Grouse Trial Primer

There was quite a bit of posting on a couple of message boards after a few of the recent blog entries here that showed there is a lot of misunderstanding about exactly what cover dog trials are and what goes on at one.  So, I thought it might be interesting to try and describe what is going on in cover dog trials, what it takes for a dog to win, how the training for a cover dog differs from a hunting dog, and what to consider when trying to breed dogs to compete at the highest levels in the woods.  My thought is to approach this in a series of posts looking at cover dog trials from the different perspectives of a judge, a handler, a trainer and a breeder.  So, here’s the first one.
From the Judges Perspective
I’ll start with a little bit about my credentials as a judge.  First let me say that I turn down far more opportunities to judge than I accept.  That said, I have judged cover dog trials and championships in Wisconsin, a couple of times in Michigan (including the National Amateur Grouse and the Lakes States Grouse Championship), in Maine, in New Brunswick, and here in New Hampshire.  In addition I have reported a number of grouse and woodcock championships as well as been the stake manager and marshal for a number of others.  Over the years, I have literally walked thousands of braces in the woods.  I have seen numerous great performances usually agree with the outcome although on occasion other judges have left me scratching my head. 
The first thing you need to know about judging cover dog trials is that it is completely subjective and numerous judges have personal quirks that are quite well known and that experienced handlers are aware of and will try to adjust to.  Some have certain aspects of a performance that they particularly key in on.  For instance, one well known judge will reportedly not even consider a dog that doesn’t run with a high cracking tail.  Another would not use a dog that pointed a rabbit or other off game.  Some like a dog that is closer and others will only use a dog that is right on the edge of a train wreck for the hour.  Those of us who regularly run in the woods may grouse (pun intended) about the inconsistency of judging but in the end accept it as part of the game.  In fact, there really is no objective way to judge a cover dog trial that takes in the entirety of a championship performance.
So, if you are thinking about entering a dog in a cover dog championship on one of the rare occasions when I say yes, here’s what I’m looking for.  I want a dog that leaves the line like a shot and runs fast and hard for the whole hour.  If there’s cover in front of the dog I expect it to get hunted before the dog goes on.  If there isn’t, I expect the dog to go forward until it finds some.  The dog should be willing to go to the extremes of bell range to find birds but come back when called to do so.  The dog should be to the front most of the time with the only real exceptions being when the course has turned away from it and the handler didn’t have the sense to round the dog up before the course changed direction.  (Except in extreme cases, I try not to penalize a good dog for an inept or inexperienced handler.)  If the dog is out of bell range on occasion, it’s not really a big concern to me.  If the dog has an exceptionally long absence, that is another story.  Some judges have a hard and fast rule about non-productive points.  I don’t like them but try to examine them in the overall performance of the dog.  If a dog has two nonproductives and only one find in an hour, it was wrong 66% of the time when it pointed – I’m not impressed.  However, if the trial is at a venue where the grouse have been especially elusive and are known to be running out before the handlers are even getting to the dogs, you look at nonproductives differently.  I am also looking for a dog that is conformationally correct and finishes the hour as it began.  I like what one of my early mentors in the sport called “a running dog.”  that meant at the time, and still does to me, that the dog runs big and hard for the whole hour, but does so with intelligence.  As I walk (or ride) the courses I think about where I think the dog should or should have gone.  The smart dogs usually hit all the right spots and will ultimately have the needed bird work to win.
I expect a dog to have its birds accurately pointed with intensity and lofty style.  If you have to flush far, far from the dog I would have been more impressed if you had sent the dog on to relocate.  The final thing I think about is would a want a pup from the dog.  Part of the point of all this is to breed better dogs whether the have long hair or short, doesn’t matter nor does long tails or short tails.  If you bring a dog to the line and it comes close to my ideal and is the best dog in the stake it will win.  If it the best dog in the stake but does not put down what I consider a championship performance than you can expect the stake to be reverted to a shooting dog stake.  I’ve come close to do that a couple of times but have always been saved by a dog getting it done late in the stake.
Check back for the next installment tomorrow or Monday.

Posted in Current News.

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