It had been snowing for seven hours. The horses were fetlock deep in the stuff, snorting steam. Dogs tethered to ground stakes were yelping and snapping at the flakes. The orange glow of a fire flickered through the windows of a stucco cottage.

Inside the cottage, eggs and bacon were cooking for a dozen men and women who were sipping coffee and talking about dogs.

"They all pick on my little dog," said Norm Dixon, a round-faced man with blue-green eyes and the best amateur shooting dog in Maryland. Dixon's 5-year-old English pointer, Spot, has won the state amateur title twice. This morning, before the start of the last field trial of the year, he was leading again, only by a half-length of a dog's tongue.

"My dog Lightning is nibbling right on his rear," said Arnold Treadway, a bird dogger from Essex, Md., who has gone through 40 dogs in the last 20 years looking for one good enough to outsniff, outpoint and generally outclass the best in the state. In Lightning, a 3-year-old English pointer, he thinks he has finally found him. But he will only admit that under pressure.

"Don't ever brag on your dog," said Treadway, a large man wearing a green camouflage outfit topped by a green hat decorated in dog show pins. "The day you do, it will lay down on you."

Dawn arrived Sunday behind a thick, white, snow screen. Maryland's fields, farmhouses and barns resembled a giant gallery of Currier and Ives paintings.

But for the competitors at the Potomac Valley Field Trials, some of them from as far away as western Pennsylvania and many towing horse trailers, the roads were just something to endure. Of course none of these folks claimed to be absolutely sane.

"You gotta be more devoted to bird dogs than your family," said Tom Brigman of Baltimore, who belongs to the National Capital Field Trial Club, one of about eight such clubs in Maryland and at 70, the second oldest in the country.

Field trials are a test of skill for dogs and their trainers. With trainers following on horseback, the dogs are set loose to sniff out live birds that have been planted over an outdoor course. The speed of the find and the intensity of the point are what separate a good dog from a great one. It also helps to have doggish good looks.

"You need a good-looking dog because basically this is still a dog show," said Norman Basilone, a professional trainer from New Jersey who worked with a five-time national champion in the 1970s.

There are a few hundred people in this country who make their living training bird dogs. More often, owners spend a good portion of their earnings to compete on the trial circuit.

"If you win something every week, it will pay for the dog food," said Treadway, who travels to half a dozen states each spring and fall to compete. Ask Treadway how much money he spends each year on his hobby and he winces. Ask him why he continues to compete and he answers immediately.

"It's the old American way," he smiles. "Competition."

"A lot of owners don't want to admit it, but the dogs are extensions of their egos," said Basilone, who estimates it costs owners an average of about $400 a month to "campaign" a dog.

Dixon is one owner who doesn't mind admitting to vicarious thrills.

"I like competition, but I can't do anything with my own body so I got to do it through my dog," said Dixon, who says he is realistically unrealistic about the quality of his dog. "All of us have a tendency to think our dogs are better than they are. Just like our kids."

To see a good bird dog in action is to see a four-legged, fast-moving, work of art. The best pick up a scent, follow it with tails cracking above them, then freeze in a point, tail still and pointing to the sky.

The relationship between owner and dog is much like that between a professional and a coach.

"You don't play with these dogs, bring them into your home like a normal dog," said Treadway, who trains his dogs at night after a full day working in his garage. "You train them and work them, train them and work them. Then when they work right, you just love them up."

Treadway's dog Lightning seemed as anxious to work as his owner. The course at River Hill Farms, a hunting preserve near Columbia, Md., was a beautiful patchwork of fields, brush and hedgerows.

But with all the dogs and owners waiting in the cottage for the snow to stop, S. J. (Smokey) Hiles, a bird dogger and organizer of the weekend event announced that it was canceled. The terrain was too steep and slick with snow to risk riding horses over. The disappointment was obvious, but no one argued the decision.

"The first consideration has got to be for our animals, not our egos," said Hiles, a red-haired woman in her late 40s who wears a blue Stetson hat and quotes Plato.

The cancellation left Dixon and Treadway in a tight race for the Maryland amateur title. The showdown will come next spring when the two resume competition for the second half of the season.

Dixon said he and Spot will be ready for the chase.