Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won't come in. ― Isaac Asimov
In parts one, two and three of this series, I examined some interesting differences in bird dog culture, populations and registration numbers in North America, the UK and Europe. In part four, I will share my observations on European and North American field trials and do my best to explain the different approaches each system takes when it comes to using them as a selection tool for producing gundogs for hunters.
Since most of this post is based on what I've discovered over the last 20 years or so, I've structured it almost like an interview. The questions are based on comments/questions I've received over the years from various people in private messages and public forums, and bulletin boards. My answers are based on the ones I provided at the time but have been edited here for clarity.
How do North American and European trials differ? In what ways are they the same?
Both Euro trials and NA trials are the domain of dedicated pros and amateurs doing their best to breed the highest performance animals they can. European and North American judges evaluate the style, class, brains, range, steadiness, use of nose of the dogs under judgment, but the main differences are in how they actually interpret those concepts. I will list some of the more important differences below.
Breed specific styles: On both sides of the ocean, all breeds have conformation standards. But in Europe, each breed has an official 'working standard'. European judges therefore pay more attention to breed-specific styles as they evaluate a dog's performance in the field. Setters, for example, should run very close to the ground and have a feline way of moving and crouch or even 'set' on the ground while pointing. Pointers run with a more upright style and must point standing up. Both have to perform the 'commanded approach' in a breed-specific way. Once a point is established and the handler gets up next to the dog both dog and handler move slowly towards the bird until the flush, that is called a "coulée" in French and "guidata" in Italian. A setter should do it with an extremely feline style, almost slithering along the ground, while a Pointer should do it standing tall with forceful, thrusting movements. I explain a bit more about the coulée here. Working standards are different for each breed. Some, like the working standard for the French Spaniel are just a few paragraphs that describe the ideal speed, range and pointing posture for the breed. Others like this seven thousand word working standard for the Pointer published by the Pointer club of Italy could fill a small book.
Ground Coverage: The biggest difference may be the fact that in Europe, for many types of field trials, they want to see the dogs hunt in a windshield wiper pattern. For example, in Spring trials for British and Irish pointing breeds, as soon as they are released, the dogs make a huge cast out to 400-500 yards to the left, then turns into the wind, and runs past the handler out to another 400-500 yards to the right. Each time it passes in front of the handler it should be no more than about 50 to 60 yards in front. Michel Comte provides a good explanation of this kind of search pattern on his Braque du Bourbonnais site (the distances he provides are for the Bourbonnais. Distances for setters and Pointers are far greater).
The field coverage looks to be very inefficient, the dog just runs back and forth on what seems to be the same line.
Actually, it is a bit of an illusion in the videos due to zooming the lens in from a long way away. Optically, this creates a sort of compressed look to the frame and the dogs seems to pass only a few feet in front of the handler. In reality, the distance at which dogs pass in front of their handlers is basically shotgun range, about 40-60 yards. More than that is too big of a bite and they risk missing birds, less than that is too tight and they won't cover enough ground in the allotted time.
So the dog runs out to one side, passes in front of the handler at the appropriate distance then heads o the other side. And at the end of each cast it MUST turn into the wind...if it turns the other way, downwind, it risks being eliminated.
The diagrams imply that the dogs are always working into the wind otherwise these patterns would be inefficient. Is this always the case in practice?
Yes. The dogs are always worked into the wind. Trials run from one field to the next, each dog or brace working a new area. Judges, gallery, dogs and handlers move from one field to the next and always start into the wind. Sometimes this just means walking from one field to the next, often it means getting into the cars/vans/trucks and driving to the best place to start.
Following the trials around is sometimes kinda tricky. Everyone meets at a central location, usually a town hall in the nearest hamlet and then are divided up into groups led by a judge. Each group is then given an assigned area that consists of enough room and fields to run all the dogs. Sometimes those areas are miles from the village and even if they start off close by, they end up miles away. So if you are not there at the start, finding any particular group is kinda tough since they could be anywhere within a given zone of many square miles.
After a couple of seasons though, I got pretty good at finding groups. I would just drive around the general area and look for the long line of vans and cars out in the middle of nowhere...often on pretty rough two-tracks between fields. Here is a video (in French) about spring field trials. It has some decent footage of dogs running and pointing (I suspect that some of the scenes are set-ups with planted birds, but some are authentic). At about the 3:20 mark, there are scenes of what the gallery of people, cars and trucks looks like at a typical field trial in France.
Also it seems they want their pointing breeds to work more of an enlarged spaniel pattern. Fair?
Yes, in spring trials run in fields covered with winter wheat, they expect the dogs to have a side to side windshield wiper pattern. The reason is that the fields are basically green carpets of sprouts...no real objectives or lines per se. In fact, they even run them across plowed fields because they actually hold birds. When I first started watching trials there I thought there was no way that any birds would be out in those fields. But there can be surprisingly large numbers of birds in some areas (others have fewer...some have next to none...it depends on the year, the weather and other factors).
Different Speeds: I've had the pleasure of watching Pointers and setters run in North American field trials and have hunted over North-American bred Pointers and setters in some on my own hunting grounds. And I've always marveled at just how fast they run. But nothing prepared me for the first time I saw Pointers and setters run in spring time field trials in France. They looked like greyhounds on a race track!
But the difference is not how fast they are capable of running. If American-bred and European-bred setters and Pointers were run on a greyhound track, I think they'd be fairly evenly matched. It is just that American bred dogs are selected, conditioned and trained to run for longer periods of time. Some North American field trials are three hours long! European bred dogs on the other hand are selected, conditioned and trained to run as fast as they are physically capable of running for 15-20 minutes at a time.
The easiest way to understand the difference is to imagine a typical North American-bred Pointer or setter running in a field trial hitting objectives and really laying down a good fast race. Now imagine that a rabbit pops up in front of that dog and the dog gives in to temptation. It decides to be a baaaad boy and takes off in hot pursuit of the bolting bunny. You see that extra gear he just switched into? Notice that no matter how fast he was running before that rabbit popped up, there was still one more gear of turbo speed he could kick it up to?
Ya, well that is the speed that the Euro dogs are expected (and bred and trained and pushed) to have for their entire run. Basically, they run like their ass is on fire, a full out sprint. And that is why I say spring trials in Europe are more like Top Fuel Drag Racing. The dogs don't run for a long time but they run really, really fast. Here is a video of a young Italian-bred setter in a trial. It is a good indication of the kind of speed they want to see.
Watching a few of the videos seems like the dogs are just hitting the after burners. Is the dog's nose able to keep up with the speed?
It depends. When I first started attending trials I could not believe any dog could actually run that fast and nail a point...especially considering that they were looking for wild huns in ankle deep winter wheat! And a lot of dogs do in fact crash and burn. They run too fast for their noses and the conditions, they bump a bird...and they are eliminated. But, amazingly, some do manage to slam points as they are running full blast. And I think that is what everyone is looking for. Like the big league trialers over here, or car racing or other thrilling sports, they want to see contestants that are just on the edge of fabulous glory...or the agony of defeat.
Here is another video that shows the kind of speeds dogs run at in some of these trials. The entire video is worth watching, but if you want to see a young Pointer run across the field like his ass is on fire skip to the 12:50 mark.
Different Tails: Have a look at the videos above one more time but this time, pay attention to the dogs' tails as they run. You will notice that it is held below the level of the back and doesn't really move much. The reason is speed. Euro handlers and breeders prefer a so-called dead tail (in North America a cracking, slashing, animated tail is preferred). The idea is that any energy going to the tail is wasted and should go to the legs. And remember the example I provided above of a North American dog chasing a rabbit? Chances are, no matter how animated a dog's tail is when it is hunting, if it switches into turbo sprint mode, it's tail will drop and be far less active as it sprints to the horizon chasing a deer or jack rabbit (look at the tail on this Saluki chasing a big jack rabbit). On point, the tail is more or less level with the back or slightly lower. To many Americans, a low tail is an abomination, just like a high tail is to many Europeans. À chacun, son goût!
I would like to see how many finds they have compared to how many birds are bumped or ran over.
If they bump a bird they are out. If the handler or judge puts up a bird they are out. That is why they go back and forth, they have to cover the entire area to make sure they get to the bird before the handler or judge. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
Different Trial Formats and Standards: European judges follow the FCI working standards. Their version of all-age is called Grande Quêtein French (literally big quest or big search) and those trials are considered the highest level of performance. Most Grande Quête trials take place in the spring on wild huns. Grande Quête dogs are considered the top of the top and have a similar reputation to our all-age dogs (ie: some folks love em, others think they are too much dog).
Their cover dog trials are called Autumn Trials or Woods trials and are run on stocked pheasants and/or wild woodcock and other game (they also have trials on snipe for example). They usually take place in the fall. One of the most popular spots is in south western France near Bordeaux. Cover dogs are said to have a quête de chasse (hunting search, sort of equivalent to a walking gundog stake) so that, I think, would be the closest thing to what we call a cover dog (or in some ways like a NSTRA dog too I guess).
What a lot of North Americans don't realize is just how massive the European field trial scene really is. Some trials can have over 500 dogs entered! There are professional trainers and handlers all over the place and they even have their own union of sorts. National teams of dogs run in a sort of field trial Olympics for the European cup and there are huge numbers of breeders and followers all across Europe.
Have a look at this video from the awards ceremony of the 2017 Campo Felice trial in Italy, a massive two-day event held every year where Pointers and setters are run on released European quail (coturnix coturnix). Not all trials are this big of course, but it gives you an idea of just how organized and popular field trials can be over there.
When you speak of Euro trials, what area of Europe are you talking about? When my bride was in Norway/Sweden for some FT's it sounds different from what describe.
The center of the European field trial world is Italy/France/Spain. That is where most of the pros are and most of the top dogs are bred (Italian dogs dominate). But there are lots of trials elsewhere in places like Holland, Denmark, Portugal, even Greece, Croatia, Russia and elsewhere.
There is a fair sized trial system in Sweden and Norway. But the Scandinavian system is a bit different. A lot of their trials are held in the mountains on ptarmigan and other wild birds. They also use pointing dogs more like the British do...ie: after the point, the dog is expected to rush in and flush the birds and then stay steady to wing and shot. From what I understand, Scandinavian trials are supposed to be more like a day out hunting with far less emphasis on the sort of super fast and wide windshield wiper casting that is the rule in trials in France/Italy/Spain.
In the spring the birds are singles, and in coveys in the fall?
In the spring the birds are usually pairs of huns that are courting and preparing to mate, but may be singles or in small coveys. The whole spring season starts in the south of Spain in January and works north all the way to northern France until mid April. The trial dates are set to coincide with when the wheat is just high enough and the birds are paired up but not sitting on eggs. Most years it works out just right but sometimes the wheat is too high or too low, or the birds are not yet paired up.
In the fall, trials are run on woodcock (wild, almost always singles), snipe (ditto) but the biggest events of the fall season are shoot-to-retrieve trials run on released pheasants. They take place in wooded areas where birds (usually pheasants) are set out the night before. Here is a video of an autumn field trial held in southwestern France near Bordeaux.
Different Durations: In a typical field trial in Europe, dogs run from 15 to 20 minutes, sometimes longer, but almost never more than 30 minutes. In North America, dogs run from 30 minutes to 3 hours!
What's the point of having a dog that runs like hell for 20-30 minutes and then goes back to the truck? Who hunts for only that long?
In the same way that all-age field trials over here do not really reflect an average day hunting -- most North Americans do not hunt quail from horseback -- top-level springtime trials are not really designed to reflect the average day out hunting in Europe.
Both trial formats exist to develop the extreme ends of the canine spectrum. In North America, those extremes include things like speed, endurance, high tails, bird finding ability and other qualities. In Europe they want to see even greater speed, a different kind of ground pattern and a very breed-specific style of running/pointing/roading in. And let's not forget that a lot of trial formats over here (NSTRA, AKC, NAVHDA field components) are in the 30 minute range as well. They don't have as much of an endurance component either but they still manage to identify high-performance hunting dogs.
When I first started attending European trials, I asked a judge why the stakes are only 20 minutes or so. He replied: "If I can't identify the traits I want to see and the style I am looking for in a dog in 20 minutes, it is not there...it will not suddenly appear after an hour or so".
I am of the opinion that short braces for adult dogs is conceptually flawed. For starters, and we have this happening in the US, selecting animals that run full blast is not IMO good for any breed. I want a nice hard pace but this trend is producing dogs that run frantically is not to the benefit to hunters or the breed.
I would agree, and I am sure that most hard-core European field trial breeders would agree with you if their main goal was to produce dogs that were a benefit to hunters. It is not. Their primary goal is to win competitions. The fact that many of the winning dogs can offer some benefits to hunters and lines of hunting dogs is a fantastic secondary side effect and something that all hunting dog breeders should appreciate. But it is not the main focus of people trying to breed the perfect trial dog.
And that, in essence, is the upshot and downside of competitive events. They are highly effective at distilling whatever specific traits you seek. But they eventually become a world unto themselves and the envelope they push does not necessarily match the performance envelope of the hunting field.
For the Europeans, one of the main traits seems to be speed. Having a fast dog is good...having a faster dog is better, having the fastest dog on the day is usually best and, if a dog does everything else right, speed will go a long way to getting you in the winner's circle. And breeders over there go to great lengths to get that speed. Accusations of doping are sometimes made and it is fairly clear that Greyhounds and even Salukis may have been bred into some lines (to the detriment of the nose and point) all in an effort to get faster and wider running dogs.
So what we see is that the dogs over there now are way, way faster than there were 30 years ago. And the trend can be seen across almost all the pointing breeds. Some Braques and Epagneuls, GSPs and Wirehairs are now approaching the speed and range of some setters and Pointers. And it is competition that is driving the quest for better trial dogs.
We can see it in other traits as well and on both sides of the ocean. At some point in time in US field trials a high tail became a good thing. Then an even higher tail became better, and eventually a 12 o'clock tail became best. In Europe, a certain setter style was good, more setterish movement became better and a really exaggerated feline panther-stalking-its-prey kind of movement is now seen as best...and is in fact required if you want to win a trial. Yet it could be argued that both of these highly desired traits, the 12 O'clock tail in the US and the cat-like movement and "setting" in Europe are of very limited value to hunters.
The bottom line is that competition is all about pushing the envelope. I can't ever imagine a day when Euro breeds will say "OK, that is all the speed we will ever need". The fact is, they will always be seeking that extra bit of speed even if they are close to the structural limits of canine physiognomy right now. And I can't imagine a day when US breeders will declare, "OK, that is all the drive or endurance we will ever need". They will continue to seek that extra umph they want to see in a dog. Heck we have 1 hour stakes, 2 hour stakes, even 3+ hour endurance stakes for pointing dogs, and all of them seem like a cake-walk compared to the Iditarod for sled dogs.
Competition is about pushing the envelope. That field trial envelope and the hunting dog envelope overlap in many areas is great, but they don't completely overlap and breeders who are full bore into field trials are all about pushing the envelope that gets them in the winner's circle.
In comparison to NA trials where there is an endurance component to it, how would they evaluate endurance for breeding purposes since trials are supposed to do such things?
Their argument goes like this: "any dog that is capable of running at a top fuel pace for 20 minutes is far above the average in terms of athletic abilities. They have more than enough heart and lung and leg and with the proper conditioning all the endurance you need in a hunting dog".
Until I actually hunted with some of those field trial dogs, I was skeptical. But I saw it with my own eyes. I hunted all day, every day for 8 days straight with a pair of English Setters from French field trial lines. And they hunted hard all day, every day. Now, they did NOT run like they do in trials...they ran fast but certainly not at the ass-on-fire pace they run in trials. They kept up a nice hunt-all-day pace the entire time.
Upon reflection, I realized that even if marathon runners have the best endurance of all, 800 meter runners and even 100 meter sprinters are still superb athletes. Hussein Bolt would never take gold in a marathon, but I am damn sure he could train to run a marathon fairly easily and I would bet my bottom dollar that he could run a marathon faster than every couch potatoes on the planet.
But let me add one other thing. Whenever a system is created to select for extremes, and you add money and competition, you get positive and negative results. The knock on Euro dogs running in the big trials is that they are too much dog, that they are hyper-active, headstrong run-offs, that they burn out early and die before they are 6 years old etc. And there is probably a grain of truth in there. The Italians produce nearly 20 thousand setters every year. Some of those dogs probably are nuts, some probably do indeed die early, and some probably do run off. But in reality, men and women are pretty good at developing high performance animals. It is not rocket science. Breeders have been doing it on both sides of the ocean for 150 years now and they have produced animals that are light years ahead of where they used to be.
Are the hunting spots or coverts over there so small that you go through them quickly and move on to another spot further away so the dog gets a rest between them? Do people have more dogs?
Some spots are smaller, some are huge. Some guys have only one dog and hunt it for hours on end, others have more than one dog. It really depends on the country and the game they are hunting. I've been to spots in northern France (Beauce, Picardy) that looked like Kansas wheat country. And I've been to places in Italy that looked like Idaho. One thing that is different though is that there are more paved roads and a lot more traffic so more dogs get killed while hunting, and there are way, way more hares, which pointing dog guys hate! Check this video out. I think it is northern Italy somewhere:
Usually, when I talk dogs with dog men and women on either side of the ocean, I am met with genuine curiosity about 'the other side' and I do my best to explain the differences and similarities between the two worlds. However, I have occasionally run into people on both sides of the Atlantic that are not only uninterested in what's happening on the other side, but openly hostile to the idea that high caliber field trial and hunting dogs could come from any other country or system of format. Here are some typical sorts of exchanges.
As far as style and hunt is concerned I don't see anything worthwhile in those European dogs. They have no class and seem no better than show dogs in the field.
Well, I should point you towards thread I started on a French field trial forum. I posted photos of North American all-age Pointers and setters that I consider to be awesome dogs. But the comments I got from the French field trialers are almost identical to yours, except the other way around of course. They simply could not get their head around what they see as a complete lack of style in our dogs and some did not even believe me that the dogs in the photos were purebred Pointers or setters. One smart-ass even said that we must be breeding Pitbull into our Pointer lines and Cocker Spaniels into our setter lines and another accused me of photo-shopping the dogs' tails to make the stick straight up. They did not believe the dogs did that naturally and called it a 'viagra tail'.
Look, the bottom line is this: there is simply no way to say which system is better or which one produces better dogs. Is NASCAR better than Formula One? Are cricketers better than baseball players, rugby players better than football players? About the only thing we can say is that they are all freakin awesome performers and athletes.
And that is why I have concluded, after seeing a good number of dogs over here and over there, that any Pointer or setter that has reached the pinnacle of competition in North American or European field trials can run circles around 99% of all the other dogs out there, just as any pro rugby or football player can run circles around all of us weekend warriors.
No one over here gives a damn about those dogs over there and you couldn't give me one of them.
I've actually heard this line from people in a half-dozen countries and I must say that despite my best efforts, I've made very little progress convincing the folks that feel that way that there are good dogs in other regions of the world. But the most important thing to remember is that a pissing match between fans of North American dogs and fans of Euro dogs is completely pointless. No one in Europe expects anyone in North America to value their dogs, and vice versa. If you don't give a damn about the dogs over there it really doesn't matter. No one running dogs in the European championship is trying to market their dogs to quail hunters in Texas and no one running dogs at Ames is doing it in order to crack the Pointer and setter market in Italy.
Fortunately, folks that look down on anything that isn't from their own neck of the woods are in the minority. The vast majority of field trialers and hunters I have met on both sides of the ocean are interested in hearing about good dogs, no matter where they are from. They know that a good dog is a good dog, and they are confident enough in their own dogs to accept that others can also be confident in theirs.
But our breeders have done more to improve Pointers and setters than anyone else in the world.
Based on all the research I have done I would say the Europeans have improved their dogs just as much as we have ours. Both sides have made huge strides in their dogs over the last 100 years. There are detailed descriptions of the dogs themselves as well as their hunting styles (not to mention photos) of Pointers and setters from England in the mid to late 1800s and many of them are closer matches to modern NA dogs than they are modern European dogs. The Euros tend to keep more of a breed-specific look in even their highest level setters and Pointers. So their dogs tend to have far more typical heads and coats because breeders have to have their dogs confirmed by a judge (ie; they must look like a setter or pointer and be within the breed standard for form) before they can get a field champion title.
That said, because of the enormous amount of competition and because of the nature of judging a dogs looks, some Euro dogs now have exaggerated looks compared to North American dogs (well except for the tail), I mean, just look at this bad boy!
One of my favorite photos that I ever took is of FDSB hall of famer Colvin Davis with my Pont-Audemer Spaniel pup in his arms. I told him that Uma was one of only three hundred Pont-Audemers in the world and that her mother was a kick-ass field trial champion in France. Colvin just smiled, held her for the camera and said "Well I'll be!" And THAT really told me a lot about guys like Colvin who have dedicated their lives to their pursuit. They are secure enough in the knowledge that what they have achieved is true greatness in their field, and they are able to understand and accept the fact that others can achieve true greatness too, even if they took a different road to get there.
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