Never the Twain Shall Meet - Really?
For years I have read and heard disparaging comments about the separation between retriever Field Trials and a typical day in the field. Field Trials are represented as an artific
ial representation of non-real scenarios designed to challenge a dog's training and not necessarily their natural ability. At the same time the demands of a day afield are often over-simplified and underrated. On top of it all is the debate that because of the specialization required to be highly successful in either discipline there is no way a dog can be expected to do both. In my experience nothing could be further from the truth.
In 2001 the Canadian National Champion Stake was held at Logan Lake, British Columbia. My good friends Todd and Corky Krollman had qualified their two great dogs, AFTCH Revilo's Kootenay Toque (NAFTCH FC AFC Aces High III X Westwind's Sweet Sally) and FTCH AFTCH AFC Revilo's Mister Willie, MH ( NFTCH AFTCH Call Me Mister Independence X Westwind's Sweet Sally) for the National. Since where I lived in Alberta was on the way from their home in Minnesota to Logan Lake they decided to stop at my place and do a little "pre-national" training.
Their training consisted of duck hunting every day for a week. Hunting was great and birds were plentiful so the dogs got lots of work. However, I must admit some concerns were building in myself. As the breeder of both dogs I wanted them to show well at the National so it was quite disconcerting to me when I noticed that both dogs began breaking on the click of the safeties as we were duck hunting. To say they were "loose" was a bit of an understatement. However, the camaraderie and building of lasting memories soon overruled those concerns.
I was filled with trepidation though as I said goodbye to the Krollman's and watched them head their rig toward Logan Lake. However, I should have had more faith in the intelligence of those great dogs. Long story short - Corky was a finalist with "Willie" in the 80 dog National, and Todd went 9 series in the National with "Toque". Not a bad showing for two dogs who had not done a classic training set-up for over a week.
Now while I would certainly not recommend the practice of pre-national training in the hunting field for everyone, there are some principles that this experience did teach me. First, the dogs know the difference between hunting and field trials. If they can't tell the difference I would suggest that they probably don't have the intelligence to be good at either. Second, dogs are like people, all work and no play can be detrimental to their attitude and that can affect their performance. Third, contrary to the opinion of many, dogs that are successful in retriever field trials are not machines. In fact most retriever field trial training involves a complexity of decision making on the dogs part that is only rivaled by hunting in the field.
My friend, the late Gunther Rahnefeld, was fond of recounting a lesson taught to him by the late Rex Carr. Gunther had been at Rex's one winter training and as he prepared to leave for home back in Manitoba, Gunther asked Rex what he should work on. Rex stepped up to Gunther and while stabbing his index finger into Gunther's chest repeated the words: "teach, teach, teach". There in lies the crux of the whole matter - TRAINING IS TEACHING. Once a concept is learned by the dog, then the dog should have the intelligence to translate that concept to whatever scenario it finds itself whether hunting or a test in a trial.
There are some who criticize that field trial dogs are too high strung for a day in a duck blind. There is no doubt that successful field trial retrievers must possess a great deal of drive. Sometimes this drive manifests itself as nervous energy. This nervous energy is certainly not a welcome thing in the confines of a duck blind or the house. While that may be true of some individuals, I suggest that "manners" are more a function of the trainer's standard than they are of the dog's.
While at Kenny Trott and Marcy Wright's Horsetooth Retrievers property near Wellington, Colorado one day I was surprised when they just turned the dogs loose when they completed a training set-up. I queried if they weren't worried the dog who had just completed its set-up wouldn't interfere with the next dog being trained. They said they weren't worried and indeed the dogs did not interfere. So much for the criticism of the high strung field trial dog.
I had an old dog named Denver (Selamat's Marsh Canvasback) who had a very successful field trial career, but was first and foremost a duck dog. In those day's one of my favorite hunting spots was a sandy beach on Last Mountain Lake, north of Regina, Saskatchewan. I had a blind set up on the beach and Denver would lie next to blind awaiting the flights of bluebills and canvasbacks that frequented the area. He would seem like he was sound asleep, but whenever a flight approached he'd know it and respond as required when there were birds down.
Over the years I have had the privilege of hunting with some very fine field trial retrievers and I must say I have never been disappointed in their performance. I will add that many of the trainers and owners of these fine dogs are also people who I have enjoyed spending a day afield with. People and dogs who enjoy hunting often participate in trials. I have often said tongue in cheek that field trials are something that we do to pass the time between hunting seasons. Of course, to be successful in field trials in this day and age that is a rather significant understatement given the time commitment, not to mention the monetary commitment to compete in the 21st century.
The demands placed on the dog in field trials are often criticized as being far removed from a hunting scenario. The distances of marks and blinds, the concept of running straight, white coats, even the complexities of the test are all areas where people point fingers and call trials unrealistic. Maybe its a function of my age and decreased shooting ability or some other factor, but it seems in my hunting experience that there are many hunting scenarios that arise in the field that are indeed very similar in distances and complexity to what is depicted in many trial scenarios.
New Year's day of 2021 was the last day of Montana's pheasant season. I could not have the season end without one more outing. My dog's and I pushed a shelterbelt on a final drive, as we approached the corner we flushed a rooster. As is often the case with these wiley late season roosters he put the trees of the shelter belt between himself and I, but I shot through an opening and hit him, not hard enough to drop him, but enough to put him into a glide that took him 600 yards into a stubble field. My girl Boo marked him down and off she went. It was a tremendous mark. When she got to the fall, the chase was on, but she came back with the bird. It was a proud moment for both of us. You want a dog that can go long.
People who detract from retriever field trials and argue they are irrelevant to hunting, also argue that the detailed training required for field trials is not applicable to producing an adequate "meat" dog. My only comment is be careful of shortcuts. I have seen many dogs whose only training was going hunting. Retrievers for the most part are intelligent and capable, especially given the genetic package that comes from a well thought out breeding of talented parents. However, those who have a higher standard of training and a higher expectation of performance level should not be criticized for that.
A few years ago I was guiding a couple of men from Arizona for waterfowl in Alberta. Each of those men had dogs who were AKC Master Hunters, one was a Chesapeake and the other a yellow Lab. One day we set up on the shore of a big lake. From the dogs perspective you could not see the other side, it was like looking out into the ocean. When the first flight of birds came in , they dumped two or three right in the decoys. The dogs just sat there even when given the command to retrieve. The hunters tried everything to get their dogs to go but to no avail. They couldn't figure out what was wrong. I could. Those dogs had never been exposed to such an expansive body of water. Where they came from they were used to working river channels and small ponds and this was intimidating for them. We finally got them convinced that it was alright and pretty soon they were going like they'd been doing it all their lives.
Dogs, like people are creatures of habit and form habits very easily. Those who choose to pursue retriever field trials are constantly striving for balance in their training routines and invest a huge amount to that end. The assistance of professional trainers in often sought to aid with this process. Successful field trial retrievers possess a regimen of concepts and habits that set them apart from other canine athletes. I believe that most are more that qualified for a day in the field and more than deserving of it. They certainly should not be criticized for their overachievement and in reality should be applauded for it.
Perhaps the real debate regarding retriever field trials and hunting is more about the mechanics of field trials than about the dogs themselves or the training methodology to help a dog become competitive. That as they say is a point for future discussion.