“BANG!” Firing a shotgun blank alerts the gun dog and its handler that the trial has begun. Four birds—dead ducks or pheasants—get launched to land at prearranged distances. Then the training begins to show.
Properly, the dog follows each bird in the air and “marks” where it lands. But the dog remains immobile, at “heel.” If it budges beforehand, that “break” disqualifies it. After the fourth bird lands, the handler speaks the dog’s name, which “releases” the dog to retrieve. The dog returns each bird in turn, giving it up on the command “drop it.” Then the dog goes after the next target—its memory of the landing point slowly fading. All the while, judges watch to see if the dog has closely tracked and recalled the landing spot. Excessive meandering around in the general direction of the bird until it is found counts for less than a definite retrieval. Even champions have off days.
“The dog needs to show the judges that he or she really knew where that duck was,” explains Rick Whaley, president and CEO, Citizens Bank of Americus, Ga.
Success depends on training, experience, inborn talent, and a strong relationship with the handler. And the trial or “stake” that you’ve just read about represents the first, and easiest, round of three or four that field dogs compete in.
Field trials simulate actual hunting experiences, and that’s how Whaley first became interested. An avid duck hunter, he’d long admired how well the Labrador retrievers and other breeds used by outfitters or hunting companions did their job. Eight years ago, says Whaley, “I decided I wanted to get my own Lab.” Today, he and his wife, Virginia, own five: Tillman, the eldest at nine; Georgia; Colby; Reese; and Jagger, the youngest at five.
“These five Labs are our children,” says Whaley. The retrievers sleep in their own cages in the couple’s room each night. Each of the dogs has been progressing through the various classes of gun dog trials, beginning with the “derby” for youngsters and culminating in higher classes, depending on whether the dog is handled by an amateur owner-handler or a professional.
Field trials, as described by Whaley, are a canine art form, depending on the dog’s abilities and the trust between handler and retriever. In a four-stake competition, those dogs making it past the first trial next face turned tables. They are prevented from seeing the birds’ landings. Instead, they are released by the handler and guided by hand signal and then voice commands to the vicinity of the game. When they are near where the handler marked the fall, the handler blows a whistle and the dog turns to face the handler and seeks out the bird with more commands.
“That’s a trained ability,” says Whaley. Unlike the first trial, “that’s not a natural ability of a Lab.” And handlers can lose control over the dog, which costs points or may cause dismissal from the event.
The next trial involves blind retrievals on the water. “When you start putting water into the equation, it changes things,” says Whaley. While breeds like Labs love the water, control, obedience, accuracy, and delivery are the standards the judges regard. When the water is cold, a dog may want to find a dry way to its target, but the straight-line approach is the goal, and they’ll take it when training and handler work. Even a dog’s natural instinct to jump a ditch straight across must be overcome, if the angle of retrieval ordered calls for a diagonal leap.
Whaley explains that such situations simulate true hunting experiences, when the dog may not see where a struck bird has fallen. “There’s a lot of teamwork,” says Whaley. “The dog has to trust you and believe you are sending it in the right direction.”
Finally, the most advanced test involves dogs seeing the birds landing on water and retrieving on water even though instinct might suggest going around the obstacle on dry land. (The birds float—diving isn’t an issue.) The furthest falls may be a football-field swim away.
“The dogs love the sport,” says Whaley. “But winning a field trial is a very difficult thing to do.” The love of the breeds and the sport bond even competitors. Whaley says along the way, he’s received much help from fellow enthusiasts. None of his dogs have attained titles yet, though Colby has three points toward the ten required of a field champion.