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Fadó, fadó,* shortly after I got my first Flatcoat, we began gundog training, of which I knew absolutely nothing. What was blindingly obvious however was that apart from Grania’s Springers, Eddie’s Irish Water Spaniels and my Flatcoat, it was a world of Labradors. Having asked, I was told that no one bothered with other breeds because they were too difficult and took too long to train. Very early I heard the accepted wisdom expressed thus, “You can train 3 Labs and 5 Labs in the time it takes to train a Golden and a Flatcoat respectively.”

Clearly these people knew what they were doing; they competed in these trials and tests that I was hearing about for the first time. It was obvious that Labs were more suited to competitions; some young dogs were way ahead of my guy whose progress was slow but whose work was fast and very flashy. No problem for me; I was always likely to stick with flashy. Yep, I’d fallen for Flatcoats and there has never been a moment when I considered a change.

Over the decades I developed a remarkable record of failure in competitions (Don’t misunderstand me; I’ve had a wonderful time in good company and beautiful places.) and never questioned that the superiority of the Lab in competition was innate.

It is only very recently that I’ve developed doubts. Firstly, I’ve been seeing and training with a few late-developing Labs. Secondly, something crucial and significant was said to me that started me thinking: “If they’re not winning field trials by two years of age, get rid of them and get another.”

Now, I’d been aware of the age preoccupation for decades but because I’d opted for a “late maturing” breed, it was of no concern to me, and I didn’t expect my dogs to be remotely competitive until they were well over five.

Something should have stirred in me as judges almost always asked only about the age of the dog, competitors expressed themselves too embarrassed to compete at novice and preliminary levels with Labs over two – perhaps three – years old, and relatively few older ones competed even at open/advanced level.

Despite the mounting evidence, I hadn’t the slightest doubt in the old wisdom until those last seven words finally settled in, “… get rid of them and get another.”

Now, apart from my family refusing ever to speak to me again, I was never remotely likely “to move along” and replace an unsuccessful friend of mine. However, assume for a moment that I’m ambitious and prepared to be ruthless, cut my losses and bring in another pup, I still have a problem. Do you see where this is going? I couldn’t get another Flatcoat pup – especially from working lines – in a short time frame and if breeders knew that I was cutting my losses, they wouldn’t sell me a pup.**

I asked some friends who compete with minor breeds to think ruthlessly. They too immediately came up against the insurmountable problem of supply.

Right so here’s what I’m suggesting and there is no criticism implied: Labradors have come to be favoured because their success is highly visible and people want to emulate. However, that success rests on a less visible foundation.

You see, if a test/trial competitor is not happy with the progress of their young dog, starting afresh is a reasonably attractive option. They can try again pretty easily. They haven’t wasted a great deal of time and effort, and they can realise the value they’ve added to the dog they now reject, i.e. their partially trained dog is valuable and in demand.

The competitions also serve as quality control to a small industry, producing reliable gundogs from proven stock. For some at least this makes two years a commercial necessity.

Now clearly nothing I’ve said here supports any substantial change of mind about the desirability of Labs as trialling dogs. It is likely that the turnover of young dogs and the industry generally has led to very refined, working stock. However, that same facility layers-on the evidence that promotes two beliefs. Firstly, that apart from odd exceptions only Labs are worth taking to competition standard. Secondly, that once a Lab reaches, say, three years old and is not in the rosettes, it’s time to pack it in. The consequence will be to discourage competitors and potential competitors of two – one might think – types: i) those with minor breeds; and ii) those with Labradors whom they are not willing to move-on.

What’s to be done? Well, little or nothing really. Those who favour minor breeds will continue to do so. Because of the belief that their dogs are slow to mature, they will feel not the slightest embarrassment in entering older dogs in competition. If there is a problem at all, it is for Labrador owners and possibly the vitality of the sport which relies almost exclusively on Labs.

Consider someone attracted to the sport – possibly a young person – who does some research and acquires a Lab pup from proven working stock. They are really pleased with their new little friend and later doubly pleased when they join a training group and begin a working relationship. For a variety of reasons their Lab doesn’t make alarming progress but they’re still enjoying an occasional outing to run in preliminary level working tests or even a tilt at novice level – and slow progress is evident. Both are learning and having fun; there’s no problem – yet! At some stage the working retriever credo is put to them: “How old is that dog? Ah, you’ll achieve nothing with it now. Get rid of it and get another. Yeah, it may have FT Chs on both sides but that’s not a guarantee.”

It’s just as demoralising if the beginner gets the dog first as a pet and then tries to turn their hand to working it.

Occasionally a newcomer will follow the advice and go on to make up a FTCh with a later dog. Very rarely one will say “feck that for a game of soldiers” and continue to try. Most will pack it in.

Of course this doesn’t matter if the idea is to refine and confine numbers but if the idea is to increase participation, it matters.

Over the years I’ve seen late developing Labs whose progress is quite like that of the minor breeds. Moreover, shooting fields are graced by thousands of early rejects who have clearly come good with maturity.

Here’s the thought and let’s confine it to fairly good working stock: Now, if the early achievers among the Labs are excluded from consideration, would age of maturity and success in competition be very different from other breeds of retriever? I’m beginning to think not and I’m beginning to think that trainers, training groups and judges owe it to the sport to encourage those with Labs of two and three years of age – as long as there’s some sign of progress – to persist.

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* It’s the Irish equivalent of the traditional storyteller’s opening, “Long, long ago …”

** I’m aware of one breeder of working Labs who will not sell to a trialer for that reason.

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I should explain at the outset that this post is very different to those that usually appear on my blog. I’m writing here about dogs, specifically retrievers. You see, I’ve been a fan of the Flatcoated Retriever (Here) for a very long time. After years away from gundogs, I acquired Stevie, aka Hallatonoak Robur, in 2009. He almost immediately rekindled my interest in working and training. I’ve been having fun with great people – in the fresh air and in beautiful locations.

As is my wont, I’ve also been thinking about these wonderful working dogs and what the 19th century people who bred selectively in order to create them were up to. My starting point is admiration for the appearance, working ability and character/temperament of primarily the Flatcoat but also the other breeds with which I’ve trained: Labradors (Here), Chesapeakes(Here), Goldens (Here) and Irish Water Spaniels (Here). [Plus an Italian Spinone (Here) years ago and a Portuguese Water Dog (Here) recently. While the former couldn’t be persuaded to retrieve, the later did retrieve but as far as I know it’s not a retriever but a water dog being put to work as a retriever and that just may echo the origins of all the retriever breeds.]

There is a long running debate in retriever circles about dogs bred for shows and dogs bred for working. This division tends to be polarised around rival archetypes which, as far as I can make out, are much worse in the imaginings of the debaters than the really existing dogs favoured by their respective camps The fear is the emergence of sub-breeds within each breed, type a) being the big beautiful show dog who no longer has any working ability, and type b) being the working dog who bears only a passing resemblance to what the breed is expected to look like.

What tends to happen is that people gravitate towards either the working or the show camp. Those interested in working – primarily those who participate in field trials (There’s a hyperlink to trials below.) can be dismissive of show dogs and their breeding. Triallers often say that they don’t care what a dog looks like as long as it can do its job. I’ve learned to take this view with a pinch of salt as there’s no evidence that anyone wants to allow cross-breeds to work and compete. Moreover, for people who don’t care about appearance, triallers spend a lot of time talking about “style” in a working dog.

Those interested in showing (Here) are almost never dismissive of working dogs. On the contrary they tend to express admiration. However, for a variety of reasons they prefer not to work their dogs.

Kennel club rules for showing and for working competitions (tests and trials) provide strong motivation for the division in that working dogs can accumulate a lot of winning rosettes before having their appearance scrutinised, while it was decided relatively recently that show dogs are allowed to become “champions” without showing any ability to work as a retriever.

The obvious response is to let them at it as long as everyone is having fun and the dogs are well treated.

There is, however, a third camp and it’s the one with which I identify. Here the view is – crudely -something like this: If it doesn’t look like a retriever AND it doesn’t work like a retriever, it isn’t a retriever. This is the view that each and every animal’s appearance should not be out of place in a show ring and that each one should be able and willing to work.

There are a couple of approaches within this dual-purpose camp. There are those who admire and want to maintain the beautiful animals with their working ability and some of these people both show their dogs and work their dogs in competition with animals bred specifically for either working or showing. Another approach is to link the gundog character/temperament to its working genes. Everyone, the argument goes, likes gundogs because they are cheerful and friendly. For this reason they are favourites as family pets. The claim is that they are like this because they’ve been bred so; the friendly outgoing character is essential to working with other dogs and humans. The fear is that if retrievers are bred for appearance alone without regard to working, the familiar temperament will decline. In short the pet owner might say something very like the third-camp position. The pet owner would probably reckon that if it doesn’t look like a retriever and hasn’t a retriever’s temperament, it isn’t a retriever.

Among those interested in working retrievers, the ambition is to make-up a field trial champion. This is achieved by winning field trials. These are competitions in which dogs are sent to retrieve freshly shot game which has been left lying to facilitate the trial. (Here) It’s a demanding standard and judges make it so. The handlers direct their dogs – often at a considerable distance – by whistles and hand signals. A successful retrieve is when the dog picks the game and returns it to hand.

The rationale is that field trials identify the very best working dogs which can then be used for breeding.

At this point I’d expect that some readers with no knowledge of gundogs will have spotted the problem. It’s this: field trials identify the dogs that are best at field trials. The question turns to the degree to which the trials are a good or an adequate test of working ability. Moreover, the nature of the work, as will emerge below, can be questioned.

Now a very tetchy debate opens up. Triallers argue that a trial IS a typical day out shooting and that the winning dog is clearly the best working dog. Others who don’t attend trials but who work their dogs picking-up (retrieving) at a driven shoot (Here) or rough shooting argue that the trialling dog is too controlled or even poorly built to impress at a day’s shooting. Essentially they are saying that a trial and a day’s shooting are very different. My view on this particular debate is that the two activities are indeed very different. However, I’ve seen no evidence that a trialling dog is anything less than very good when working at a shoot. My view in other words is that while a trial doesn’t bear a very close resemblance to a shooting day, trialling dogs are at least competent and often wonderful dogs to have at a shoot. Incidentally, the same goes for the summer working tests (here) when retrievers fetch dummies because the game season is closed; the same trialling dogs tend to win. Oddly enough, despite the identical correlation, I’ve never heard it argued that working tests on dummies can identify the best dogs.

Recently I was out “shooing” wayward pheasants back towards their pens (Here) with Mary Murray of Riverrun Chesapeakes (Her blog is here) and we did a lot of talking. (That woman is a mine of information.) What was on my mind was the making of the retriever breeds and what they were for. Because of my recent contact with Chesapeakes, I came to see what I’d read about: they are much less, let’s say, demonstrative than Flatcoats. Now, it has seemed clear to me for some time that a gundog’s character/temperament is created along with its working ability, e.g. you can’t have a dog among other dogs and among humans unless it is reasonably sociable.

However, the Chesapeake was required to do something very unlike that asked of the other retrievers: he/she was required to guard the wildfowler’s boat when it was left unattended. This “guarding” seems very much a characteristic of the breed and clearly if it is ignored or bred out, the breed will be changed. (No,no,no, I’m not saying that the Chesapeake is aggressive and needs to be treated with caution. That’s not my limited experience of hanging out with them. “Aggression” involves going forward; “Guarding” involves staying put.)

It struck me that if one were interested in maintaining the Chesapeake away from its Bay (Here) and commercial wildfowling, one would have to devise tests/trials that reflect what the dog was created to do. However, these days most – though not all – tests/trials are derived from the driven shoot. While of course the Chesapeake can compete in these, they very likely do not constitute an adequate or completely relevant test.

If I had written that last sentence a week ago, it would have appeared thus: While of course the Chesapeake can compete in these, they very likely do not constitute an adequate or completely relevant test and they equally likely confer a distinct advantage on the retriever breeds created for driven shoots. What has changed, what has upset my line of thinking?

It’s this: the driven pheasant shoot, the battue, (Here) seems to have arrived in England after 1860. (Here) Now, if one allows a couple of decades for the practice to become widespread, an odd thought begins to form: most or possibly all of the retriever breeds were established before the driven pheasant shoot became commonplace. It may be the standard workplace for a retriever today but it doesn’t seem possible that it is what they were bred to do. Sure, they’ve adapted to it and they are working well but it may not be what is required to keep the essentials and particularly the essential differences of the breeds.

Two thoughts emerge. If all retriever work were the same, there would not be the number of different breeds – especially on one island, Britain. Secondly, so very, very much of the breeding goes back to water dogs but water tends to be scarce at the battue. (I’m becoming overly fond of that bit of French!) Mind you, many of the best Labradors in Ireland spend a great deal of their time in lakes and bogs. My friend, Stevie the Flatcoat, is from the English midlands but he has taken to bogs and water like it answers some old calling.

This leads towards a conclusion that would be quite upsetting for many of those who work their retrievers. It would seem that the work they do today and the competition exercises which are based on them may be failing to test the breeds for the purposes for which they were intended. Certainly there are driven shoots – lots of them – where the birds come down in rough and inaccessible places but against that I’ve been asked in a field trial to send my dog for a bird that I’d normally walk out a pick up myself (I should add that I was always grateful to a judge for a handy retrieve!) and in working tests ludicrously easy retrieves over ground not far from lawn quality are often used to separate dogs on equal scores. These dogs were bred to find game on ground that requires exceptional scenting ability, on ground that is not easily accessible to humans, from boggy ground and water, and to work relatively independently, knowing the job better than their handler.

It may not be important that today’s dogs be brought back to face work of this kind but I just can’t see these wonderful breeds remaining relatively unchanged if this does not happen. I think it would be worth the effort to change today’s rules to ensure that it does happen.