Correcting your dog at a field trial is different than correcting him in training. Anytime you are training, your dog wears an e-collar, and if he knocks a bird, you can make a timely correction and stay in control. Since dogs aren’t allowed to wear e-collars at field trials, correcting your dog becomes more complicated. You need to get to him quickly to give a correction that makes sense to him, and the correction must be physical. Making a physical correction is tricky because most judges don’t allow you to make corrections or do any “training” on the course.
Over the years, I have made a few corrections when no one was looking that included a horse rein, biting an ear, and half-choking a dog with the ID collar once I got hold of him. Fortunately for my dogs, these corrections didn’t work, and I moved on to finding better ways to keep my dogs honest. I decided to build better habits during training so my dogs needed fewer corrections at trials. One of the first things I did was to wait longer before I ran a dog in an adult stake. A dog’s manners had to be good in five or six consecutive training sessions before he was ready to enter. Also, I didn’t enter him in multiple stakes during a weekend trial until I could count on him getting around the course with clean bird work in a single stake. A lot of dogs get so excited after they run the first time that running them again in the same weekend is like pouring gasoline on an already out-of-control fire.
If you think about it, the level of energy at a field trial can be off the charts. Handlers are yelling and blowing their whistles, horses are snorting, bracemates are running wild, and your dog has probably been confined in a crate or on a stakeout chain for most of the weekend. His adrenalin will be pumping when you break him away making it even harder for him to remember the training. Some suggestions to help your dog remember the training at a trial include arriving early and running him before the trial or staying late and running him after the trial when it is permitted. Training with other people or putting on a mock field trial can be very productive. Try to put your dog in as many situations as possible that are similar to a field trial but where your dog can still wear an e-collar.
Be consistent with your dog at a field trial and realize his success has a lot to do with you. As a handler, you need to be able to read your dog and don’t allow him to get away with mistakes. I’m sure you’ve seen handlers who want to win so they let their dogs to get away with breeches of manners. Maurice Lindley trains dogs for amateur field trialers and gives his clients some smart advice, “Don’t excuse your dog’s bad manners at a trial. If your dog does something at a trial that you wouldn‘t excuse during a training session, you need to pick him up. Don’t wait on the judge. Go ahead and pick him up. It will go a long way to keeping him honest at trials.”
During a field trial, poorly timed corrections and severe corrections may work for some dogs once you ride them down and get your hands on them, but these dogs get harder and harder to catch and you can ruin a lot of good dogs this way. Some may lose style or become afraid of you. Now, that’s not to say you don’t do anything when your dog knocks a bird. If I can get to my dog quickly, I might whoa him and make him stand still before collaring him back to the horse or whatever. Putting him in a roading harness or on the dog wagon may seem minor but it puts you back in control and stops your dog from getting into more trouble.
Even when you’ve done everything right and worked hard to keep your dog honest, some dogs still get into trouble. One reason is because a dog has to want to be steady. He has to buy into the training. I have a dog that was rock solid in training but she continued to chase birds at trials. I ran her for two seasons and never got her around clean. By the third season, I was feeling very discouraged. I talked to a pro trainer who knew her well, and he told me to hang in there and be patient. “Some dogs just take longer,” he said. The third season was almost over when I finally got her around clean. She had a beautiful run with three finds and took second place. Who knows why it took her so long but the switch had finally turned on.
Field trialing is a tough sport and not every dog is going to make it. Some of your dog’s success is because of his breeding but a lot has to do with you. Over the years, I have come to believe there is no good way to correct a dog at a field trial. The path to having a winning dog doesn’t include cleverly delivered corrections when no one is looking. Instead, it begins with building good habits in your dog during training, entering him when he’s ready, and picking him up when he makes mistakes. If you set up your dog for success and avoid having to make many corrections at a trial, you give him a good shot at being in the winner’s circle.