How to get started in gundog field trials

A gundog handler giving a spaniel direction at a working field test

Working tests are a great way to test your training skills, but can be nerve wracking fro newcomers - Credit: Ryan Kay

Ryan Kay explains how gundog owners can get involved in Field Trials and Working Tests, and provides a summary of some of the best clubs to join across the UK

Attending a shoot day for the first time can be a little nerve-wracking to say the least. Those that then decide to go one step further and compete with their dog are likely to be even more anxious. I feel it’s so important that the first experiences for anyone wanting to venture down the competitive route are nothing but positive ones. Being made to feel welcome by those in the scene, where support and a friendly acceptance is the norm, will only encourage newcomers to stay and enjoy the sport. Sadly, I have to say it’s not always the case, as I sometimes hear stories where know-it-all’s are less than encouraging and instead seem keen to criticise newcomers and their dogs, forgetting that they themselves were once new to it all.

One of the most beneficial things you can do as a beginner is to join a gundog club. A club that will welcome you with open arms and one which lays on events such as working tests and training days which are worth every penny of the usually very reasonable joining and membership fee.

I myself am a member of over 20 clubs, which compared to many serious competitors is probably regarded as not that many. Over the years I’ve found some are friendly and accommodating, and some less so. Some are easy to join and go out of their way to ensure your application goes through and some are downright obstructive. What is certainly strange in the gundog club arena, is that so many clubs appear to be behind the times. Cheques are still a necessity in the way many clubs operate, though some clubs have progressed through to online payments. There are, though, still clubs out there with little web or social media presence, so finding those clubs can be difficult. I myself only heard about several of these from fellow competitors at events held by other clubs.

Although the majority of gundog clubs are local to any given area, there are some like The Cocker Club which are national. As the breed club for one of the most popular gundog breeds in the country, you’d expect this club to have a real presence for anyone looking to work their cocker – perhaps providing a stepping stone for beginners and welcoming new recruits with open arms. Yet at the time of joining some years ago, I personally found it the most difficult club to join. It has a lacklustre Facebook presence, a woeful website for the Field Trial section, provides no training days and no working tests.
To make any club successful requires hard work from all its committee members, and of course there is the sometimes thankless task of a Field Trial secretary. Without them, no club would function.

The reason I highlight training days and working tests is because these events are often seen as a starting block for those new to the world of gundogs or for those wishing to dip their toe into competing with their chosen breed. Working Tests for spaniels take place out of season in spring and summer and are held to replicate a Field Trial, which in turn is to replicate a walked-up rough shooting day. Using canvas dummies instead of game, working tests provide a more convivial environment for the handler. Whereas a dog may be disqualified for a fault such as running-in, barking, or whining in a Field Trial, they are simply marked down for such misdemeanours in a Working Test and asked to continue.

Working Tests for spaniels do have their critics, with many high achievers claiming that they’re a fake situation to train a dog for. And yes, hunting on sometimes gamey ground and then asking for a dog to retrieve canvas is a little artificial, but Working Tests are about much more than that. They provide a forum for people in the same boat, where novices can chat to other novices and indeed chat to more experienced handlers. Dogs get used to other dogs and also to the waiting around part of competition.

I believe that the most important thing for a newcomer is to be around other newcomers. Identifying in numbers can help ease the nerves and provide reassurance, especially for those undertaking their first competitive event. So, here’s my recommendations for the friendliest clubs around. Joining them will give you a lot of value for your membership fee.

Handlers chatting at a Retriever Field Trial

Handlers chatting at a Retriever Field Trial - Credit: Scottish Field Trial Association

Up North
Tyne Tees and Tweed Field Trial Association
Formed back in 1979, the committee initially came up with the name of ‘Tyne Wear And Tees Spaniels’, but the realisation of the abbreviation soon put paid to that! Since its first spaniel Field Trial the club quickly applied to hold retriever stakes and now hosts three retriever trials and eight spaniel Trials each year, including several working tests for both sub-groups. This club has led the way with a brilliant online entry system, making entering any event a piece of cake. The club also has access to some of the best grounds to compete on. From early-season Trials on rabbits in North Yorkshire to pheasant trials in County Durham and Northumberland, The 3 Ts covers a wide area across the north, making it an inviting club to join for anyone in the top half of England and southern Scotland.
On the website you’ll find contact details for the relevant spaniel and retriever secretaries. Steve Charlton is the spaniel secretary and is only too willing to encourage newcomers into the sport of trialling.  

In the Middle 
Dove Valley Gundog Club
Dove Valley has a good reputation for being a friendly and welcoming club. They’re known for encouraging all newcomers and young handlers alike, with free membership and free entry to Working Tests for all under-17s. They hold several Field Trials throughout the season for spaniels and retrievers and have also just moved over to online entries using the same system as the Tyne Tees and Tweed Field Trial Association. This transition incorporated a new website too, which is constantly being updated with new info, so please keep checking back.
Guy Radford is at the heart of the club as the general secretary and retriever Field Trial secretary. He’s keen to encourage the younger generation and sees them as the future of our sport. 

Down South
The Chiltern Gundog Society
The Chiltern Gundog Training Club was formed back in 1960 by likeminded people who wanted to improve the working ability of their dogs. Since then, it’s gone on to become the Chiltern Gundog Society – a well-rounded club that offers a great deal for its members. 
Aside from hosting Field Trials and working tests for both retrievers and spaniels, it also holds regular training days near High Wycombe on the second Sunday of each month between March and September.
These classes are spilt up into three groups: Puppy/Beginner, Improvers/Novice and Experienced. There’s a list of the trainers on the club website.  

Wiltshire Working Gundog Society
Another club with a friendly reputation and an open door for newcomers. They hold Field Trials and working tests plus training days that are designed with the new handler in mind.  

Worth a mention
United Gundog Breeders Association
Formed back in 1947, this longstanding club is based in the Midlands and as well as Field Trials, it hosts three retriever working tests and three spaniel working tests.  

The German Shorthaired Pointer Club
A national club with seven local branches across the UK, many of which hold training days which accommodate all breeds of the Hunt Point Retrieve gundog groups.  

Scottish Field Trial Association
One of the few clubs that accommodates all four sub-groups of Gundogs, hosting Field Trials for Setters/Pointers, HPR’s, Spaniels and Retrievers. And as you can imagine, being in Scotland, it boasts some of the most spectacular grounds for dogs to work on.  

North of Scotland Gundog Association
Friendly and efficient on excellent grounds, holding Field Trials and Working Tests.