Handling in NSTRA: Handling Tips

Members handling in NSTRA
Dogs and handlers from the 2018 Regional Elimination Trial

The semi-monthly magazine arrived yesterday and I had a chance to sit and read it cover to cover. I enjoyed the article written by John Apostolis about his story on his introduction to NSTRA and the creation of the Southern Ontario region. Part of his writing highlighted the importance of handling in NSTRA. One thing that stuck out especially to me was this statement:

“The second issue, was learning the system and strategy and we quickly learned there was a lot of strategy involved.”

Handling in NSTRA is arguably as important as the abilities of the dog. This was something that I had realized fairly early on when I started in NSTRA as well. Sure, your dog must be able to perform well to win, but there is plenty you can do as a handler to either make or break a run. Consider this scenario: your dog has pointed a bird moments after the brace starts, and woah boy it’s on now! You hustle up towards your dog, while cramming shells into your gun. All you can think about is how this is going to be the start of a 5 bird run that will put you on the podium at the end of the day.

You are now in front of your dog and are searching for the bird when the flutter of wings sound out from over your shoulder, you turn and fire a shot but it’s behind the bird. The bird is now flying directly at the gallery and you must call a safety. Your dog, ever faithful to retrieve your game, chases. The bird has disappeared into the collection of trucks and you spend 3 minutes getting him back in the field. In the meanwhile, your brace mate has found and scored one bird and is well on his way across the field to the next. You are now at a disadvantage that will most likely end up costing you that placement you were dreaming about.

Tips for handling in NSTRA

The scenario I described above is just one of hundreds of things that can happen in a trial that can hurt your chances of placing. Could you have for sure prevented that from happening? Of course not, but there are practices you can follow which will allow you to make your own luck. To earn placements you need all the luck you can get! Here are a few tips for handling in NSTRA that I can offer from my personal experience.

  • Have a basic strategy, a backup plan, and objectives
    • Which way should you go from the break away based on wind direction, terrain, etc? Will your plan change if the other handler goes that way? The other dog is on point, do you try for the back or leave the area to find another bird?
  • Don’t let things get too fast
    • Take a moment to collect your thoughts, be intentional about your next action. Take in your surroundings and factor them into your decision. Where are the judges, other handler, boundaries, obstacles to avoid, etc?
  • Trust your dog
    • There is such a thing as over handling. Your dog has the nose that can smell birds, not you. Unless you have an exact mark on a bird, put your dog in the general area and let him work.
  • Pay attention to the entire field
    • If the other dog has scored two finds on the back end of the field, you should know this and get to the uncovered area of the field quickly.

Competition in NSTRA is tough, so when the breaks go your way you have to be able to take advantage of them to win. Being a head’s up handler will greatly improve your ability to capitalize when your dog is on his game so that your team work can result in a placement.

Would you like to learn more about NSTRA in Missouri and Kansas? Fill out this form to be contacted by a region representative. We are always eager to introduce new members to the sport.

Getting started in NSTRA

Getting Started in NSTRA
Getting started in NSTRA – Handlers, dogs and judges at the start line.

Have you heard that NSTRA field trials are a ton of fun and easy to get started in? Getting started in NSTRA is easier than most people think. Now I know that most things that are unfamiliar can seem overwhelming at first, so I’d like to share some basic information to help you get started.

Topics I will cover

  • How to get a better understanding of how a field trial works
  • How to find a field trial
  • How to prepare your dog
  • How to prepare yourself

Getting Started in NSTRA: What is a field trial?

Seeing is understanding. The best way to really know how a field trial works is by coming to one. Spectators are welcome at any NSTRA trial and you can be sure that there will be a number of friendly people at the trial that will be happy to talk with you about the trial. Some trial grounds allow you to see some of the action up close from the gallery. If the judges have multi-seat UTVs you can ask to ride and observe a brace.

When you are observing, watch both the dog and the handler. Watching the dog will help you understand the level of training and the skill of the dog needed to compete. Watching the handler will help you understand how you need to work as a team, using strategies such as how to cover the field, how to position yourself with the other handler and how to handle the dog.

Getting Started in NSTRA: Where are NSTRA field trials held?

The Mo-Kan region covers central and eastern Kansas and the west half of Missouri. Mo-Kan region trials will be held in the boundaries of that geography. Private ground, game preserves or state/park land is utilized as it is available and suitable for trials. The location for each trial is the responsibility of the trial chairman and host club. Recent locations for trials have been Sterling, KS, Fort Scott, KS, Salina, KS and Lee’s Summit, MO. Visit the schedule page for the Mo-Kan region for details on upcoming trials.

How do I prepare my dog for a NSTRA field trial?

The minimum level of training for your dog should be that he will stay firmly on point until you, the handler, flush the bird. Once the bird has been “moved from its resting place”, the dog can break and chase. In some situations this may be as little as the bird running away from you, or “popping” a short distance and landing, if the birds are poorly performing in their ability to fly. The judge should announce to you that this is a “good bird” and you will likely be asked to collect the bird from your dog, and then throw it for your dog so that he can be scored for a proper retrieve. A non-comprehensive list of factors that will raise or lower your “find” score:

  • Upon good scent contact, immediately locks into a point (higher)
  • Stands steady through long flush attempt (higher)
  • Excessive “roading” into a bird after scent contact (lower)
  • Forward movement after establishing point, not due to handler relocation (lower)

The dog should retrieve the bird to hand, or within one step of your location when you shot the bird in order to be scored. If the dog fails to bring the bird all the way back you will receive no score. A non-comprehensive list of factors that will raise or lower your retrieve score:

  • Mouthing, tossing or dropping the bird (lower)
  • Slow return or indirect route of return to handler (lower)
  • Especially long retrieves, blind retrieves, water retrieves (higher)

In addition to the training your dog should be well conditioned. Your dog should be able to run and hunt for the full 30 minute duration of the brace. Weather during trial seasons can be warm. A dog that is not conditioned to run in warm weather can quickly tire and may become overheated.

How should I prepare myself for a NSTRA field trial?

There are a lot of factors that you will eventually learn as you gain experience, but there are some easy ones I can list out that can and should be done prior to your first field trial.

  • Practice your shooting! Half of the score comes from the retrieve and if you miss the bird there’s a good chance you will not get the retrieve.
  • Get on the treadmill! Handling in a trial can be a strenuous task. You will be following your dog around a field with inclines, ditches, uneven terrain, mud, etc. and in many cases in warm weather.
  • Remain calm! Even experienced field trialers can get excited in the field and this can lead to mistakes, or in the worse case, a safety situation. Remind yourself to slow down and always choose safety over all else.

I hope that this has been informative for a beginning NSTRA field trial participant. Look for new posts to come in the following weeks as we approach the Spring 2019 trial season. If you would like to talk with someone specifically about getting started in NSTRA trials in the Mo-Kan region, please fill out our contact form.