Field Trial Equipment
Field trialing pointing dogs is an activity that one can embark upon without a lot of fancy equipment. Of course for the more status-conscious exhibitors, there are many items that one can acquire, but little more is really necessary than a whistle, leash, blank pistol, water bottle, and a sturdy pair of walking shoes. Starting with these five basics, we're off to explore the wonderful world of field trial gadgetry. I am assuming, of course, that you already have a dog!
Any sort of whistle will do. There are folks who pride themselves on their dog's response to a vocal or mouth-whistled signal, but realistically, your dog is probably going to be ranging far enough from you, especially on a windy day or on a hilly course with lots of sound barriers, that he won't always be able to hear your voice, and few of us can whistle as loudly and sharply as a man-made signaling device. As for hand signals, forget them in the backfield. A dog's vision is nowhere near as acute as his hearing, so use his best assets to deliver the best results.
A whistle may be metal or plastic, or ceramic or wood for that matter. You need to consider several questions when making your choice: How far does the sound of the whistle travel? How many distinctly different signals will you need to communicate fully with your dog; how many distinctly different sounds can the whistle make; and how many can you remember? How durable is the whistle? How will it function in extreme weather conditions? A metal whistle can stick to your lips on frosty days and burn your mouth on hot ones.
Is the whistle comfortable in your mouth? If it produces an unusual sound and you break or lose it, how easy will it be to replace? How similar is it to the whistles used by other handlers whom you may be braced with? Does it have a hole, or ring, or some other means of fastening it to something? Most trialers find that the most convenient way to store and carry their whistle is by fastening it to a lanyard or string of some sort that they wear around their necks. You can try carrying it in a pocket, or holding it in your hand, but I'd wager that in the excitement of trying to flush a bird or run to your dog on point, you're going to drop it, and probably lose it. If you're into one-upsmanship, instead of an ordinary braided nylon lanyard, you can choose a custom-made leather one, or a heavy silver chain if you please! (If you're into negative impact, you can use an old shoelace or a piece of twine!)
I generally carry two (or more!) whistles on my lanyard when I run dogs in the field. Too many does make for quite a weight, and never getting the particular one that you want into your mouth quite fast enough when you need it, but two buys you insurance if one falls apart as you cast your dog off, becomes too clogged with dust and saliva to function, or if you just happen to bite down too hard on it and it breaks in two. I witnessed exactly this happen one day on cast off, and the poor handler frantically ran around the parking lot looking for a spare to borrow while her dog ran the course by himself!
I use a Sanborn Two-Tone black plastic cylindrical whistle, and a Ray Gonia orange plastic coach's type of whistle. The Sanborn is for my all purpose commands: for "cast off," or "get moving," I use two short blasts, or sometimes a series of two short blasts consecutively; for "turn," right or left, one medium blast accompanied with either turning my body in the appropriate direction or indicating direction with a full outstretched arm to the side; and for "come in to me," one long blast, usually with both arms outstretched straight overhead.
The second whistle is primarily for retrieving. The dogs don't hear it very often, and the new sound tends to get a bit more attention than a Sanborn "come-in" blast would. My retrieving whistle has a little cork ball in it, and I let the ball move around a lot in the body of the whistle as I lightly blow into it, producing a trill effect. The dogs learn to associate this trill with retrieving many objects around home, so at a field trial, if they have been playing with the bird, mouthing it, throwing it around, picking it up and putting it back down, or other unacceptable behavior, the sound of that trill reminds them that they are supposed to be holding something in their mouths and be approaching me. It's interesting to watch them get real serious about picking up the bird and bringing it in when they hear that whistled trill! I also use the second whistle at full blast if I am calling a dog that is ignoring the Sanborn "come-in" call. If he has "turned off his hearing and tuned the Sanborn out," the less familiar sound is often enough to jolt him back to paying attention to business.
A further reason for having a second whistle, and for accustoming your dog to working to the sound of more than one whistle, is if you are braced with a handler who whistles constantly and/or uses the same type of whistle and the same set of whistle signals that you do. It is said that your dog will be able to tell if it's you or a stranger blowing the whistle, but I'm not sure this is so in all cases, especially with a young dog. Try switching to your backup whistle if your dog seems confused or is responding to the commands of the other handler.
The Ray Gonia whistle can be found in many sporting goods stores and pet shops. The Sanborn is another matter entirely: Reputedly "hand-made in Ohio by one little old gentleman in no hurry," they can be extremely difficult to locate. They are found, however, in two current dog supply catalogs: Foster and Smith and Dogs Unlimited, addresses and telephone numbers listed elsewhere in this publication.
The field trial regulations require that your dog's leash be removed and put away once you cast him off. When the field marshall calls time, you are expected to call your dog to you and put him back on lead. Since the pick-up point is often far removed from the starting line, you will have to carry the leash with you on the course. You can either stuff it into a pocket or pouch or clip it to your belt, but you must not carry it in your hands: it is then considered a training or intimidation device. So you should bring your dog to the line on a leash short and unbulky enough to be put away easily. The collar and leash all-of-a-piece type of ensemble gives you less to worry about than unclipping a leash from the collar at cast off; at pick up time you need just slip it over his head to corral him.
I generally find a 3-4 foot leash comfortable to use. It's not so long as to make a mass too large for the average pocket, and it's long enough to walk your dog in some comfort when he is hot and panting, instead of having him virtually tied to your side with a very short lead and slobbering all over you! Some folks, however, like to use 18-24 inch leads and clip them to their belts, letting them dangle alongside their legs as they handle their dogs. The choice is yours.
My one recommendation is that you not use any very special, fancy leash that you spent a lot of money for, or otherwise value. It's not uncommon to drop or lose a leash out on the course, so don't use anything whose loss you would greatly regret. By the way, this is another circumstance where that whistle lanyard has been put to good use, being slipped around the dog's neck to bring him in when time is called, for lack of any other type of line when a leash has been lost and a belt isn't handy.
Most AKC and American Field trials and AKC Hunting Tests require the handler to carry a blank pistol while his dog is on the course. The purpose of the pistol is to simulate the sound of a shotgun, and the judges watch the dogs' reaction to the sound to determine if they are gunshy. All American Field trials are non-retrieving events, so the dog will never hear the sound of an actual shotgun during his brace, whereas many AKC stakes are retrieving (also called "shoot-to-retrieve," or "shoot-to-kill.") In an AKC retrieving event with a birdfield, the handler will use his blank pistol for any birds found in the backfield, and put it away for the duration of the brace once he enters the birdfield and is met by the official gunners. In National Shoot To Retrieve Association (NSTRA) trials, all firing is done by shotgun, either by the handler himself or by a gunner whom he designates and who accompanies him throughout the brace, so blank pistols are not needed.
Generally speaking, a blank pistol is one that has been manufactured specifically for firing only blank cartridges, and has a solid barrel with no tunnel for a bullet to travel through. A person may obtain blank cartridges for use in a pistol also capable of firing live ammunition. While permitted (although discouraged) for all field trials, these types of pistols are not allowed to be used at AKC Hunting Tests, for safety's sake. One may also obtain blank shells for use in a shotgun; for AKC trials the entry form for each field trial must specify if this is permitted: if it doesn't say that you may use a shotgun with blank shells, you may not.
Commonly, blank pistols are manufactured in two calibres, .22 and .32. American Field trials require the use of a .32 calibre pistol; you have your choice for AKC field trials. .32 calibre blanks generally make a much louder "bang," and cost about $15 per box of 50 shells; .32 calibre blank pistols hold five rounds. .22 calibre blanks run about $3 for a box of 50, and .22 calibre blank pistols hold eight or nine rounds. Particularly if you are using the blank pistol in your training sessions, it makes much more sense economically to opt for the .22, unless you anticipate running in American Field trials. The new purchase price for each pistol is the same.
One last note about ammunition: Blank cartridges come in designations of long, short, and crimped. Longs and shorts are both acceptable in field trials, the longs generally being louder, since they contain more gunpowder. They are about 1/3" long and tubular in shape, with one open end, and one closed end slighter wider in diameter than the open end. Crimps are about 1/4" long, with the open end crimped shut, and ridges running along its length; a crimp looks rather like an acorn. Crimps are allowed at Hunting Tests but not at field trials since they don't make a loud enough noise, but they can be useful when first introducing a young dog to the sound of gunfire.
Blank pistols and cartridges may be hard to come by. The general sporting goods store that may carry hunting equipment, including shotguns and rifles, usually will not stock them, although they may be able to order them for you. Your best bet is a gun shop that deals primarily in firearms and firearm repair. There is no waiting period for purchasing a blank pistol, as there is with a live handgun, and there is no requirement for registering it.
Some sporting and dog training equipment catalogs also carry acceptable blank guns at a fair price. Be advised, however, that one currently advertised model, that comes with interchangeable .22 and .32 cylinders, has been known to explode in the user's hand. It is available at the lowest price of any common newly-manufactured blank pistol, but it is not safe and definitely not recommended!
Blank pistols are somewhat costly items, ranging usually from $85 (a very good deal!) to $150+. Rarely they can be found for less used, generally in pawnshops and at gun shows. A person new to field trialing may not want to make an investment of this sort until he finds out if he really enjoys the sport and wants to pursue it. Most trialers are willing to lend a newcomer a blank pistol, but please be aware that if you lose it, you replace it!
Many trialers carry their pistols in holsters on their belts, but they can still be dropped after being fired, forgotten about in the excitement of the moment, and then disappear into dense cover. I am too fumble-fingered to get a pistol out of a holster in timely fashion, and I usually don't wear a belt. I used to carry my pistol in a pocket of my jacket or game vest, but I lost one somewhere out in the backfield at Sauvies Island, Oregon, when it fell through a hole worn in the bottom of the pocket by the weight of the gun itself over time. So now I carry it in a separate compartment of a belted-on pouch with other minor on-course necessities, such as Chap Stick, tissues, and chewing gum.
Many trialers weld some sort of ring onto the bottom of their blank pistol's grip and attach a short cord to it. At the field trial they attach the other end of the cord to a belt loop or other part of their apparel. That way, if they happen to drop the pistol, it isn't gone forever. Newer models of blank pistols are now being produced with such a metal ring already attached. One must also take care when loading the pistol not to drop the pin or cylinder, since commonly the loss of one of these pieces will result in the purchase of an entire new blank pistol.
Just because a pistol cannot fire live ammunition does not mean that it has no capacity for doing damage. A shot, particularly a .32 or .22 long, fired close to a person or dog's ear can cause pain, ringing, and pressure. It is wise to point the gun at the ground and hold it away from your body before you fire. Check also to make sure that a dog isn't running past you just at the moment of firing! Never point a blank pistol (or any other firearm) at any human or animal's head at close range and fire! There is also the possibility of powder burns on the hand holding the pistol, but this should not occur if the pistol is cleaned often to remove any build-up of powder. Remember, your blank pistol is a serious training device; never let children or irresponsible persons play around with it!
Few field trial grounds in the Western United States have year-round streams criss-crossing them with any regularity. Trialers running long-haired and/or dark-coated breeds quickly learn than an overly warm dog doesn't put on a top-notch performance, and on a warm sunny day, dogs can become seriously ill from overheating. The best way to keep your dog cool is to keep him wet, both on the inside and the outside. Many field-event host clubs routinely place a tub or child's wading pool of water near the starting line for the use of all. The advantages of the water on a hot day are obvious, but many trialers choose to wet their dogs on all but the coldest days, believing that if the dog is a bit chilly to start with, he will run all the harder in the effort to warm himself up!
Some clubs will also place water tubs at strategic places along the course, such as mid-way through the backfield and at the start of the birdfield. This can be very helpful, but these tubs are often not refilled when needed or contain quite filthy water after a few braces, water that may cool your dog's body but that you don't really want him to drink! Other clubs may have tubs on hand on a standby basis, but fail to put them out on the course when the weather seems cold and overcast. Should the sun break through partway through the stake, the tubs may not be put out at that time, since circumstances must be absolutely equal for all dogs running in the same event, even though the later-running dogs may have terribly hot conditions.
The best solution for all possible circumstances is to carry your own water. You may carry as much water as you can comfortably load yourself down with, and you may even give extra water to the field marshal to carry for you. You may give your dog water as often as you wish, although it is a common courtesy to request the judges' permission to water your dog the first time. You may give him water to drink and/or pour it on his body. Of course if you are constantly calling your dog in for water, that will interfere with the quality of his performance, so use good judgement as to what his real needs are.
You may carry a regular canteen, but that is rather difficult to have your dog drink from unless you open his mouth and pour it down his throat. I like to use the plastic water bottles favored by bicyclists, with a sliding catch on top to release the water in a stream. When you open the catch, you can squeeze the bottle with one hand and hold the dog's mouth open with the other hand, easily controlling the amount of water that he gets so that he doesn't choke on it. After just a few times, most dogs will get the hang of it and actually drink by themselves from the stream of water, especially if they are used to drinking from a "lix-it" type of faucet or a hose. You can also squirt a bit into your own mouth if needed, without having had the dog's mouth on it first, like the old leather bota bag wineskins.
These plastic drinking bottles come in a variety of sizes and shapes (and colors!) and can be hard to lug around the field. I have found ones that have a large patch of velcro glued onto them, which meshes with another velcro patch inside a "holster" of sorts that slips onto a belt. You can also purchase canvas bottle carriers (some with insulation) that will slip onto a belt. Lately I have seen "ensembles" that consist of a one or two compartment pouch with one or two water bottle holsters, all attached to a strap that belts around one's waist with a quick-release plastic buckle. If you wear a game vest or other clothing with large pockets, the water bottles will usually be able to be tucked inside.
If you are running on a fairly hot day and there is no water on the course itself (either natural water or in tubs) you may want to do more than give your dog a drink. Extremely hot dogs that "tank up" on large quantities of water may become too stomach-heavy and full to continue to run. The dog also needs some surface cooling. If you can roll him over in a creek or a tub, that will do the trick, but if your water is limited to what you are carrying, you can use it sparingly and wisely to give your dog that needed cooling boost: Dogs perspire only through their tongues and the pads of their feet. A drink cools off your dog's tongue; wetting the pads of his feet will bring a lot of relief. The blood is also close to the surface across the inside ear leather and in the anal region. I often pour a bit of water down the inside of my dogs' ears (not into the ear, but from the base of the ear opening to the ear tip,) and sometimes give a quick squirt under the base of their tails. A little goes a long way and does a lot of good under these circumstances.
Footgear, the last of our basic five items of equipment: You can get away with a decent pair of tennis shoes in most cases, but there are frequent exceptions, when something more rugged is in order. I would always suggest footwear with a traction sole, as opposed to something intended for aerobics or straight running. You're apt to be walking through anything from mud to gravel, sand, and tall grasses, any of which can become slippery when damp, dusty, or crushed down. Trial fields are not known for their smooth surfaces, and you want to stay afoot if you step in a rabbit hole, or have to climb up or down a creek bank. Lots of fields are also used for grazing of stock, and their deposits can also add to the slickness and unpleasantness of the surface!
If the trial grounds are hilly or the surface slick from anything from ice to growths of iceplant, or very broken up, or recently plowed, or sopping wet, a lightweight pair of hiking boots that offer a measure of support to the ankles can be a wise choice. Again be certain to have a good traction sole. You can purchase hiking boots in a variety of materials from leather to natural or man-made fabrics, with varying degrees of water resistancy. You can apply mink oil, snow seal, or other waterproofing substances to the external surfaces; or you can purchase inner liners made of gore-tex fabric, which will keep the water from reaching your feet, even if the boots themselves get soaked.
If you must wear riding boots, at least be certain that they have walking heels; a rubber sole is also a better choice than the more common slick leather. A final choice for footgear is rubber. Plain old milking boots will do in wet but relatively mild weather. These offer protection about halfway to the knee if you tuck your pants legs inside them. They are very useful if you will be crossing small streams or fording large puddles of standing water. They usually have a fairly well-ribbed sole that prevents slippage in mud, but they offer no support to the foot or protection from cold. You can purchase thick felt inner liners, often referred to as "pacs," that greatly increase warmth; molded insoles for arch support are also available.
Milking boots are usually available during the rainy seasons at sporting goods stores, and general feed, farm, and ranch supply stores in agricultural areas. If you live in a very civilized area, chances are that there will be a store near the trial grounds, or en route, that carries rubber boots. Leave for the trial the day before, and purchase some when you arrive. Don't buy the kind of rubber rainboots that schoolkids wear; they won't have enough of a traction sole. Cold weather rubber, or lower-half rubber/upper-half leather, boots are also available. These are often costly items that come with full fleece inner booties, and are wonderful in frosty weather. Recently the heavily-lined fabric boots with walking soles, designed for snowmobilers, have been seen at some field trials too.
A final possibility are waders, if you will really be mucking through some areas of deep water. Although usually an item for duck hunters and fishermen, I have seen them worn at some pointing breed field trials. These are very long rubber boots. They can be hip high, and held up by attached loops that cross over the shoulders, or they can be chest waders, which really are rubber overalls with feet in them. Needless to say, they are impractical for female trialers, especially if the only facilities are the commonly found small chemical outhouses!
Pay some attention to your socks as well. There are some wonderful socks available now that have thicker padded areas where the most pressure comes from shoe and ground surfaces, and thinner areas elsewhere, to reduce the overall bulk that the old-style hiking or boot sock usually has. And always brings an extra pair of socks along! There is nothing more miserable than getting your feet wet first thing in the morning and having them stay wet and get progressively colder all day long!