of 2008.
Usually there is pre-specialty training at a near-by great site for trial preparation, and the traditional camaraderie among trainers is an additional benefit.
P.S. If you would like more information about field trials, there is a great yahoo group dedicated to promoting field trials for Flatcoats. Please contact Ann Steer at firstname.lastname@example.org