On the fifth of April of this year I made a trip to Yampa, Colorado to rendezvous Boo (Revilo's Boogie Nights) with Deke (FC AFC Horsetooth's Penalty Shot) in hopes of producing another Revilo litter. Deke has been recovering from a deep muscle shoulder injury and rehabbing with Joel Harris' Rocky Mountain Pet Resort under the tutelage of Sarah Love. Fortunately he is fully recovered and was very happy to see Boo again. As this was a repeat breeding it did not take long for them to become reacquainted but as they say that is another story.
In addition to running a boarding facility Joel and Sarah are active field trialers and Labrador lovers. Sarah was away healing the world but Joel and I had a great time getting to know each other. It was the first time we had met and speaking for myself, I found much in common as is often the case when "dog people" get together. Joel is a very personable gentleman, who has been around dogs and the dog world for sometime so has a wealth of experience. He has a great young Clooney pup, Brother, who I predict will keep Joel enthused about the game for sometime to come.
As Joel and I visited over a burger at one of the local establishments one evening he asked the question which often comes up in conversations within the retriever community. The question was could the great dogs of yesteryear compete successfully under today's competitive regimen? Hmmm.
During the winter doldrums of this past winter I did some reading that I found very relevant to giving me a different perspective to the answer to this question. The first book I read was Fred Kampo and Carolyn McCreesh's book "The History of Retriever Field Trials in America the early years 1931-1941". The second book was the "Handbook of Amateur Field Trials Ten Year Edition, 1951-1961" prepared by The Double Headers and published by the National Amateur Retriever Club. Both of these books were gifted to me by Marcy Wright of Horsetooth Retrievers and are a treasure beyond measure.
On page 34 of the Kampo and McCreesh book is a great quote by Mrs. Walton Ferguson who judged the 1935 Labrador Retriever Club trial on November 23 and 25 of that year. She wrote this about Blind of Arden who was one of the dogs she judged that weekend.
"He is the keenest Labrador I ever saw, is a perfect marker, has beautiful pickup, carry and delivery and with all his keenness and quality, he is under the most absolute control...If his handler spoke to him, I did not hear it. A motion of the hand or a low whistle was all he needed and that perfect control has taken nothing away from his natural qualities...He is a willing, eager, intelligent worker, giving all he has every minute. Absolutely steady at heel, to wing and shot and during the drive without a word being spoken to him. He watches everything all the time, marks perfectly and on being ordered to retrieve, goes out as fast as possible for a dog to go right to the fall and not short of it, and comes in the same way...On his third (retrieve) a bird was shot which sailed over a hill a long distance away and fell out of sight. Blind marked the line of flight, as the fall could not be seen. On being ordered to retrieve from where he stood, he raced to the top of the hill and over out of sight. The judges and his handler then started to walk up the hill when Blind suddenly appeared on the hilltop looking to see where his handler was. A motion of his handler's hand sent him on again and before judges and handler reached the top of the hill Blind came back at full speed with his bird. It was evident that on going out over the hilltop, able to mark only the line of flight and not the fall, he missed the bird on his first cast and looking back was unable to see his handler. Wishing to make sure of his handler's position, he came back to the top of the hill to make sure where his handler was. Seeing him, he was at once reassured and he made a further cast out of sight of judges and handler and found his bird. Such a dog is using his intelligence and he will not waste his time or the handler's time in being uncertain of his own or his handler's position. I have never seen a better retriever than Blind or a more intelligent dog, or a better trained one."
Certainly this is a very flattering description of Blind's work at one trial but I think it serves to illustrate from the judge's perspective some of the criteria used to evaluate the dog work in those early trials. In 1937 Tony Bliss who was President of the American Chesapeake Club and who's Chesacroft Kennels had long been a producer of top Chesapeake's wrote an article in which he stated "accurate marking is the most valuable and the rarest asset that a dog can have...It is a natural ability that can seldom be taught." He went on to conclude the article with this statement "fundamental natural intelligence, keenness, and ability are the foundation of every useful working dog."
These quotes seem to indicate that the qualities valued in the dogs of yesteryear are the same as the ones valued in today's dogs. There is no doubt that the methods of testing to evaluate those qualities has changed over the years. In the early trials gunners were instructed to try and not kill the birds as work on cripples was an important criteria to evaluate a dogs natural abilities. Use of live decoys was another difference. Shackled birds were used in water tests. Walk up tests were more common with the associated practice of "eye wiping" (when the dog originally sent for a fall is unable to come up with the bird, another dog is sent and if it successfully finds the bird this is called wiping the eye of the original dog).
In May of 1939 at a trial held in Mound, Minnesota, with a gallery of 3000 people an open water test was set up. A row of decoys lay about 100 yards from the shore. Down the lakeshore, 500 yards distant, a duck was shot into a stand of rushes. Each of the dogs was required to enter the blind and wait for the gunners to shoot the duck. Then the handler sent the dog out through the decoys and directed him to swim parallel to the lake shore toward the bird. After twenty five minutes of swimming the dog would reach the rushes and search for the bird, then return. That's a test, even by today's sophisticated standards.
There is no doubt that today's methodologies are more refined both in training and testing our dogs. Much more consideration is given today to consistency in tests. while, there is probably not much argument that today's dogs are better handling dogs - whether they are more controlled may be debatable. Could the dogs of yesteryear compete with the dogs of today in today's trials - probably not. Could the dogs of today compete with the dogs of yesteryear in the early trials being judged by the criteria of yesteryear - probably not.
Given that the dogs of today all have descended from the dogs of yesterday the real question is have we improved the breeds? For example, consider the number of cruciate injuries we are seeing in today's field trial competitors. It could be that the type of physical demands our current tests require are resulting in more injuries. Perhaps it is numbers thing i.e. there are more dogs competing now so one expects more injuries. Maybe those injuries just weren't reported or understood earlier, i.e. we are more sophisticated and have better technology and science to help in understanding the problem. Someone smarter than me can take that one on.
Those early trials were social events with huge galleries of 1,000 or 2,000 or 3,000 people at times. Today's trials certainly don't have those kind of numbers. Maybe that's a good thing, the numbers of competing activities are no doubt more numerous. I think it may be interesting to consider why this disparity exists.
I think I am rambling and so I better end this blog by stating that I am a great fan of the dogs of yesteryear. They have contributed to where we are today. I still believe with all my heart that the greatest dogs in the world are right here on this continent and years of competition have helped in creating the wonderful animals we have the privileges' of standing beside each day.