The Bird Dog Owner’s Guide to Walking Field Trials

These competitions are a great way to spend time with your dog after hunting season

Texas hunting dog field trial winners.
Winners from a walking field trial in Texas pose proudly with their dogs. Mark Chesnut

Bird-dog owners who lament the end of the season are missing out on some extra quality time with their best hunting buddies. By participating in walking field trials, they can extend their season for several months in the spring, then use the trials as tuneups before the seasons roll back around.

In most walking field trials, handlers guide their dogs much the way they would during an actual hunt. They move through a set 30- or 45-minute course with planted birds. Judges follow on horseback, and those in the gallery can walk or ride horses. When a dog finds and points a bird, the handler flushes the bird, shoots a blank pistol, and moves his or her dog on. Judges determine placements by a dog’s ground race, style, finds, manners on birds, and overall handling.

Shoot-to-retrieve walking trials are much different. In most of those, a smaller field is planted with a set number of birds. Two handlers, with judges following on ATVs, hunt their dogs through the field. When a dog points a bird, the handler flushes and shoots it. Then, the dog retrieves the birds. Points are given for finds and retrieves.

I’ve participated in walking trials for a couple of years now, and my dog and I have greatly enjoyed the experience—and our hunts in the field has benefited from the trials. Let’s take a look at some good reasons all bird-dog owners should consider giving walking trials a try.

Walking Field Trials Are Widely Available

While some trials are regionally based, several different entities hold walking field trials throughout the U.S. And there’s a good chance that with a little online searching you’ll be able to find one within a few hours’ drive of your home.

Some walking trials involve shooting birds, while others do not. Rules vary from group to group. Organizations that sponsor walking trials include the American Kennel Club, National Bird Hunters Association, Amateur Field Trial Clubs of America, National Shoot to Retrieve Association, and U.S. Complete Shooting Dog Association. Visit their websites to learn more about their trials and find one in your area.

Field Trials Strengthen the Bond with a Dog

Dogs and owners who spend more time together create a stronger bond. Not only that, but the dog will learn more quickly and try harder to please his or her handler, which is important in hunting and trialing. Are there other ways in which you can bond with your dog after hunting season? Sure, but few other activities transfer directly to the hunting field as well as trialing does.

And let’s face it: Our dogs are not going to learn anything sitting around in the kennel or on the couch from February to November. You should be doing something to continue training, and walking trials provide a good opportunity to get your canine companion into a few more birds.

Hunters in a field with their hunting dogs.
Dog owners compete in a walking field trial. CREDIT: Mark Chesnut

The Sport Welcomes Newcomers

Entering and participating in a field trial for the first time, especially if you don’t know anyone there, can be daunting. This is coming from someone who once showed up to a trial with only a dog and a dream, having no clue what I was doing or how I was supposed to do it.

In my experience, I’ve found that most people at walking trials are very welcoming because they want to continue to grow the sport they love. They’re happy to help you and walk you through what you need to do to be successful. Be cautious, though, as winning a few walking trials can be the gateway drug into big-time field trialing.

They’re Inexpensive to Enter

Because of the requirement to own a horse or several, horseback field trialing tends to be a very expensive endeavor. And while you can spend a lot of money on walking trials if that’s your thing, it’s not necessary. For most walking trials, all you need (aside from your dog) is about $50 for an entry fee. (A shotgun is also needed for shoot-to-retrieve trials, but it’s probably safe to assume you have one of those, too.) Of course, many participants have training collars, tracking collars, and a variety of other expensive training gear, but many hunters have those kinds of items in their training boxes already.

Field Trials Are Fun for the Family

One of the many great things about walking trials appeal more to younger dog owners—as opposed to horseback field trials, which appeal to a more “seasoned” citizen—so there’s a family aspect involved.

Andy Neria and Rhonda Shepherd, of Savonburg, Kansas, regularly have their two young sons in tow when they are running dogs at NBHA trials in Kansas and surrounding states. “The future of field trialing hinges on getting our youth involved at a young age,” Shepherd said. “Field trials that encourage youth participation and attendance, as well as having a welcoming atmosphere for the whole family to come, watch, learn, and join in on the fun, are crucial for the future of modern field trialing.”