British Labradors as Product of British Retriever Field Trials for Breeding Selection

Breeze, Twig, Holway Ruby

 Working Labradors in England are heavily influenced by the relatively small population of Labradors that are actively bred and trained for competition in retriever field trials. The defining characteristics of this field trial population are not looks or appearance but rather temperament, behavior and trainability. The typical successful field trial Labrador  In England tends to be calm of temperament, typically easy to train, a high degree  of gamefinding initiative and has a tendency toward natural good manners and tends to have a genetically inherited tendency to deliver a retrieve to hand. There are two major factors driving the breeding selection that tends to produce these characteristics of dogs in the field trial population. Those breeding selection drivers are (1) a culture of gentle training methods, and (2) the behavioral requirements of a successful field trial dog.

  Gentle Training Culture

 The British retriever field trial sector is characterized by a culture of gentle positive training methods. The practice of force fetch training is nearly never encountered in England. Delivery to hand is in the main accomplished by breeding selection for natural delivery to hand. A typical puppy of British field trial breeding has a natural tendency to deliver to hand. All the owner needs to do is reinforce that tendency by rewarding it at the appropriate times.

 British field trials are restricted to 12 dogs in a one-day event or 24 dogs in a two-day trial. A further limit is that of a maximum of two dogs handled by the same handler in a field trial. These numeric limits will not economically support a structure that includes a lot of professional trainers. Because of that basic structure of field trials, nearly all competing field trial Labradors in England are trained and handled by their owners. When that amateur owner encounters a dog that is too “hot” to train to field trial standards by traditional gentle training, the dog is generally found a new home. A more suitable field trial candidate is then sought. Thus breeding selection tends to favor dogs that are fairly sensitive and tractable. Incidentally, the use of the term “professional” and “amateur” is not appropriate to the British field trial system. The British Field Trial Regulations do not differentiate between a professional and an amateur.

 Behavioral Requirements for a Winning Field Trial Dog

 British retriever field trials are run in shooting environments and settings that are very different from American shooting, but the gundog behaviors those field trials require are perfect for American shooting. To become a winner, the typical field trial retriever must exhibit good manners in extremely high distraction environment and they must demonstrate game-finding initiative and hunting persistence. Typically the trials will consist of two types of scenario, driven birds and walked-up birds. The British shooting scenario is a little different than that of American shooting, but the behaviors required of the retrievers is very similar. The major important behaviors are:

 1. Exhibit Good Manners in an extremely high distraction environment

 2. Demonstrate game-finding initiative and hunting persistence

 3. Leave the short visible dead birds and go for long unseen cripple when so instructed.

 Exhibit good manners in extremely high distraction environment.

  Driven pheasants comprise a large part of British shooting. Pheasants are driven from cover and above pre-stationed shooters. The shooting is usually fast and furious with many birds being dropped around the guns. The dog must sit quietly at heel during pheasant drives during which dozens of shot pheasants fall all around the dog. (I once saw a falling pheasant bounce off a dog’s shoulder and the dog remained sitting) A drive typically lasts 15 to 20 minutes or more, during which time the dogs are expected to sit calmly and quietly.

  Walkups constitute the other major scenario of British Field Trials. Here a line of beaters walks line abreast across a field. Interspersed across the line are 4 to 6 shooters, and probably 4 dogs under judgment. As the line progresses the dogs must walk quietly at heel while the birds are flushed and shot. After several birds are down the line halts, and the birds are retrieved. The dogs must walk quietly at heel with no badgering from handler. They must remain quietly at heel during flushing and shooting of birds. Wounded birds or “runners” are retrieved first. Whether it is a marked (seen fall) or blind (unseen fall) depends upon whether the next dog up to run happened to see it or not. The judges judge the dog’s performance the same in either case.

The walked-up bird gets interesting when it is a big cock pheasant which is only slightly hit and sails off to go down 75 yards in front of the line. When a dog is sent for this bird, he is expected to go to the area of the fall, find the blood trail, and track down the wounded pheasant. Furthermore he is expected to ignore the freshly flushed birds that may spring up as he makes his way along the wounded bird’s trial. Chasing freshly flushed birds will cause his elimination. The dog must stick to the wounded bird’s trail and collect him, or the dog will be dropped from competition.

 Demonstrate game-finding initiative and hunting persistence

 On driven birds, the dogs not only get the opportunity to demonstrate their steadiness in the face of immense temptation, they also get the opportunity to demonstrate their game-finding initiative and their hunting persistence. At the end of the drive, the judges will ask each dog to pick up a particular bird. The judges will select the wounded birds first. Thus the dog may be required to ignore several birds lying in plain sight out front and take line of to the left toward a cripple, which the dog did not see, downed 150 yards off in dense cover, out of sight of the handler. The handler sends the dog off on a line, handles him up to the cover and casts him into it. Then it is all up to the dog. If he finds the bird he is a star, if he fails to find it, he is out of the trial.

 The Cream Rises to the Top

 The British have one custom in their retriever field trial which helps insure that the best dogs tend to win at field trials. That custom is the eye-wipe. When one dog fails to find a bird for which he has been sent, then the next dog up is sent for the bird. If the second dog succeeds, he is said to have wiped the eye of the first dog. If both dogs fail, then typically both are dropped, under the premise that they had the opportunity of picking up the scent trail while is was still fresh and they failed to do so.

The British Retriever Field Trial system has done an excellent job of preserving the genetics of a good working gundog. A British Labrador whose pedigree has a good sprinkling of British Field Trial Winners and British Field Trial Champions will have a high probability of having the behavioral tendencies which lead to proficiency in the three major behavioral elements of success in British Field Trials:

 1. Exhibit Good Manners in an extremely high distraction environment

 2. Demonstrate game-finding initiative and hunting persistence

 3. Leave the short visible dead birds and go for long unseen cripple

 In general one would expect such a dog to exhibit a calm temperament, to be tractable, and sensitive and easily trained by a relatively inexperienced trainer. One would also expect that dog to have lots of gamefinding initiative and hunting perseverance.  These behavioral traits are important to the hunter and his gundog whether the dog is competing in a field trial in the UK or whether he retrieving ducks shot on Chesapeake Bay.

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