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Back to the Basics to Improve the Breeding Selection Process

by Robert Milner - 20 April 2000

Our retriever breeding selection process is going backwards.

During a span of 30 years I have trained over 1,500 dogs, and have had extensive exposure to Field Trials, Hunting Retriever Tests, AKC Hunt Tests, and many, many gun dogs. During this time I have become aware of some underlying trends in the retriever population. Our dogs are getting worse. Our breeding selection process is tending to produce too high a percentage of hyperactive, uncooperative dogs.

Thirty years ago years ago a puppy from the the Field trial breeding pool would have had about a 70% to 80% probability of being a calm soft dog that the average hunter could train and control.

Today a puppy form the Field trial and Hunting Retriever breeding pools has a 40% to 50% probability of being calm enough and cooperative enough that the average hunter can train him and keep him under control.

A great deal of the cause of this phenomena is the field trial evaluation process. Field trials are evaluating and placing value on the wrong behaviors. As explained in the field trial article, field trials have evolved into a game unto itself and bearing little relevance to hunting. The behaviors evaluated for field trials have little value for hunting. In some cases, such as staying in the water, the field trial behavior has a strongly negative value for a hunting dog.

Some of the field trial behaviors, specifically lining behavior, require a great deal of repetition and some pressure to train. The dog that does well at this type training is typically too hot for the average hunter to train successfully. Either our field trial process needs to change or we need to start telling all the hunters to get a PHD in dog training.

Back to the Basics
A great model already exists for field trials that drive a breeding selection process that produces calm tractable dogs that are good family dogs and that excel in the field. I have had extensive experience with British Field Trials and with British Labradors. I will state without reservation that a puppy from British Field Trial breeding has a 95% probability of being a calm tractable gun dog that the average hunter can train and keep under control. This British dog will also better his hot American cousin at perseverance and game finding.

We need to look back to the basic British model for a breeding selection driver to reverse the present undesirable direction of our present breeding selection process. A condensation of the major differences between British and American Field trials would be:

American Field Trials
No limit on numbers - you may see as many as 90 or 100 dogs running in one 3-day open stake

Artificial setting - Theoretically the trial is run in simulated hunting conditions. The original intent was to simulate hunting conditions but the reality today is that field trials have evolved into something that doesn't even come close to simulating hunting conditions. The tests today are very contrived and very artificial.

People engineer the tests. The judges carefully place the bird throwers and fall of the birds to create hazards that in general are counter to canine behavior. Thus the game has evolved into a process of testing and evaluating artificial behaviors that may or may not have value in a hunting dog. Some of the valued field trial behaviors actually have a negative value in a hunting dog. They are detrimental to peak performance for a hunting dog.

Professional trainers are not allowed to judge. The field trial process is deprived of the main source of knowledge and experience on canine behavior, because there is no input into the testing process from professional trainers.

Each dog must get same test- dogs are thus deprived of the opportunity to demonstrate their excellence in new and varied circumstances.

British Field Trials
Limit on number of dogs running - 12 dog limit for a one-day trial; 24 dog limit for a two day trial.

Trial is run on the real thing - The dogs are evaluated during the course of a normal day's or two days' shooting

Test is determined by where the bird falls - Dogs are evaluated on how they perform. If one dog fails, another is given a chance to "wipe the eye" of the failing dog. Every test is new and different.

Professional trainers are allowed to judge - Thus the field trial process gets the benefit of their corporate body of knowledge and experience of canine behavior.

A New American Retriever Evaluation Model
To fix our current retriever breeding selection problem, we should just import the British model again. That of course is where our present field trials originated. This time we should not make the changes we did the first time.

The imported model might look like this:

Have a limit on numbers of dogs - 12 dogs for a one-day trial; 24 dogs for a two-day trial

Run trials on the real thing - Run the trial at commercial shooting preserves. With the smaller number of dogs this would be very feasible. Evaluating the dogs at the commercial preserve would be very close to the real thing. Dogs can be tested on both ducks and doves at commercial shooting operations. Leasing a dove field and then evaluating the dogs during a dove shoot would certainly be the real thing. Some of the private and duck clubs and pheasant clubs would probably donate a day or two of shooting for field trials.

Let the test be determined by where the bird falls - Then game finding initiative is tested and evaluated.

Allow and encourage professional trainers to judge - Then the process takes advantage of their considerable store of knowledge of canine behavior.

Allow and encourage professional waterfowl guides and outfitters to judge - They are the true experts on what behaviors have value in a gundog.

Stress the evaluation and value of obedience and steadiness. A new rule book reflecting these changes should be written. The Kennel Club rules for British field trials would be an excellent model. Alternatively, get some professional waterfowl guides together and have them write the rules.

Organizational Structure
For a new gundog evaluation process and system to succeed several things would need to happen. First, the new system should not try to eliminate or supplant the other retriever recreational pursuits. Retriever Field Trials and the hunting retriever competitions are a lot of fun and are great training challenges. Their adherents would only be alienated by a new system trying to claim superiority.

Second, the system would need some economic basis to be able to succeed. This could be accomplished by establishing a registration entity separate from and supplementary to the AKC. It might be called the American Gundog Society, or the American Duckdog Society, or the North American Gundog Club. This new registration agency would be open to all retrievers registered by AKC. The new agency would require that all competing dogs be registered with it, and it would charge a registration fee. It would award titles for the winners of competitions and would publish those titles on its pedigrees. Then, if the competitions had been set up properly and evaluated the behaviors valuable to a gundog, we would have a good breeding selection driver.

One would only have to go to the new agency pedigrees to identify dogs of superior caliber in gundog behaviors. Then one could breed these superior dogs to produce superior puppies. Only if the superior dogs title gets recorded on a pedigree does the program serve as a breeding selection tool. When a dog's pedigree has titles that reflect excellence in behaviors that are valuable in a gundog, then you have a valid breeding selection program that produces good gun dogs

The surest road to success for an improved breeding selection process like this would lie in it's adoption by a national organization with an existing infrastructure of local chapters, such as Ducks Unlimited or Pheasants Forever. The registration agency would generate revenue, and the improved gundog breeding selection process would make a valuable and lasting contribution to game conservation.