The best hunting dogs money can buy were on display at Sumerduck, Virginia, last weekend. They are so good their owners almost never hunt them. Too risky.

"Any time you take a dog out of the kennel something can happen," said Keith Severin, who organized the Northern Virginia Field Trial Club's three-day meet at Chester Phelps Wildlife Area near Remington.

"He could run into a fence or get a stick jammed into an eye, or he could get on a deer's trail and follow it across a road, get run over . . ."

Or a potentially great dog could pick up bad habits. Alan Kane, president of the Rappahannock Bird Dog Club, would hate to see that.

"A man goes to all the expense and trouble to train a good bird dog for field trials. He might spend $125 a month on board and training. He pays his entry fees. He's got the initial price of the dog. a thousand dollars doesn't even touch it.He'd be crazy to hunt that dog."

Field trial dogs aren't hunting dogs. It's as simple as that. They're better than hunting dogs, the cream of the crop, trained to do more than any dog would be called on to do in normal hunting circumstances.

The field trial season starts in early spring, after the hunting season is over. Field trial dog handlers and owners go in the fields armed with blank pistols, not shotguns. If their dogs are good enough to find quail, which is what the word "bird" means to a bird hunter, the handler flushes the quail and shoots his little pistol. But no one watches the birds.

Instead they watch the dog, to see if it's mannered and steady to wing and shot, if it runs with class and grace and style and points with no hint of quiver, and honors the points of another dog.

Watching is what field trials, which will be conducted in the area for the next month and a half, are all about. The dogs, almost always English pointers and English setters, run in pairs (called braces) along a planned course.

At Sumerduck last weekend there were events for puppies (one-year-olds), derby dogs (two-year-olds), and all-age and shooting dogs, both of which are mature dogs.

Most braces ran for a half-hour, followed by a pair of judges, a handler for each and a gallery of viewers, everyone on horseback. This is standard for field trials, during which dogs are expected to cover much more ground than they would under actual hunting conditions.

Field trial dog owners and trainers view themselves as the keepers of a flame -- protectors of the most excellent attributes of bird dogs.

I rode in the gallery last weekend at Sumerduct, jouncing along on the back of Merry, a 14-year-old mare loaned to me for the day by Severin.

As we traveled along, watching a pair of shooting dogs playfully working the fields, a neighbor on horseback explained, "We're looking for the epitome of style, class, intensity and desire in the dogs. If you don't have someone breeding for that, all the rest of the hunting dogs will fall down to the lowest common denominator.

"It keeps the breed up. You have to breed to the best to keep the best of the breeds going."

What exactly the best is, is left somewhat to personal taste. "Subjective" is the word field trialers use most to describe the way a dog is judged. There are certain basics, but after that a dog's quality is largely a matter of the judge's taste.

Severin, who is in wide demand as a judge, looks for a dog that "runs big" (covers a lot of ground), is responsive to command, posseses a merry gait and a lofty character, hunts for the full duration of the trial and finishes strongly, goes to likely objectives, finds game where possible and exhibits polished manners when it locates birds.

But he admits that "some judges just like a dog that has purple spots and a yellow tail, and if you don't have one like that, you'd better find one."

"It reminds me of what Justice Potter Stewart said about obscentiy," said Craig Smith. "He couldn't say exactly what it was but he knew when he saw it. It's the same with field trials. If a good dog is working, everyone out there is going to know it."

Well, maybe not everyone.But even for newcomers like me a field trial can be a pleasant excuse to wander around in spring fields, enjoying the best of horses and dogs and people relaxing.