The significance of field trials / How the record compares

There is the old story, worn thin with the telling, about the spectator at a field trial watching a succession of dogs put through their paces. Inevitably some make it look hard work. He is not too impressed with what he sees. Hmm, he says at the end of it all, my old Ben at home would make this stuff look easy.

It is tempting for those viewing any sporting activity to underestimate the difficulties of participating. Many of the problems faced by a handler at a field trial are not apparent to a distant onlooker. And it is tempting to overestimate one's own skills and one's own dog's abilities while ignoring the special pressures of performing in public.

For all their failings, field trials have a laudable purpose. It is to bring to prominence those dogs best suited to future breeding for the betterment of their breed. And to a great extent they succeed. Over time, most of the best dogs rise to the top and most of the indifferent ones do not. Trials have an uncanny knack of exposing any weakness in a good dog's otherwise sound abilities. Ask anyone whose dog is prone to the occasional squeak, or the odd squeeze, or is squeamish, say, about picking a wounded rabbit. It is perhaps more true of trials in the UK than elsewhere, run as they are under natural shooting conditions with variability and chance ensuring that the successful dogs are also versatile.

A contrast is the USA where conditions are made so similar for each dog, in an effort to ensure fairness, and the work confined to only a part of a spaniel's job description, that specially trial-trained dogs emerge to dominate – at a superlative performance level – a sport that is more stylised and is thereby removed from the reality of shooting requirements.

Even so, the demands of UK field trials for refinements of work and training are enough to deter most ordinary owners from competing. That is not really a criticism of trials. They are expected to attract dogs that more nearly approach perfection in their work than the large majority.

But how else, then, to demonstrate – especially in a breed such as the Clumber that is so extremely unsuited to competing against specialist springers – that we are selecting individual dogs for use in breeding programmes on proof of their working ability?

It is not enough for us to offer bland assurances about breeding responsibly. Ask anyone who has ever bred a litter of puppies, of whatever breed, for whatever purpose. They will all claim that. It is not enough to fill in a form and pay the Kennel Club money to become a so-called Accredited Breeder.

What we have to be is more than responsible: we have to be accountable. To account for our actions against an independent and recognised quality standard that backs words with evidence.

Field trials are that standard. But too few Clumbers are up to it; too few of their owners willing to face the pressures, the high standard of competition, the focus on pace, the disappointments and, it has to be said, the prejudice against the unfamiliar. That is why James Darley developed for the Working Clumber Spaniel Society its Working Ability Assessment as part of its Breeding Commendation Scheme. It is a test of a dog’s work under actual field conditions that is not a trial of its training, but an assessment of natural abilities and characteristics. Perfection in manners is not sought. The imperfections of training are accepted. There is no competition, no spectators, minimal pressure. Judges assess dogs for how they are to shoot over: so they carry guns, not notebooks. Any owner should be capable of coping with this exposure, which is no more demanding than going out rough shooting. The Working Ability Assessment was intended to be central to the society’s mission to improve the breed, embodying all the essential objectives of a field trial, without the disadvantages that deter less experienced, less skilled and less confident owners, and debar many naturally good dogs from recognition and subsequent participation in breeding. It has provided a model for societies seeking similar outcomes for other breeds.