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What is a spaniel working test?

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At some point many owners of working spaniels may consider entering their spaniel ( and themselves ) into a spaniel competition.

A great start point for novice handlers and their dogs are spaniel working tests. But if you’ve never entered a spaniel test before what can you expect? 

A spaniel working test aims to test the ability of a spaniel and the handler in a simulated, walked up shooting environment. In a test your dog and you will be tested on your ability to work as a team being assessed on hunting, retrieving, style and natural ability.

What to expect at a spaniel test

If you are entering a spaniel test then your spaniel will be expected to hunt with style and courage, covering his ground, be steady to shot, retrieve seen and blind dummies to hand and be able to be handled by whistle, hand signal and voice. In some tests water retrieves will be included.

Your dog will run alongside another spaniel and you will be graded by an experienced judge who will give points based on performance and style.

what is a spaniel working test
A test is a great way to gain competition experience for you and your spaniel

Types of working tests for spaniels

There are generally two types of working tests for spaniels known as Novice and Open Tests.

Novice Working Spaniel Tests

Novice spaniel tests – As the name suggests a novice working spaniel tests is aimed at new or inexperienced handlers with dogs that have little or no competition experience.

A novice test is a great way for you and your dog to develop confidence and experience alongside similar level dogs and handlers.

Your dog will be expected to hunt his/her ground confidently, stop to shot and whistle and retrieve a seen dummy quickly and efficiently.

In some cases you may be asked to fetch a blind retrieve.

As a handler you will also be assessed by the judge who will be looking to see if you can control your dog and handle him when and where necessary.

Open Spaniel Working Tests

An Open Test is a test that is ‘open’ to spaniels of all levels.

The standard of competition tends to be higher and the tasks that are required of the dogs are often more complex and can include things such as:

Multiple retrieves – blind and marked

Longer periods of hunting

Water retrieves

Denser cover

You’ll often find more experienced handlers and dogs at open tests and, in some cases. some handlers use these types of tests as a means of sharpening their dogs up during the summer before the field trial season begins.

Due to the higher standards and complexities of an open test, many gun dog clubs place restrictions on the types of dogs that can enter, these are normally along the lines of:

  • Your dog must have won a Novice test or,
  • Your dog has achieved an award at Field Trial level.

What happens at a spaniel working test?

Regardless of the type of spaniel working test that you enter, the process is the same.

To begin:

When you send your entry off to the club secretary, a draw takes place and typically 16 dogs are randomly selected to compete – each of these dogs is given a number 1 to 16.

When you arrive at the test venue you are given an armband that corresponds to your dog’s number in the draw.

The setup at a spaniel test

There are always two judges at a working spaniel test.

Each judge will assess each spaniel and handler in the event – unless a dog becomes disqualified during the proceedings.

The event takes place in two halves with Judge A assessing the even numbered dogs and Judge B the odd numbers in the first half they then swap dogs for the second period.

At the end of the event the two judges confer and compare their notes to select a winner and often second, third and sometimes fourth places. 

Awards of Merit may be awarded to dogs that the judges felt performed well.

The actual proceedings

When it is your turn to compete the judge will call you and your dog forward.

Make your way to the judge, sit your dog down and listen to the judge’s instructions.

Often he will want to head in a certain direction or would like to explore a certain area of cover – he will tell you.

To your left and right you will see two other people – the guns. In a test they will be using blank firing shotguns.

It is also likely that you will see other people milling around the cover who will be dummy throwers – there to plant the retrieves.

The judge is the person that you take your instructions from.

If you have good judges and you are a novice handler then, it is possible that the judge may guide you and offer some advice.

They are experienced spaniel handlers, they appreciate that you may be nervous and, if you are lucky to get their advice then take it onboard – it’s valuable.

what is a spaniel working test

It’s time to go for it!

This is the moment when your training and practice come into play.

When the judge is ready he’ll tell you to to take your dog’s lead off and to cast him off hunting.

Set your dog off with the firm ‘Get On’ command and cast him to your left or right – whichever you prefer.

Pay attention to the wind direction and work the wind as per your training

Make sure that your dog covers the ground thoroughly between the two guns as he would be expected to do in a walked up shooting environment.

The judge will walk behind you and will, at times, give you directions, but most of the time he will stay quiet while making notes about your performance.

Stay calm, allow your spaniel to do his job and try not to wave your arms around or use too much whistle.

Work your ground slowly and thoroughly and don’t be tempted to rush.

Get your dog into all of the cover on his ‘beat’,  if he misses any then call him back to it and get him in.

Shots and retrieves

As you are hunting your ground and moving forward the judge will, at some point, indicate to one of your guns to fire a shot.

Don’t concern yourself with this, concentrate on the hunting, you’ll hear the shot soon enough.

When the shot goes, blow the stop whistle as well.

Most, if not all spaniel handlers do this and you won’t be penalised for doing so. 

The important thing is to make sure that your spaniel stops.

The retrieve

After the shot, you’ll be given a blind or marked retrieve of a dummy and, when the judge tells you to – send your dog.

In the case of a marked retrieve your spaniel should run out keenly to the fall and, if he has marked it down well, then he should find it quickly.

If he struggles then use your stop whistle and hand signals to get him to the area.

A good tip here is to watch your dog carefully.

If he is within the area of the dummy then try to let him work things out with his nose.

If he is clearly in the wrong area then, stop him and direct him to the area of the dummy – think of the wind direction when you do this and try to get the dummy between your dog’s nose and the wind.

Far too many handlers allow their dog to hunt aimlessly, in the hope that he will pick up the scent.

Don’t be afraid to help your spaniel if he is struggling – it’s a team effort and you need to get the retrieve in quickly without panic or delay.

If the retrieve is a blind then the judge will indicate where the dummy is – such as near to the birch tree or similar.

Again get your dog out to the area and get his nose into the wind with your directions to help him.

what is a spaniel working test
Allow your spaniel to use his nose but don’t be afraid to help if he is struggling

After your run

When the judge is satisfied he will ask you to call your dog in as that is the end of the run.

Whistle your dog to you, put his lead on, thank the judge and return to the crowd of other competitors.

That is the end of your first run – it will pass faster than you think.

In the second half you’ll do it all again under the other judge.

So, have a drink, give your spaniel some water and try to relax.

Some things to note about spaniel tests

There are always two dogs running at any one time, one under each judge. T

ry to keep your dog on his ‘patch’ and away from the other dog’s beat.

If your competitor’s dog stops to use the toilet then it is considered sporting to stop your dog until he has finished.

Dummies are normally used for the retrieves and these are normally canvas.

Some tests may use cold game but this will normally be made known before the competition date.

The guns can often march forwards too quickly. This is common among guns that are unused to shooting with spaniels.

Don’t let this distract you. Take your time and let your dog do his work. A good judge will manage the guns properly.

Everytime you hear a shot make sure that your dog stops.

Unless your judge tells you otherwise, when the other dog is on a retrieve make sure that you and your dog are stationary and waiting.

Water retrieves – if this forms part of the test then usually you’ll be asked to sit your spaniel down at the edge of the water ( pond or lake normally).

A seen dummy will be thrown, with or without a shot, and, when the judge tells you, you send your dog for the retrieve.

Eyewipes in spaniel tests

An unusual term and something that is common in Field Trials but rare in working spaniel tests.

An ‘eyewipe’ occurs when the first dog fails on a retrieve and the opposite dog is called over and is successful.

The situation can occur when a dog is sent to deal with a retrieve and, for whatever reason, fails to find the dummy or game.

In a spaniel competition the other spaniel and handler will often be called over to the opposite judge and be asked to attempt the retrieve.

If the second dog is successful then he is awarded extra marks.

It is rare for eyewipes to occur in a spaniel working test and they are far more common in field trials where injured game can run. 

Marking and awards at tests

When all of the dogs have run under both judges the two judges will confer and compare their notes to decide on the best dogs.

It is common for two, or sometimes more dogs, to have equal marks, which will mean a ‘run off’ – the spaniel equivalent of the footballing penalty shootout.

The leading dogs will ‘run off’ against each other, watched by both judges at the same time.

Shooting rarely occurs during a run off as the judges are normally looking at style, drive, speed and ground coverage.

The run off can be one of the most nerving parts of a spaniel competition as, if you are called forwards for one then there is a very real chance that you are going for the first place award.

The run off is not the time for hand signals, lots of whistle or voice commands – you need to let your dog do his job and show everyone how great he looks.

When the judges have made their final decisions the winner, runner up and other placed and award winners will be announced.

If you have done well then you may receive a prize and well done.

If not then don’t be disheartened, everyone begins somewhere – enjoy the experience and continue to read and learn more about your dog and spaniel work.

Train and practice and have another go.

Where can spaniel working tests be found?

Spaniel tests are organised and run by many different Working Spaniel and other gun dog clubs.

Spaniel specific clubs such as The Yorkshire Sporting Spaniel Club are focused on spaniel breeds and are thus the best types of clubs to join, although some of the more wider ranging clubs do offer some good tests.

The Kennel Club is a good source of information when looking for details of clubs and societies that run tests for working spaniels.

Finally – the most important aspect of Spaniel Working Tests

Remember that they are tests and that they provide you and your dog with the opportunity to learn and to develop experience.

Try to enjoy the occasion, talk to other spaniel handlers, watch the other dogs and take as much from the experience as you are able to.

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