What is a Field Trial?
A Retriever Field Trial is a competitive event, at which retrievers compete against one another. Dogs are judged in comparison to the other dogs entered rather than pass/fail. Success at a Field Trial generally requires a higher level of training than success at a Hunt Test because the dogs are required to retrieve over longer distances with a more complex path, than a Retriever Hunt Test would generally provide.
As stated in the AKC rules for Retriever Field Trials, the purpose of a trial is to determine the relative merits of Retrievers in the field. The dogs should be judged on their natural abilities including memory for marks, intelligence, attention, nose, courage, perseverance and style, and their abilities acquired through training including steadiness, control, response to direction, and delivery.
There are four stakes that can be offered at an AKC Licensed or member club field trial: Minor Stakes = Derby and Qualifying; Major Stakes = Open and Amateur. Each stake consists of a set of tests (series). After each series, each dog's work is evaluated to that point. The dogs that have exhibited the relatively better work are called back to continue the trial and all other dogs are excused from the competition. This process is continued until the remaining dogs have been tested on the four required areas and until the dogs have separated themselves as to the relative quality of their work to the point where the best four dogs can be determined and ranked for 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th placements. If more than four dogs should finish a stake and exhibit outstanding work, after the four dogs that earned the four places are determined, the judges may award the dog with the next best work a Reserve Judges Award of Merit (RJAM) and may award any remaining dog a Judges Award of Merit (JAM).
A Derby stake is open to dogs that are at least six months, but not yet two years of age on the first day of the trial. This stake involves marked retrieves only. Typically a Derby stake will consist of four series, two on land and two on water, each a set of double marked retrieves. While the main emphasis is on the dog's natural abilities related to marked retrieves, a dog must exhibit sufficient training to deliver to hand and be reasonably steady on the line. Points are awarded for placement in this stake and count toward a yearly Derby Championship sponsored by the Retriever Field Trial News.
A Qualifying is open to all dogs who have not won 2 Qualifying stakes, have not received a JAM in an Open stake, and have not received a placement in an Amateur stake. The Qualifying stake parallels the Open and Amateur stakes in that the dogs should be tested on land and water marked retrieves as well as land and water blind retrieves. The primary difference is that typically the difficulty of the tests is somewhat less and judges are allowed the latitude to be more tolerant. That is, some faults that are classified as major in regard to the Open/Amateur stakes and therefore call for automatic elimination are classified as moderate in regard to a Qualifying stake leaving elimination to the judges’ discretion. A dog that places first or second in a Qualifying stake is recognized as "Qualified All-Age".
An Open stake is “open” to all retrievers that are at least six months of age. Typically an Open stake will consist of four separate series starting with multiple land marks, a land blind or blinds, water blind or blinds, and finally multiple water marks. However, there is no requirement as to the order of the tests, and marks and blinds can be combined. There is also no specified limitation as to distance for either marked or blind retrieves. The marks and blinds in this stake are generally exceptionally demanding. Only accomplished retrievers with exceptional natural and trained abilities tend to excel at this level. Championship points are earned in this stake.
The only difference between an Amateur and an Open stake is that Professional Trainer/Handlers are not allowed to handle a dog in an Amateur stake. Otherwise the Amateur and Open stakes are the same with respect to the skills tested and level of difficulty.
There are other exclusions that could prevent your dog from being entered in one of the stakes listed above. For more information on the rules/qualifications, please refer to the AKC Field Trial Rules: http://images.akc.org/pdf/rulebooks/RFTRET.pdf