On June 23 2018, my Lab Ruby took 2nd place in a Qualifying Stake at a licensed AKC field trial. This is a HUGE deal for me – one of my Big Goals with my Labs is to earn the distinction of Qualified All-Age (QAA), which is what Ruby did when she got that 2nd place.
So what does this all mean?
Field Trials vs Hunt Tests
The AKC has 2 performance events devoted to breeds bred to retrieve – field trials and hunt tests.
Field trials are restricted to the 5 “official” retrievers – Labradors, Goldens, Flat-coats, Chesapeakes and Curly-coats. They have been around for many decades and are competitive events. There are 4 basic levels in field trials (FT):
- Derby – for dogs under the age of 2
- Qualifying – all retrievers are eligible as long as they have not won 2 Qualifying Stakes; once they have 2 wins, they can no longer compete.
- Amateur – dogs placing 1-4 earn points towards their Amateur Field Championship (AFC); the handler must be an amateur.
- Open – dogs placing 1-4 earn points towards their Field Championship (FC). Both professional field trainers and amateurs can handle a dog in an Open; if an Amateur places 1-4, they will also earn points towards their AFC (as well as their FC).
Dogs that placed 1st or 2nd in a Qualifying stake earn the distinction “Qualified All-Age” (QAA or All-Age Qualified or sometimes *** is placed after their name). A dog can also earn the QAA distinction by finishing an Amateur or Open stake). If a dog completes the requirements for QAA twice, they earn an AKC title, QA2, added to the end of the dog’s name.
Dogs completing a field trial (at any level) are placed based on their performance. Placements are 1-4; any dogs finishing the stake but not earning a placement will earn a Judges Award of Merit (JAM). The dog that judges have determined just finished out of the placements – 5th place essentially – earns a Reserve JAM (RJ).
So FT are competitive events; dogs that excel are generally in training throughout the year, traveling south to warmer climates in the winter and north in the summer.
Just finishing a field trial is a Big Deal for me. Our training is limited by weather – generally it’s too cold to swim the dogs (or impossible due to ice!) 6 months out of the year and when there is snow or ice I won’t do any field training. So my dogs are trained about 5-6 months out of the year, putting us behind most of the dogs competing at field trials. And I do other sports with my dogs – obedience and agility – which I love just as much, but which also means our training time is split among 3 venues. So earning the QAA is a HUGE DEAL for us! Earning a QA2 is now my new goal with my dogs. Nell was my first QAA dog (there was no QA2 option at that time) and Grace my first QA2. Now Ruby has earned QAA and we’re continuing her training to try to earn QA2. I will continue to show her in Qualifying stakes and have toyed with the idea of entering her in an Amateur stake, once we’re working better as a team. FT entries are expensive ($90-$100 typically) and usually require some travel (so motels), so I generally don’t want to enter a FT unless we’re doing well in training. That eliminates most spring trials, as we typically don’t get into water until late April and dogs must perform both on land and in water.
So What’s a Hunt Test?
The AKC introduced hunt tests (HT) in the 1980’s for retriever owners who didn’t have the time or interest in participating in FT but who wanted a place to showcase their dogs’ hunting abilities. HT are non-competitive; the dog is judged against a standard of judging for each level. The tests should resemble hunting situations, with participants wearing clothing appropriate for hunting (no white coats!), much shorter retrieves and hunting-like situations with duck calls, gun handling, etc.
Retriever HT are open to all dogs bred for some kind of retrieving, including all of the retrieving breeds (including Nova Scotia Duck-Tolling Retrievers), many of the pointing and spaniel breeds and poodles. There are 3 levels of competition:
- Junior – Dogs are tested only on their ability to “mark” (see and remember) the fall of a bird, 1 bird at a time; they’re tested on both land and water. 4 passes at the Junior level earns the dog the title of JH.
- Senior – This is an intermediate level where dogs are now expected to mark and remember 2 birds thrown successively (so they see 2 birds thrown and are sent out twice to retrieve them one at a time). There is also a “blind” retrieve where the dog must be sent by the handler to get a bird the dog didn’t see placed; the handler uses whistles, verbal commands and hand signals to guide the dog to the bird. Dogs completing the requirements earn the title Senior Hunter, SH.
- Master – At the top level dogs are tested on their memory, with as many as 4 birds thrown successively as well as their handling abilities, often having to go past another bird or scent while following their handler’s commands. Dogs completing the requirements earn the title Master Hunter, MH.
Since Nell, I’ve been showing my dogs in FT initially, introducing them to HT once they’ve shown in Qualifying Stakes for a year or so. The AKC allows you to start at any level for HT, so I will skip Jr and Sr and jump right into MH tests as my dogs at that point should have the skills necessary (they need those same skills for FT, even though the testing is quite different). Because we don’t have a SH title, my dogs must earn 6 passing scores at the Master level to earn the MH title.
So that’s a very short and incomplete primer on retriever field trials, hunt tests and why it is such a Big Deal for my dogs to even finish a FT (or MH test) and especially to earn a QAA, QA2 and MH.
If this sounds like fun to you (it is a blast watching dogs do the job for which they’ve been bred), contact your local hunt test or field trial group and get involved. I’ve been very lucky to have some amazing friends and mentors help me with this sport. A wonderful friend who is a remarkable field trainer guided me to my first MH and then introduced me to the field trial game; we’ve been training together for close to 2 decades now. Ruby’s breeders have been wonderful mentors, allowing me to join their training group and answering my many questions. I belong to 2 retriever clubs – they are both about 1 ½ hours away but very much worth the drive. The members are great and they have great training days, helpful to members at every level. Joining a club means committing to helping out at trials and tests – a wonderful way to learn about a sport.