Todd Agnew of Craney Hill Kennel has been training field-bred spaniels for nearly 25 years. He has won numerous field trials, including the 2018 National Open Championship and the 2017 National Open High Point Trophy. He has also developed many dogs that have gone on to place and win at field trials, including the 2019 Canadian National Amateur Championship. In addition to field trialing, Agnew also guides hunters for wild gamebirds. And in spite of his field trial achievements, he is quick to point out that he is a hunter first and a field trialer second.
“I’m a hunter at heart, who happens to run field trials,” he said. “Under no circumstance am I giving up hunting to run field trials. Every single one of our field trial dogs hunts, and I’m a firm believer that trialers should hunt their dogs.”
Agnew believes that field trials demand a level of control and obedience that most hunters would envy. When asked about the perceived lack of stamina in field trial dogs, he laughed.
“Before we won the National with Riot, he had hunted 48 days straight in Iowa. We left Iowa, drove to Maryland, and won the National. All he did was hunt—that’s the training he got,” Agnew said.
Agnew went on to say that if you want to hunt your dog for an extended period of time, the dog will learn to pace himself, which isn’t the best thing for a field trial dog. “You can’t win a field trial if the dog is holding back and running half speed,” he said. “We don’t personally have that problem because we hunt our dogs in 45-minute shifts and then we swap out dogs. There is just no dog that can run at a field trial pace for several hours straight.
“The key to hunting and field trialing a dog is to maintain your training standard,” Agnew continued. “For example, when someone is hunting, and a bird flushes, their reaction is to track the bird. If you aren’t watching the dog, and he takes a couple of steps, it isn’t long before the dog is taking eight or ten steps. You have to make sure the dog isn’t moving, first, and then focus on the bird. Some people aren’t willing to do that, but that’s what it takes to do both. You have to hold the dog to the same training standard while hunting.”
On the retriever side of things, Al Arthur of Sandhill Retrievers is widely regarded as one of the best trainers in the country. Arthur won the 2015 National Field Trial Championship, and most recently won the 2020 U.S. National Open Retriever Championship. Like Agnew, he sees more positives than negatives when it comes to hunting a field trial dog.
“I don’t have a problem with a field trial dog hunting at all,” he said. “In December, after the field trial season is wrapped up, I send the dogs home for some R&R, and for a lot of them that means hunting. I think it is good relaxation for them. For ten months a year, those dogs are trained hard and are traveling and competing. I think they need downtime to hunt and have fun. It’s therapeutic, because the dog is out there doing what he loves.”
However, Arthur also thinks his field trial dogs need to maintain their high standard of discipline while hunting.
“I don’t agree with letting dogs have free range to do whatever they want,” he said. “They should hunt in a disciplined manner. In everything they do, whether it is living in the house or hunting, you need to keep that discipline and structure. If you are duck hunting, your dog must wait until he’s released for a retrieve. That structure is important.”
Field trials were originally created to help trainers and breeders evaluate their hunting dogs. The inherent purpose of a field trial is to produce better hunting dogs by selecting for and developing dogs of superior quality. If you talk with a pro trainer for just a short while, it quickly becomes clear why field trial dogs should be hunted—it’s what they were born to do.