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The Difference between Field Trials and Hunt Tests


Lots of hunting dog owners, especially newbies, aren’t sure what the difference is between a field trial and a hunt test. While both are great things to do in the offseason to keep us and our dogs in shape, training, and having fun, it can be confusing to figure out what’s right for you and your dog.

Basically, field trials are competitions and hunt tests are not competitive. In a field trial, one dog wins, or depending on the structure of the trial, one dog in each division wins. In a hunt test, each dog is judged individually, not in comparison to other dogs, and is awarded a score based on its performance. At the end of a hunt test, there may be several dogs with perfect scores, several not passing, and all possible combinations in between. The objective of a field trial is to pick a winner; the objective of a hunt test is to assess each dog independently.

Both field trials and hunt tests help breeders evaluate their lines. Both are fundamentally geared towards producing a better hunting dog by way of developing the dogs’ inherent abilities and fine-tuning their training. Both have events running on local, state and national levels, from puppy age to adult dogs.

Whatever level you’re at with your dog, there’s a program you can participate in. And hooking up with a group of bird dog owners training for trials or tests can be one of the best ways to enhance your dog’s training program and connect with people who share the passion.

There are many different organizations running field trials, and the format and style vary. One major difference is that some are walking trials and others are done with handlers, judges and galleries on horseback. Criteria for judging differ depending on whether it’s a pointing dog trial, retriever or spaniel trial. Some field trials use pen-raised birds; others conduct the search on wild birds. There are non-shooting stakes and shoot-to-retrieve stakes.

The American Kennel Club, American Field Sporting Dog Association, and National Retriever Club sponsor most of the national field trials, but other groups – such as the National Shoot to Retrieve Association and National Bird Hunters Association along with a variety of amateur field trial groups and breed clubs – also host trials.

As far as hunt tests go, the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (for pointing dogs), AKC, and United Kennel Club (for both pointers and retrievers), and North American Hunting Retriever Association (retrievers) developed hunt test programs with the initial goal of providing a non-competitive yet standardized method of evaluating breeding. Parent breed clubs and multiple breeds clubs like the German Jagdgebrauchshundverband (JGHV) also have developed their own testing systems. The wonderful byproduct of these programs is the training that’s offered for the tests provides handlers and their dog’s outstanding preparation for hunting in general whether or not participants ever end up taking the tests.

Depending on the trial or test, pointing dogs usually must demonstrate their ability to search for game; hold point; remain steady to wing, shot and drop; and retrieve downed game to hand. Versatile pointing dogs will also be expected to search in the water for game; mark and retrieve downed waterfowl; and track game on land. Retriever and spaniel events judge the dogs’ ability to hunt, ability to remain steady, mark downed birds or waterfowl; make blind retrieves; and deliver birds or ducks to hand.

Whereas in a field trial the dog usually just has one run in a day, in most hunt tests, the dog performs several times. For example, in a NAVHDA Utility Test, each dog does a 30-minute field hunt, a minimum 10-minute duck search in a large body of water, a heeling course, a long tracked field retrieve, and a combination of steadiness and retrieving tasks from a water’s edge blind. Both field trials and hunt tests have complex scoring criteria designed to make the judges’ evaluations as objective as possible.

One of the liveliest – okay, let’s be honest and say super-heated – discussions you can find in the gun dog world is whether field trials or hunt tests produce the better hunting dogs. Speed, style, practicality, hunting instinct, finish work and a bird bag full of other elements fuel the debates. What’s important to most of us, however, is what program appeals to us and what we want out of our dogs. The best advice is to attend a couple of field trials or hunt tests, ask your dogs’ breeder for recommendations, and do a little local research to find out what’s available. Then grab your dog and have some fun.

Nancy Anisfield, an outdoor photographer/writer, sporting dog enthusiast and bird hunter, serves on Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever’s National Board of Directors. She resides in Hinesburg, Vermont.

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12 Responses to “The Difference between Field Trials and Hunt Tests”

  1. Thanks for the info.

  2. Don Williams says:

    Local PF Chapters in Pennsylvania are sponsoring inaugural low pressure Gun Dog FUN Trials this Spring. The 4 top pointing and top 4 flushing dogs of each FUN Trial will advance to a PA PF Gun Dog of the Year (GDOY) event in September. These trials are for the average hunter and his dog, are meant to be a FUN event to retain membership and garner new members. Run in braces, each dog gets 3 bird contacts and is judged on his best 2 in 25 minutes. Events will be held on May 3rd, May 10th and May 17th at DeCoverly Kennels, Warriors Mark Wingshooting Lodge and Oakridge Pointing Dog Club grounds respectively. All are welcome. Contact me for more info and to enter. DJWorm50@aol.com We hope to expand this to other States in the future. My sincerest appreciation to the local PF Chapters that are stepping up. http://www.nwpapf.org and http://www.nepapf.org You can get directions and google map the grounds at http://www.decoverlykennels.com http://www.warriorsmark.com http://www.oakridgepointingdogs.com

  3. erzola says:

    Since I have owned and hunted with Drahthaars since the 1990′s I have witnessed “Hunting Tests”. I have some friends that have Labs that do “Field Trial” tests. Field Trials in my opinion test how well your dog listens to your commands. Both in water and on land. Hand signals, whistles, commands. Hunting Tests are conducted primarily on the dog’s instinct’s to hunt, naturally. I had one friend who was heavy into field trials with his Lab and when he brought her to hunt she “heeled” by his side waiting for commands while my Drahthaar was hunting in a natural way. Obviously I am not fond of “field trial” dogs as I believe they are taught instruction in a manner that takes their natural instinct to hunt out of the equation.

  4. Brian Ahern says:


    It may be a good idea to watch more Field Trials I compete in a lot of Field Trials in many different formats such as NSTRA, BDC, BHU,and NUCS, and the only commands i give my dogs or that i see most handlers give their dogs are ( a whistle) to come back in bounds or to come in close when time is up under normal circumstances. There are times though when hand signals are given to change the dogs direction and or when on a blind retrieve.

    I feel that both tests are useful and many people will have their own opinion as to which one is the best but at the end of the day, we are all looking for that “one of a kind” Dog that preforms exceptionally well on a consistent basis.

  5. Fritz says:


    The difference between the two events you are describing is the difference between retriever events and upland hunting events. The American pointing g lab association and NAHRA both test both skills in the same day which is a difficult combination to obtain in a dog. A dog that will do the well trained controlled skills of a retriever series and the independent search skills of upland hu

  6. Dave says:

    “Field trials” in Europe are not always competitive. Some are. Most of them are not. It’s only in North America we consider them as competitions.

    In the European context, “trial” is when an actual hunt is conducted and dog is evaluated for its performance in the field in front of a judge. “Test” is when the dog’s instinct is evaluated without being hunted over.

    Essays like this only confuse people who are part of the cross-cultures. It’s already frickening hard enough to explain to people on the other side of the pond why our system have a different vernacular than they do.

  7. Dave says:

    Of course newbies are confused. They go and read about the trials conducted in UK, Germany, Sweden, Finland, and France which the rules can be obtained in English. They read critiques from Americans like Rob Milner. Then the new people notice North American trials are fundamentally different, and what they call a “trial” is what we call “hunt test”.

    It gets confusing with the Internet when two different continents utilize different terminology for the same concept.

  8. Dave says:

    Although understandable because our trials used to be like the Europeans’ when we borrowed it in the 1930s. However, during 1970s and 1980s, the rules were rewritten into competitions.

    I think “hunt test” is just a friendly term recently coined to avoid stomping on toes of the big-name kennels without addressing the fact they are essentially the original trial-format.

  9. Allison says:

    Also VHDF runs excellent evaluations

  10. James says:

    I have done both Field Trials and Hunt Test….The Hunt Test seems to me a lot more fun people talking to one another etc just everyone having a good time. Nothing wrong with a Field Trial but at least in my area to much political crap and who you are…

  11. Steve says:

    Thank you for taking the time to add this write-up. Hopefully this will give people a little better understanding of the different field events that exist for “bird dogs” and it will also encourage them to go out and participate in one or more of these events with their dog. I hope that this will also give people a better understanding of what all the different tittles indicate in a dogs name (FC, AFC, CH, DC, JH, SH, MH, Am. Ch., ….) and hopefully this will help educate people so they understand that these events and titles are used as tools to help good breeders in determining their breeding program, which helps to ensure quality “bird dogs” for generations to come in keeping the breeds true to their origin and why they were originally developed (which was for hunting).

  12. Denny says:

    Interesting article. I started in HT and evolved to Field Trials with my Brits. I like the competition part. HT in my eyes has finality to it that FT do not. Just my cup of tea. Both good to get active with your dogs and add training they can always use. Good to hook up with experienced people in both areas and listen to what works and what does not. Need to be a sponge to be successful in both areas. Would be nice if there were more people who actually hunted judging HT’s versus just running in the program. Experience is lacking in this area I feel.


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