Judging Flyers in AKC Trials

Written by: Ted Shih and Dennis Voigt - October 01, 2011



Discussion with Theodore Shih, Denver, Colorado and Dennis R. Voigt


his issue we have room to tackle one topic and we thought the special nature of flyers needed to be discussed. Flyers are a routine but very important component of almost all land marking series and most water marking series in AKC all-age licensed field trials and, typically, in 1-2 derby marking series. Releasing a bird by hand or mechanical device for shooting is illegal in Canada and, thus, in CKC field trials. However, the use (or not) of flyers is important to Canadian judges and competitors when they travel south to the USA.


            Here, we discuss challenges for judges in placing the flyer, challenges for the dog in dealing with them, evaluation of the flyer as a mark and perspectives important for Canadian trainers.


Dennis: Although I only run a few AKC trials a year, I have been doing that for a long time. It has always seemed to me that flyers can make or break a test. Some are a zero – almost as if the judges were just honouring an obligatory requirement. Others are the key element in the test. I think setting out a good flyer requires some special considerations, as well as unique “flyer” knowledge. Flyers are clearly more unpredictable than a thrown dead bird but they add elements of excitement and scent and changeable tests more so than dead birds. Despite that, I get the impression from some tests that the flyer is just stuck out there after the other two or three “key” marks have been designed. Indeed, I have judged with some who say, “Well, let’s just stick our flyer over there somewhere!”


Ted: Dennis, nothing disappoints me more than a test where the flyer is an afterthought. Nothing can make a test more memorable than good flyer placement. Nothing can make a test more dangerous than poor flyer placement.


Challenges for the Judges

Ted: Flyers present an interesting paradox. On the one hand, their characteristics strongly dictate their placement, which makes the task easy. On the other hand, the limitations on flyer placement make the task of making your flyer meaningful difficult.

Some of the characteristics of the flyer that dictate their placement include:

1.       You cannot shoot a flyer in the direction of another gun station.

2.       You cannot shoot a flyer in an area where an excited, hard running dog can get hurt.

3.       You cannot shoot a flyer into the wind or into the sun.

4.       You cannot control where a flyer lands, so you need to allow for more variance in your area of fall.

5.       The flyer should be shot close enough to the line that the dogs recognize the flyer station for what it is and not as a dead bird station.

Dennis: Well, haven’t we all seen every one of these “cannot’s” violated. It’s very frustrating so perhaps we should elaborate on “why.”


Ted: First, we must ensure the safety of our contestants and workers. However, I have seen more than a few tests where gunners were shooting the flyers in the direction of another gun station or even the gallery. There is no excuse for this. The flyer must be shot in a safe direction.

            Second, we must ensure the safety of our dogs. Yet, I have also seen more than a few tests where the judges placed the dogs in danger with their flyer placement. The excitement of a flyer can cause dogs to abandon caution to their harm. For example, I still recall a test in the mountains where the line was placed on the top of a steep rocky hillside. The flyer was the go bird, shot relatively close (150 yards), at the base of the hill. The flyers were exciting and the dogs were excited. Many dogs tore at breakneck speed down the hill. Some tripped, rolled, and took some very hard spills. The test should have been stopped. It was not. That was wrong. You cannot shoot a flyer where an excited, hard running dog can get hurt.


Dennis: I recall the first time that I judged in Colorado. I couldn’t find a spot to put the flyer because there were so many ground squirrel holes and I was afraid the dogs would fall as they ran downhill at break-neck speed. Some locals insisted the dogs learn to handle these holes. Well, I couldn’t handle it and spent hours filling in every hole!! I later learned that most dogs are remarkable at navigating the holes (and the sagebrush!) but a new visitor to the area might be a different deal.


Ted: The third limitation, unless the judges and/or club do not care about the time and cost of flyer no birds, is that you cannot throw a bird into the wind or into the sun. Birds thrown into the wind often hook around and fly back towards the guns. Birds thrown into the sun are often lost by the gunners and fly away untouched. If you, as a judge, ask the gunners to throw their birds into the sun or into the wind, you are guaranteeing yourself one no-bird after another. There is no reason for such a waste of time or money.


Dennis: I agree but, of course, we’ve probably all been plagued with a bad set of guns or throwers at some point. The lesson is, don’t cause bad shooting by where you ask your flyer to be shot from and to! While there is no good reason for a waste of time or money with excessive flyer no-birds, an additional and perhaps as important issue is what the unfairness of a no-bird does to the unfortunate dog that gets it. Not only does it really ramp up that dog the second time (he knows for sure what’s coming!!), it also confounds his marking. Those first flyers are very memorable and often a dog marks the area of the no-bird all too well!


Ted: Fourth, we need to accept that the area of fall will be more varied for a flyer than for a dead bird. With a good thrower, a dead bird can be placed, throw after throw, in a relatively small area. A flyer cannot be placed so precisely. By necessity, the area of a fall for a flyer will be larger than that of a dead bird.

            Finally, if you want the flyer to be unique, and different than a dead bird, then the flyer needs to be shot close enough to the line to be recognized by the dogs for what it is. When you start pushing your flyer station out at 250 yards or more, you are diminishing the excitement that makes a flyer unique. If the dogs cannot experience the sights and sounds that make a flyer exciting, it is more likely to become just another bird. I would be hard pressed to find a good reason to shoot a flyer more than 250 yards from the line.


Dennis: I think that in some circumstances, even flyers at only 200 yards can appear less exciting. The distance from line issue is somewhat different than the “cannot’s” above but it really is a limitation also. Today’s dogs do learn to identify flyers at some pretty long distances but the point is very valid. In our winter training, one of our experienced “official guns” is often saying, “move that flyer in so they can recognize it!”

            Use of flyers in training can be quite different than in a trial. We will often use it to help a dog stay fixed on the bird and not head-swing. This can be done by shooting it first and longer or by having it very prominent and not shooting it until later. Since flyers are such magnets, we often use them to train on having to a get a short bird after a longer flyer or even a short bird in front of a flyer, whether it has been picked up or not. Importantly in training, you can’t have a lot of “in your face” wiper flyers even though you will encounter them in trials. Too many wipers really discourage dogs from watching those longer birds. There is no question that flyers are super exciting to a dog so you have to train on them. Judges have learned that a really close flyer can erase the memory of longer falls because dogs get so excited. It’s why they are called “wipers” or “erasers.”


Ted: I do not like a close-in flyer (100 yards or less). By and large, such birds are either intended to cause dogs to break or to distract the dogs from other birds. I do not like either approach. I want my flyer to be a solid mark on its own merits.


Dennis: I have used a “wiper” flyer a couple of times while judging. I recall one time it was when there was only room on water for a good double and the eraser. Wouldn’t you know it, our top dog handled on the go-bird flyer because he just couldn’t find it tucked along the shore. It wasn’t a “no-bird” but it was tough fall. For all the reasons you mention – too prone to cause breaks, too prone to distract and risk of too much close-up variation in fall, I too prefer to avoid them.


Ted: Variation means that judges need to carefully consider the impact a flyer will have on the fairness of a test. Generally speaking, I think it is unwise to throw a flyer where its fall will land tight to another bird or another gun station, as the variance in flyer falls will have a significant impact of the difficulty of the test.

            Consider a tight hip pocket double or a converging double. In the hip pocket double, if the flyer is shot tight to the long gun, you can have flyers that hook away (easier), flyers that land tight (harder), or flyers that overlap (no bird). The same is true for the converging double. There is no reason to introduce this kind of variation into the difficulty of your test.


Dennis: These concerns with tight marks occur all too often even with dead birds. Tight marks become a true “no-no” when dealing with erratic flyers.

Ted: So there’s the paradox. By the time you run through the checklist above, you will find your options for flyer placement have been significantly narrowed. The task of flyer placement has been made easier because of the unique characteristics of the flyer. However, because the options for flyer placement are limited, the task of making the flyer a significant mark has been made much harder. I underscore significant mark, because all too often the flyer is simply an afterthought – something that a marking test is supposed to have and something that allows the other guns to retire. To me, this approach is a waste of a bird.

            A good flyer will one give you one more mark to judge, which is no small matter in the Open, where the dogs and handlers are so very good. Moreover, a good flyer will cause a dog to burn valuable memory time, which in turn will often result in poor performance on subsequent birds. When I look back on the tests that I have really enjoyed, either as a judge or as a contestant, they have invariably had a good flyer – a bird that the dogs either hunted hard or could not find without a handle.


Challenges for the Dogs

Dennis: A lot of people frown on flyers because they say they are expensive, a hassle to handle and they are unfair. Our discussion about limitations illustrates that flyers do require some special effort and considerations. On the other hand, I really like the fact that live birds are part of the game that is based on selecting for, and maintaining skills required of, hunting dogs. There is nothing like flyers to maintain a dog’s interest and excitement despite challenging training or difficult conditions. Witness the cold conditions and perseverance illustrated by retrievers working in icy cold conditions when live birds are being shot. The presence of flyers adds realism to a field trial. Freshly shot birds have scent and blood like hunting dogs need to experience. They help determine if dogs have a good mouth and a good delivery with the real thing. Flyers may flap and flutter and require prompt pick-ups. Dogs need to discriminate between old scent and fresher scent. Flyers don’t sink like dead birds that are thrown too much. Instead they float more like a shot wild bird. So flyers have many unique features compared to dead birds. Within the limitations discussed above, we need to use these unique features to help make the flyer a significant mark. We need to design flyer marks that provide challenges for the dogs. We have already mentioned how flyers excite the dogs and that it is valuable to have the distance that creates excitement without going over the top with “wipers.” Excitement alone provides a challenge for the dogs


Ted: Along the lines of ensuring excitement, place your flyer station in a location that encourages the longest falls possible. I don’t think that there is anything quite so exciting for dogs, handlers, and judges as a flyer that climbs into the sky at an incredible arc, is accelerating hard and moving fast, when it is shot. In addition, those big falls make it tougher for the dogs to find the birds. A dog that is used to hunting a specified area from the guns will have a difficult time with the big flyer. That is one of the reasons (hen pheasants being the other) that National Stakes can get so much action off of a double in the first series.

            You can increase the impact of the big flyer if you make the area close to the flyer (where the dogs want to hunt) more attractive than the area where the flyer lands. For example, if the flyer guns are in a wide open meadow, but shoot their bird into rough terrain or cover, you will have a lot of dogs run around the flyer guns in the meadow, avoid the hazards of terrain and cover, and never get a bird.

            You need to give the dogs room to run around your flyer. By this I mean that, in the ideal world, I want there to be space to the right, left, in front of and behind the guns for a dog to hunt. The more room you give the dogs to hunt, the more room that they will use to hunt. So give them as much room as possible.


Dennis: In our earlier dialogues about bird placement, we talked about factors on the way to the bird and factors in the area of the fall and near the gunners. We identified that leaving room behind a gun often seems to give dogs license to go there. Give them room to run and they will. This is true with both dead birds and flyers. I often see gunners with their backs to a forest edge or wall of cover – essentially making the area of hunt funneled towards the bird. While some don’t think this is that important with flyers, I do. Your advice above to have attractive areas to hunt nearby is a nice refinement when you can find it to help make marks (hunts!) significant.


Ted: Over the course of a trial, there will be: Flyer falls scattered over the field, flyer feathers floating and then settling over the field and dog trails established all around the guns. Because of the second and third points, and because of what I think are the unique characteristics of the flyer, I typically have my flyer guns on the left or the right, and not in the middle. I think that when you have your flyer in the middle of the test, you have less margin for error, and that with the flyer, it’s best to maximize your margin for error.


Dennis: One of our jobs as judges is to work at making all tests, including those with flyers, as fair as possible for all dogs. Changing conditions in the area of the flyers creates real challenges for dogs and for us in evaluation. Consider an 80 dog Open. By the time you get to the last dog, there are 80 or more “fresh” falls with feathers and blood. Some falls will have been short and some long. The wind drift from feathers as the bird is hit may be concentrated in an area quite distant from the usual fall location. A dog has to figure out which is fresh, fresher and freshest. Often you will see a dog find the last two or three falls first before zeroing in on his bird. This is a real challenge to the dogs and underscores the value of scent discrimination in a superior marking dog. Of course, experience is also important here. As a judge, I do not penalize a dog hunting flyer falls and finding built up feather scent and old falls, all of which can result in more lengthy hunts. I value a dog that hunts and works it out. If his area of hunt is small and not redundant it is a superb mark. Often it’s just lucky whether the dog “pins” the flyer.

Ted: As I train for the U.S. National Open, I have watched some magnificent animals work out some absolutely monstrous fliers with intelligent, thoughtful hunts. I think that nothing challenges a dog’s marking ability, problem solving skills and scent discrimination like a long high hen pheasant flyer. It is breathtaking and exhilarating to watch.


A Canadian Perspective on Flyers

Dennis: I would like to close with a few observations that I have made about flyers that might be different from Canadians who have not been exposed to them.

            First, as I mentioned above, flyers at trials often require considerable hunting in the area of the fall even if the bird was quite well-marked. All the scent from feathers and blood and earlier dogs requires skill to sort it all out. It is fantastic to watch a dog systematically work it out and not mindlessly repeat his hunt pattern but rather try to solve the mystery of where did it go. I value it greatly. In contrast, some Canadian judges appear to debit a dog quite quickly for “a hunt.” I think this is a mistake and may stem from their exclusive use of more precisely located dead birds. A good hunt should be cherished and scored highly, provided it is systematical and in the area. I would also comment that some hunt tests trainers and judges seem to be far too quick to want to handle their hunting dog. This surprises me when “hunting ability” is a major requisite for cripple recovery during actual hunting.

            Secondly, I hear people say they took their Canadian dog south and ran some trials and their dog didn’t get any more excited and did just fine. I say, run some more trials and watch your dog build as he develops a taste for them. It often takes 4-5 trials before their effects become noticeable or you encounter tough flyer conditions. I would also add that some Canadian dogs that did not have early exposure to flyers and were sold as 3-4 years old south of the border never did excel at flyers and finding them. In some cases the dogs get overwhelmed and in other cases they just can’t seem to handle all the scent and diversion. It’s sort of like how some try to get their dogs savvy about pheasants the week before a National! It usually doesn’t work because true skill in finding pheasants takes a steady diet of exposure – lots of experience. The same is true of flyers.

            Finally, flyers are extremely valuable to maintain attitude, balance and control in training. If you are south, don’t miss the opportunity to use them for these reasons – value them highly.


Ted: I don’t know that I would add much here, but to say that the Rule Book has a much ignored passage that,

            Ability to “mark” does not necessarily imply “pin-pointing the fall”. A dog that misses the “fall” on the first cast, but recognizes the depth of the “area of the fall,” stays in it, then quickly and systematically “hunts-it-out,” has done both a creditable and an intelligent job of marking.

            Too often, I hear judges discount the mark of a dog that systematically hunts it out – especially on a tough flyer. It is a disservice to the sport and to the dog.


Dennis: I am reminded of how some judges also seem to ignore the cardinal rules of judging all too often. That, too, is a disservice to the sport and to the dog (I’m referring to making sure the dogs can see the gunners and birds and making sure they can see you and you can see them to handle).


Ted: I have been really puzzling over this. We have written many articles about judging. The Retriever News has also published many articles about judging. But, weekend after weekend, what I consider to be cardinal rules (and, to read what is in RN, what others similarly view as cardinal rules) are violated. It is as though no one bothered to read anything at all.

            After giving this some thought, I have come to the following explanations:

a)       Some people don’t think well under the pressure of judging. They know better, but go blank, when they judge;

b)      Some people are not wise enough (or perhaps too arrogant?) to consider the cardinal rules;

c)       Some people are too lazy to learn the cardinal rules.


            No matter what the explanation, I find it all to be very depressing.


Dennis: I find it frustrating. I believe some actually think they are following the rules when the entire gallery (and the dogs) would disagree. In other cases, I think some judges really don’t care that much as long as they “get answers.” I would like to think the judges that ignore sound principles and the Rule Book when judging are those who don’t bother to read the Retrievers ONLINE articles or those in the Retriever News. Maybe we need to have them all sign off on the Judges Creed so that we at least know they read!

            If any of our readers have judging topics that they feel need more discussion, please contact us.

Thanks – Dennis and Ted.    


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Written by: Ted Shih and Dennis Voigt| October 01, 2011
Categories:  Judging

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