As anyone who has ever followed them knows, retriever trials—all the way back to the first one in 1931—have belonged almost exclusively to the rich. There is nothing in itself wrong with this, and a lot, in fact, that is right. The sport owes a tremendous debt to men like John Olin, George Murnane, William Laughlin and Lewis Greenleaf Jr., who have devoted sizable portions of their sizable fortunes and comparable chunks of their lives to improving and developing the retriever breeds. And if the Old Guard of eastern and midwestern field trialing reads like a page from the Social Register, its contribution to the sport is no less real. But, like the Social Register, it has become so convinced of the infallibility of its own leadership that it has tended to grow sterile. Most important, it has failed to keep pace with the broad-based popularity of the dogs it represents.
Retrievers in general and Labradors in particular are more popular today than ever before. Retriever registrations have more than doubled in the last decade, and legions of new owners, both hunters and nonhunters, are discovering the remarkable combination of intelligence, wit, stability and sturdiness that makes these breeds superior in the home and in the field. Predictably, the owners want to find out what their dogs can do and how they measure up to the other fellow's. The obvious place to do it is at a field trial. But the big-time trials have moved further and further from this simple purpose. Today what sport remains in much trialing is obscured by the big business of producing champions.
Each year thousands of dollars pour like so much kibble into streamlined kennels, where trial dogs are bought, sold and traded by wealthy owners as impersonally as stocks and bonds, and all at very blue-chip prices. Those with promise are transformed at even greater expense into stylized machines having only one objective—the National Championship. Along the way they may meet their owners from time to time at trials, and even run under them in amateur events, but they are never likely to see a duck blind or the inside of a house. And they will win no points for the personality that adds a little extra to a good hunting companion. The increasingly complex demands of the National Championship do not permit such individuality.
"This is the tragedy of retriever trials," says Eloise Heller, founder of the Sagehen's Retriever Club, an all-women organization in California's Sacramento Valley. "There are more retrievers and people interested in retriever trials today than ever before, but the percentage of dogs that qualify for open events has dropped alarmingly.
April 25, 1965
"The individual owner, who is the backbone of any breed, wants to run his dog in competition," Mrs. Heller explains, "but he also wants to win, or at least feel that he has a chance of winning. When he finds himself competing against someone who has a dozen champions, a staff of professional trainers and handlers and close to a million dollars in his kennels, he just throws up his hands and quits. The real job a club such as ours does is to persuade him not to give up.
"When the Sagehen's was formed," she adds, "it was primarily to bring together those women in the West who were already involved, either personally or through their husbands, in field trials. When we started out to prove to the men that there was a place for women in field trials, we did not know that we would end up, much more significantly, proving to the entire retriever world that there was again a place for amateurs in the sport."
In the 10 years since the club was organized, the Sagehen's trials have proved to be among the best in the country, with attendance as high as any except for the National Championship and the National Amateur Championship. There were 111 dogs entered in the 1965 spring trial, held last month at the Gray Lodge Wildlife Refuge in northern California, and these dogs were a fair sampling of top U.S. talent. Before Techacko's Ranger, a 7-year-old black Labrador owned by Cyril Tobin of San Francisco, was crowned winner of the three-day event, Professional Handler Ed Minoggie had put the dog through some tough tests against some even tougher competition, including Eloise Heller and her Chesapeake Ch. Baron's Tule Tiger.
The Sagehen's founder, a tall, rangy brunette, is an all-round sportswoman. A fine tennis player, an accomplished horsewoman ("My husband used to say that I was always overhorsed," she admits with a handsome grin) and an enthusiastic hunter since childhood (after her husband, Walter, died in 1959 she left California and spent a month alone on safari in Africa taking most of the major trophies of the continent as well as a near-record greater kudu), Mrs. Heller brings a fierce determination to anything she undertakes. For 17 years she was one of the brightest guiding lights behind San Rafael's renowned Guide Dogs for the Blind (A New Lead to Superdogs, SI, June 13, 1960).
When Eloise Heller turned her formidable energies to retriever trials, she did not choose Labradors or golden retrievers with which to enter the field. Those easily trained breeds are by far the most popular in the sport today and make up about 99% of the entries at trials. Instead of them, Mrs. Heller chose Chesapeake Bay retrievers, a breed considered by the majority of trainers and handlers at that time as too difficult to bother with.
"Certainly Chesapeakes are a challenge," Mrs. Heller says. "That is what makes them rewarding. They are not soft. During the war I helped train guide dogs. Anybody who can train a German shepherd can train a Chesapeake. I used to get this guff from men that a woman could not handle a Chesapeake and that the breed was vicious and ugly. It drove me nuts. I had to prove they were wonderful dogs. Sure, some are a little tough and hardheaded, but I can be tough and hardheaded, too."
And indeed she can be. Mrs. Heller spends eight hours a day, four days a week, every week of the year working with her dogs. She breeds them, raises them, trains them and handles them at trials herself, always with a firm hand but a loving heart. And when the daily workout is finished, she takes her Chesapeakes home, not to a kennel but to her rambling, beautifully furnished old house in Sonoma.
"This is the secret of the amateur's success," she says, "if he would only have sense enough to realize it. The professionals give you a hard time. They resent any amateur who comes along, especially if he is good, and they make lots of amateurs feel that they have no right competing in a big trial like the National. But the professionals work with big strings of dogs. They cannot begin to establish the rapport that an amateur like Jim Casey has with his dog Cougar [SI, Nov. 25, 1963].
"We're a hard-training group here in the West," Mrs. Heller adds. "You might say we are a dungarees and dirty-hands group, but we are deadly serious about our sport. We live with it so much of the time that it is part of us. The work we are doing and the victories we are winning are so important because we are changing the whole concept of field trialing. We are making this sport one that everybody can enter and enjoy. We are learning all the time, and we are using everything we learn."
That the ladies have learned a lot is clear from the Sagehens' showing among the best of the big time. At last year's National Amateur Championship, women handled 17 of the 51 entries, and 13 of these women were Sagehens. Of the eight women who have ever completed a National trial (to complete a National trial requires being called back by the judges after a minimum of 10 difficult water-and-land elimination tests), all but one was a Sagehen. And of these women, Eloise Heller has the distinction of being the only one in field trial history to complete two Nationals and to qualify for and run in eight. This is comparable to birdieing every hole at St. Andrews, but Mrs. Heller is not content. Her ambition now is not only to complete her third National but to win it. A growing number of amateur trialers, men as well as women, will be cheering for her.