Hunting seasons come slowly and vanish quickly. After one vanishes, we can clean/oil our shotguns and put them away until next year-—ditto for our boots. We can store our decoys. But we can’t stash our retrievers away.
Besides, who would want to? Certainly not our dog-owning forebears! So, over the years, those noble souls developed several off-season dog games to simulate hunting (more or less), to help them breed better dogs and to satisfy their gregarious instincts. Let’s take a hunter’s look at each of these games in chronological order.
American Field Trials
The first American Kennel Club (AKC) retriever trial was held in December 1931 by the Labrador Retriever Club, Inc. (LC). For years before that, informal retriever trials (called “water trials”) had been going on, especially around the Chesapeake Bay, and mostly for the breed bearing that Bay’s name. The Field Dog Stud Book (FDSB) also sponsored an early form of retriever field trials, but these fell by the wayside as AKC trials grew in popularity. Thus we tend to think of that first AKC trial as the starting point for retriever field trials in America.
Six factors included in these trials from the beginning have encouraged them to become ever-more challenging over the years. First, they were made competitive, which led to improved breeding and training and more difficult field trial tests.
Second, entries were unlimited, so more and more dogs competed year after year, especially after the post-World War II economic recovery.
Third, the time allowed for each trial, and therefore each stake in each trial, is quite limited: three days in which to run four stakes, so about a day and a half per stake.
Fourth, in 1941 AKC inaugurated the annual national championship trial, followed in 1957 by the annual national amateur championship. To qualify for these prestigious trials a retriever must win so many points in regular trials during the year. This has kept titled dogs running, trial after trial, year after year.
Fifth, for fairness’ sake, the rules specify that all dogs in a given stake at a given trial must run the same tests; therefore tests have always been artificial simulations designed by the judges, not random hunting situations.
Sixth, the judges have always had almost unlimited authority in designing tests.
Now, put yourself in the position of a judge. You have about a day and a half to pick a winner from a huge entry, say 60 dogs, of mostly professionally trained retrievers, including many that already have field trial titles. You must run at least four series (or tests): land marks; water marks; land blinds; and water blinds.
To complete your assignment on time, you must eliminate many dogs in each series. Thus, you must make each test so challenging that about half of the dogs will fail and be dropped. Then the trainers go home and train for those tests, so next time you must set up more challenging tests. And so on, through all these years. It should surprise no one that retriever field trial tests are so long, so complex, and so full of traps that no ordinary hunting retriever would survive long.
Please understand: Any dog that can succeed in these extremely difficult field trial tests can succeed in any “ordinary day’s hunting.” Ergo, successful field trial dogs can be great hunters.
But if you’re simply interested in having a competent retriever with which to hunt, you probably won’t want to involve yourself in the extensive and complex training field trials require. Later on, maybe, but not immediately.
With the booming post-WWII economy, dog shows, another fiercely competitive sport, also grew in popularity. To participate seriously in either shows or field trials is a full-time “hobby”; to participate successfully in both is more than challenging.
Many dog show folks wanted to demonstrate the working ability of their stock in a less challenging program than field trials, so each of the retriever national breed clubs designed breed-specific non-competitive (pass/fail) working certificate (or working dog) tests, with after-the-name titles (WC, WCX, WD, WDX, WDQ) so the successful dogs’ pedigrees would indicate their field ability.
These tests vary from breed to breed, from the most basic single marks to advanced multiple marks, honoring, and blind retrieves.
For the hunter, the greatest benefit in these tests comes in studying pedigrees before buying a new puppy. Actual participation benefits mostly conformation breeders interested in maintaining the working ability of their stock.
The late Richard Wolters, while writing this column from 1981-1986, became a modern-day Christopher Columbus. Ol’ Chris set out to find a sea route to the Indies and stumbled onto America. Mr. Wolters set out to establish a “Hunters’ Stake” for AKC’s competitive field trials and he stumbled onto non-competitive hunt tests. Both Ol’ Chris and Mr. Wolters were intelligent enough to realize what they had discovered; both went with it, and thereby benefited many less venturesome souls.
Today, three organizations sponsor separate but similar hunt-test formats: AKC, UKC, and NAHRA.
Each of these formats has three progressive testing levels. Across the board they have eliminated two of the factors that have made field trials so complex and challenging: Hunt tests are non-competitive; and the judges have very definite limits on their test-designing authority. The other four field trial factors, including annual nationals, are present in the highest level, and have made that level increase in difficulty over the years. In fact, I call it the “trainer’s level,” because it appeals to those who make a full-time hobby out of retriever training.
However, the middle level, which I call the “hunter’s level,” has smaller entries and no annual nationals, so it’s quite stable. It tests everything the everyday hunter needs in a “brag” retriever: Double marks with honoring on land and in water; single blind retrieves on land and in water.
The lowest level, which includes only single marks on land and in water, is very basic, a good place to start a new pup on his life’s work. If you’re a hunter looking for a “sensible” dog game, check out the middle level of these hunt tests. Later you may or may not want to move up to the highest level.
This is the only retriever dog game available today using real hunting as its environment and having reasonable limits on entries. As in hunting, each dog gets different tests, so at the end of the trial, the judges determine the winner by deciding which dog did the most with what it had to work with.
It’s very much like poker. If a group plays together long enough, each player will be dealt the same number of good, mediocre, and bad hands. But the one who consistently plays his cards well will be the big winner overall.
Try these British-style trials; you’ll probably like them!