American Field

On Judging

By Jerry P. Reed | Apr 16, 2019

The most difficult and demanding job at a field trial is that of judge.  It is a thankless job that asks knowledgeable, experienced volunteers to rise early, step into a stirrup and commit to long days in the saddle visually and mentally processing performances by amazing canine athletes and then rendering a subjective judgment.

A judge who has hunted wild birds over his dogs and has trained and finished dogs on native game understands how difficult it is to get a dog “right” for field trial competition. Such judges have a great appreciation for a really strong performance and how difficult it is to achieve.

Those who judge must be aware of all the variables that affect canine performances on any given day — time of day affecting game behavior, wind, moisture, temperature, variability of the courses, competing handler behavior, and such.

Wild riding and rowdiness by a handler or scout can result in bracemate interference and can certainly negatively affect the performance of a competing dog. The dog that obviously trails its bracemate or head trails can also be seen to interfere with the performance of a bracemate.

It is an uncomfortable task, however, it may fall to a judge to order a dog up for interference with his bracemate and such action is usually accomplished by conferring with the field marshal who communicates to the handler the action requested by a judge.

Responsiveness (biddability) is often a function of handler capabilities but it can also be affected by an extreme environment such as high winds, an advancing front, rain, snow or sleet and changes in barometric pressure or, as we have all seen many times, a dog that is having “a bad hair day” and is just not willing to handle.

The competing dog is to be judged, not the capacity of a handler to show his charge, though the dog of a master handler is a joy to watch in action when an exceptional handler makes the extremely difficult look so easy.

It is not unusual for some handlers to be over-matched by their charges and a keen judge can quickly detect that a rather unresponsive canine might be better matched with a more accomplished, capable handler meaning it is not always the dog’s fault for a less than optimum showing; poor handlers can make good dogs look bad and exceptional dogs can make poor handlers look good!  This is especially so in the amateur ranks but is also a factor in the ranks of the professionals as there are widely varying degrees of capability across the ranks.

A person who graciously accepts a judging assignment should clearly understand the criteria for the stake in question, have good eyesight and be an accomplished horseman with the required stamina to ride the entire duration of the running of the stake to be judged. It is also nice to have a team of judges who know each other well and who help each other with the direction and whereabouts of their respective dogs and whose conferences are private and honest.

The gait of competing canines is quite different and it is good for a judge to watch one’s dog carefully at the cast away to identify running characteristics to enable him to identify the charge under his judgment at distance. At great distance, it is sometimes difficult to tell two competitors apart lest one watch closely at and after the breakaway to discern the differences in gait and movement.

Some judges can see clearly at great distances and others struggle to make their dogs out at a quarter mile or less. Thus, it is imperative that they work as a team to afford the same opportunity to every competitor and handler.

The judge with the best distance eyesight I have ever judged with is Harley Fancher out of Arkansas and of Amos Mosley and Thor’s Pacesetter fame.  Harley’s eyesight is phenomenal and, while my eyesight has always been very good, Harley helped me greatly when we judged as a team on the prairies and in the woods of the South.

Besides Harley Fancher, one of my favorite judging partners was Hall of Fame member Dale Bush of College Station, Tex., and, like Harley and I, over the decades Dale and I judged many stakes across America and Canada and had a wonderful time looking at some of the greatest bird dogs that have ever lived.

The principles of judging have been the same since the start of formal bird dog field trials in the 1800s with judges looking for that jewel of a performance that excites both  the judges and the gallery with beautiful, smooth, powerful forward casts going where native upland game birds are known to hang out or wherever God has encouraged them to go on that particular day. The dog of attractive gait and long stride gets attention; the short, yo-yo canine irritates the visual senses, regardless how many finds are logged.

In released bird trials, judging may be a mechanical exercise because dogs that are run a great deal on released birds develop “tracking capabilities” that take them to release points. Many alert folks attending released bird trials have seen dogs run the vehicle tracks to the released points where they “cat-walk” around until they find a feathered dummy walking around under a bush and then an excited handler calls “Point!”. The next step is trying to get old dummy in the air and that can be a frustrating exercise for both handler and dog.

Wild game solves that problem but many venues have no native quarry, thus, the released bird event is still a mainstay of many field trials.

It is the job of the field marshal to control the gallery and to keep the gallery from pressing forward and interfering with the attentiveness of the judges through engagement in conversations that distract and it is also the job of the judge to stay disengaged from friends and acquaintances in the gallery during the running.

I have been privileged to be on God’s beautiful earth for many decades and have had the wonderful opportunity to sit in the judicial saddle on the northern prairies, on the Llano Estacado of Texas and in the beautiful woods of the South and many other locales and I have been thrilled by unbelievable performances. It behooves the attentive judge to be totally aware of all that is going on in front of him between dog and handler and to be aware of the whereabouts of the dog under his judgment at all times.

I recall a Hall of Fame professional handler with his horse stopped in a woodsline and his horse turned to the front pointing out his dog on the visible horizon while he had his dog at heel the whole time by his right stirrup.  A momentary lapse of attention and a judge can be fooled; not the handler’s fault for attempting to hood-wink an inattentive judge but the judge’s fault for getting distracted or not paying proper attention.

I recall one Hall of Fame handler who was a remarkable woodsman and the kind of handler that a judge really appreciated because he was a handler who rode comfortably in front of the judges at a correct distance and pace and was not a “pull and tug” dog chaser such as that which was so popular in the 1970s; he showed his dogs to advantage regardless of terrain and could thread a needle with most of his dogs.

However, when not running his dogs, he would engage in loud conversations within earshot of the judges explaining why a dumb move by his dog run in a prior brace was really a brilliant move; the intent? Influence the judges? Of course. Judges have to ignore such loud conversations and evaluate the dogs under the criteria that is appropriate for the trial; all-age, all-age Derby, shooting dog or shooting dog Derby.

Additionally, it is the job of the field marshal to set the pace for the trial and keep the judges and gallery moving at the correct pace. This is a herculean task at many trials, especially at trials when judges forget to pace themselves and begin riding to keep up with out-of-control handlers.

The quickest way to regain control of errant, forward running handlers is to maintain a nice, level pace and the handlers will get the message pretty quick and will pull back and handle and show their dogs. If handlers don’t get the message, it is at their peril.

Keeping scouts under control falls to the field marshal, though this task often also falls to the judges to keep wild scouts under control who, if allowed, will stealthily slip to the front and become co-handlers (some dogs respond better to the scout than the handler).

With so many moving parts, a judge must be well-rested and constantly alert. Along these lines, I have seen “judges” in the back of the gallery kibitzing with friends and paying no attention to the dogs being run showing no respect for the handler or his dog. Such judges should never be invited to again render an opinion because it will not be an informed opinion.

I had the wonderful privilege of judging the National Open Shooting Dog Championship with Miley L. Kimball (now deceased) of Covington, Ga., at the beautiful Sedgefields Plantation in Union Springs, Ala., in 1996 when Davis Final Touch (callname Slim) had the most remarkable, well-balanced, never scouted shooting dog performance I have ever witnessed. Slim’s handler rode in front of us at the perfect distance and pace the entire brace while showing the fast, classy Slim on forward cast after forward cast always showing where a dog should be and with the wind always to advantage!

Slim had sterling finds with handsome arresting style early, mid-brace and late with one find punctuated by a sharp, aggressively fast, perfect relocation of a running covey in a stand of short blackjacks. To this day, the teamwork between Tommy Davis and Slim and their performance at the 1996 National Open Shooting Dog Championship remains indelibly etched in my mind.

Tommy Mock was the field marshal and he kept the gallery and scouts under absolute control which was sincerely appreciated by Miley and me as his superior marshalling allowed us to give every competitor the attention they deserved. Slim’s performance was so dominating and aesthetically beautiful that dogs could still be running today and not come close to approaching his magnificent performance that day!

When judging, outstanding performances are held in memory and discussed while others that did not impress on that day are sent to the mental “delete” file, as expressed in today’s IT jargon.

Some judges, one being David Taylor of Texas, can recount every step of every brace. I have never possessed that ability but I do recall the memorable performances that provide distinct separation from the less than impressive races and performances.

One of the most considerate actions by a handler is when he recognizes that a dog just isn’t getting the job done and he picks up his charge and saves him for another day thus giving some relief to a judge. When a handler picks up early, it is the obligation of the judge whose dog was picked up to join his judicial partner and help with the remaining dog. However, I have seen judges, on occasion, who abandoned their team member in such an instance and such an action is poor sportsmanship except in cases when a judge has been delayed significantly waiting for a handler to catch up and move back to the front.

The prairie trials at Mortlach are events that reflect the professionalism of Doug Vaughn and his team of Canadians as these fine folks have club members who are exceptional, helpful field marshals making judging assignments at the Saskatchewan and Dominion stakes less stressful than is the norm.

When running at the Ames Plantation in years past, Dr. Rick Carlisle anchored the events and provided superior field marshal support. There are many other high-caliber events with excellent field marshals and I mention field marshals in conjunction with judging because exceptional field marshals facilitate a much improved judicial review environment enabling judges to give every competing dog the attention deserved.

Then, there are the standards. I recall a 45-minute All-Age Derby Classic a number of years ago with two placements available — winner and a runner-up. The trial was run on a particular trainer’s grounds and he had a number of extremely classy Derbies entered, all of which had been trained extensively on the grounds being used for the trial. Each of this particular trainer’s dogs, when released, ran a straight line to a memorized release point and pointed the released birds and each one stood tall and pretty and each was immaculately broke to wing and shot. These competitors ran on memory and never hunted. Unfortunately, these Derbies, while all-age broke and stylish while running and on point stood beautifully on find after find but didn’t hunt a lick and never demonstrated all-age potential.

Two other competitors that had never been on these particular grounds ran wide, scintillating, forward races and demonstrated true all-age range, handling and hunting instincts and kept the judges leaning forward in their saddles the entire time they were on the ground. These two Derbies were exciting and both had less than broke game contacts but demonstrated true all-age potential. These two exciting Derbies placed and then went on to be exceptional all-age dogs while the classy dogs that had the many perfect finds never made it in the all-age ranks.  When the winners were named, the handler with multiple dogs with so many broke memory finds was not very happy and there was some dirt-kicking and tires “a spinning” in the sand when he departed. The easy way out for the judges would have been to place the dogs with multiple broke game contacts; however, the more difficult choice was to place the dogs that best reflected true all-age potential. Folks in attendance could agree to disagree about the performances in question but, in my mind, the judges had it exactly right and their decision was confirmed when the winners went on to perform very competitively in all-age stakes.

I really miss my days in the saddle with good friends watching great bird dogs perform at unbelievable levels of training and accomplishment.

It was the best of times . . .

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