One sunday morning last September, a nice old lady took a walk along the Bronx River in Scarsdale, New York and met a grumpy middle-aged man with a large black dog. "What kind of dog is that, sir?" she asked. "It's a Labrador retriever," said the man. "What does it do?" said the lady. "It retrieves ducks," said the man. "I beg your pardon?" said the lady. "Here," said the man, "I'll show you." He commanded the dog to sit, then gave it a hand signal toward a clump of brush 100 feet down the path. The Labrador raced toward the brush, plunged into the thick of it and emerged with a plump mallard drake in his mouth, which he delivered to the man.
"My goodness!" said the lady. "Does he always do that?" "No, ma'am," said the man. "Sometimes he retrieves a pheasant. Like this." He flicked his hand toward a tangle of grass on the other bank of the creek, and the dog swam the creek and dashed into the grass. In a minute he found a dead pheasant and, holding it tenderly in his mouth, he swam the creek and delivered it to the man's hand.
"Well, I declare," said the lady. "You mean that any time you want a duck or a pheasant you just send this creature out and he brings one back?" "Yes, ma'am," said the man and walked on with the dog at heel.
I know this story to be true, for the black dog was mine and the man was I. The day before I had been to a field trial of the Shrewsbury River Retriever Club in New Jersey, and after the trial (which I'm happy to report my dog's sire won) I had bought a fresh-shot pheasant and duck to use in training my young Labrador retriever to make blind retrieves. Earlier that morning I had walked down to the park alone and tossed the dead duck and pheasant into the thick cover, and the old lady met me as I was bringing the dog along the path near the hidden birds. Probably if I had breakfast I'd have explained that normally retrievers bring back pheasants and ducks only when somebody has just shot them and that they are bred and trained to work with gunners, retrieving downed birds—especially ducks, which often fall in open or running water, and pheasants, which often run long distances even when mortally wounded. (I might even have told her that my Labrador once retrieved a six-pound crown roast of lamb from somebody's back porch and that, even though we made inquiries, we never found out where it came from.)
October 28, 1957
If she'd been spoiling for a lengthy discussion I might have explained that retrievers recover tens of thousands of upland game birds that would otherwise never be found in thick cover and hundreds of thousands of wildfowl that would float away on a tide or river before the gunner could pick them up by boat or wading.
I'd have declared that as the ratio of game to gunner decreases there must be a shift of emphasis from limit bags (even reduced limit bags) to other pleasurable aspects of wing shooting—and a well-trained dog can immensely enhance the enjoyment of a day afield. The duck hunter who formerly got most of his satisfaction from difficult shots well-executed will find that a good retriever beside him in the blind, or walking at heel as he jumps pothole ducks from a marsh, will add a new dimension of interest and pleasure to his sport, not merely by its enthusiasm and style in retrieving game but by providing a kind of companionship that is silent but quite real.
And I'd have pointed out that the training of his own dog is a task in which the gunner may find rewards of satisfaction that no number of dead birds in the freezer can provide.
Kinds of gun dogs
Gun dogs are of three types: bird dogs (which locate birds on the ground and point them until the hunter comes up and flushes them into the air), spaniels (which locate birds on the ground and flush them into the air whether the gunner is ready or not) and retrievers (which are generally trained to stay at heel or in the blind until ordered to retrieve a dead or wounded bird). Many bird dogs are trained to retrieve (the Brittany spaniel does so naturally), and some gunners use their retrievers to locate and flush upland game.
The Labrador retriever
Sometime during the 17th and 18th centuries, along the coast of Newfoundland, a remarkable breed of dog came into being. Its ancestors had almost certainly come from Europe and probably included the famous black hounds of St. Hubert. By 1800 two distinct types had developed: one so large and heavy it was often used to haul carts and sleds, the other smaller, smoother-coated and used by local hunters to retrieve wildfowl from the cold, rough sea and by fishermen to retrieve fish escaping from the net. (Most retrievers can be taught to retrieve a played-out trout or salmon.)
When the two types were brought to England about 1800 the smaller dog came to be known variously as the Newfoundland, the lesser Newfoundland, the St. John's dog and the Labrador. (Some authorities believe the latter two were separate types of sub-breeds.) When Colonel Peter Hawker in his Advice to Young Sportsmen (1814) praised the sporting qualities of the smaller dog and referred to it as the Labrador, the name stuck.
By the year 1885, the Labrador was firmly established as a sporting breed in Britain, particularly in the Border Country of Scotland. In 1904 a Labrador was entered in a field trial at Sherborne, England, where it won a certificate of merit, and by 1910 the breed was recognized as supreme among retrievers. The qualities which made it so were (and are) intelligence, train-ability, keenness of scent, resourcefulness, speed on land and in water, courage and perseverance, a notably amiable disposition and, above all, the indescribable quality called style.
In the United States the Labrador is by far the most popular of the retrieving breeds. Until the middle '30s the Lab and the Chesapeake ran neck-and-neck in American Kennel Club registrations (126 compared to 178 in 1935), but by 1956 there were 5,510 Labradors to 803 Chesapeakes, with the golden retriever in between with 2,604 registrations.
The Chesapeake Bay retriever
The Chesapeake is another descendant of the great Newfoundland breed.
In 1807 the ship Canton rescued the crew of a sinking Newfoundland brig bound for England and landed the rescued men and two puppies at Norfolk, Virginia. These puppies became the rootstock of the Chesapeake Bay retriever, a breed renowned for toughness, courage and willingness. Probably the rescued Newfoundlands were crossed with local yellow-and-tan 'coon hounds, with perhaps a soup√ßon of spaniel thrown in; at any rate the Chesapeake soon became a favorite of market gunners and baymen in the region, where commercial wildfowling was big business and a good retriever was money in the bank. The baymen were ruthless in weeding out unsound or unwilling animals, until the breed was famous for ruggedness of body and mind, with a disposition somewhat less tractable than the Labrador's and a coat so thick and water-resisting that the Chesapeake can work comfortably through the worst winter weather.
Critics of the Chesapeake find them too surly to train easily and too slow-moving in the field. But the gunner who wants a stouthearted, hard-working and virtually weatherproof retriever to share his blind or pit will insure the Chesapeake's survival so long as wildfowl fly and winters are bitter cold.
The golden retriever
About 1860 an English gentleman saw a troupe of eight taffy-colored Russian sheep dogs in a circus and was so charmed by their intelligence and friendly nature that he bought the lot. When interbreeding had caused some deterioration (and the Englishman had become Lord Tweedmouth), the dogs were trial-crossed with several other breeds. In 1870 a bloodhound cross was tried; the result was a smaller, shapelier dog with the good qualities of both sides of the family, particularly a keen nose, high intelligence, beauty of coat and conformation and a gentle, affectionate nature. It was called the golden retriever and has grown steadily in popularity since the beginning of the century (despite a few cynics who scoff at the story above as romantic poppycock and even say the golden is simply a true-breeding color variation of the black flat-coated retriever).
Retriever field trials
A Labrador retriever sits beside his handler in a field. He has been trained since puppyhood to retrieve dead and wounded ducks and pheasants. He is keyed up and vibrantly eager to get to work, now that his handler has brought him up to the "line." Suddenly a wounded pheasant bursts from the tall grass a few feet from the dog and runs straight at him; the Labrador has scarcely to move to seize the crippled bird in his jaws, then turn and present it alive and kicking to his handler.
This happened at a retriever field trial recently, and the Lab's reward for his quick reflex action was immediate disqualification and elimination from the contest. For, technically, the dog had "run in"—retrieved a bird without a specific command from his handler—and, except for biting the seat out of a judge's pants or eating a retrieved bird, there are few worse crimes a field-trial retriever can commit, since he's supposed to be under his handler's control at all times after coming to the line.
Basically a field trial—both the national events and the fast-growing numbers of small, local trials—is an effort to reproduce conditions that might be found in a normal day's shooting and to judge the competing retrievers on their ability to cope with normal problems. Not infrequently a losing handler will complain that a test on which his dog failed had no relation to field conditions, but it's hard to imagine any field-trial test that might not be duplicated under actual hunting conditions. (In his valuable book, Training Your Retriever, James Lamb Free scoffs at such complainers and says, "...I feel that any retriever taking up the time of the judges in an Open All-Age Stake should be expected to do...anything but answer the telephone and take a message.")
For example, a hunter in the field might shoot three ducks as they flew through a pass and want his dog to retrieve first the one drifting away on the tide, remembering where each of the other two had fallen in dense growth and retrieving them after getting the one from the water. This condition can be easily duplicated by having three ducks shot (or three shackled live ducks tossed into the air) within the dog's view as it sits beside its handler; the judge will tell the handler which duck is to be retrieved first and will indicate when the dog is to be sent out.
It's not unusual in the field for a dog to be retrieving one pheasant from heavy cover, when another gets up, is wounded and flies two or three hundred yards to another field. Since the dog was unable to see this action the hunter will want to direct him to the wounded bird by a simple set of hand signals. Therefore most field trials—exceptions are the Derby, Junior and Non-Winners Stakes—will include at least one "blind retrieve," in which the handler directs the dog to a distant bird by whistling him to instant attention, then sending him left, right or back until he scents and retrieves the hidden game. Here the ability of the dog to "take a line"—travel a straight line in the direction his handler points out to him until he hits the scent of the bird or is given a signal to change directions—is important.
One series at a recent eastern trial required each dog, from a point on the shore of a circular one-acre pond, to retrieve a duck floating about 20 feet out from the bank almost directly across the pond. Most of the dogs plunged straight into the water, swam across the pond, retrieved the duck and swam back with it. One Labrador, when his turn came, raced around the edge of the pond to a point opposite the duck, jumped in and retrieved it, swam back to the same point and raced back overland to its handler, making much faster time than the dogs that swam the whole way.
"Isn't that dog smarter than the others?" asked a bystander. "Didn't he bring back the duck a lot quicker? Wouldn't most gunners rather have that dog working for them in the field?" "That's true," said the dog's owner, a veteran of field trials, sadly, as the judges turned thumbs down on his ingenious animal. "But if you were the judge, you'd vote for the dog that hit the water with a grand splash and took a straight, brave line to the bird. And dammit, so would I."
Most of the dogs at top field trials today are entered by wealthy amateur breeders, many with extensive kennels and professional trainers and handlers. Yet it's possible for the sportsman of moderate means to invest in one good young Labrador or golden, train it himself, kennel it in the house, handle it himself at trials and even see it become a Field Trial Champion. He can get all the sound training advice he needs from the James Lamb Free book or from P.R.A. Moxon's Gundogs: Training and Field Trials. The former is a real boon to the novice trainer, and the latter (Popular Dogs Publishing Co., Ltd., 1952) is also excellent. And don't think that women won't find training a retriever rewarding, either. A number of them have distinguished themselves as field-trial handlers, particularly...say, whatever happened to that nice old lady? She was last seen going which way? Like a bat out of where? Oh.
RETRIEVER FIELD TRIALS FOR FALL 1957
Women's Field Trial Club, Amagansett, N.Y., October 25-27.
Swamp Dog Club, East Goshen Township, Chester County, Pa., November 1-3.
Labrador Retriever Club, Southampton, N.Y., November 8-10.
National Retriever Field Trial, Inc., U.S. Wildlife Refuge, Bombay Hook, Del., November 14-17.