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A discussion paper presented to the Kennel Club Field Trials Liaison Council

The Society’s Field Trial Sub-Committee has prepared the following discussion paper for the next meeting of the Liaison Council currently due to be held on 11 June 2020. The primary purpose of the paper is to initiate a wider discussion concerning retriever field trials run under the Kennel Club’s “J” Regulations. The paper reviews historic data and information concerning the status of the 7 retriever breeds. Reflecting this data and the trends over time, we invite the KC Field Trials Committee to consider whether, due to the almost total dominance of one breed in field trials, whether changes are now required to the arrangements for conducting field trials in order to encourage greater numbers of the other breeds to be active in this sport.

The Flatcoated Retriever Society, wish the Council to consider, with the now almost total dominance of the Labrador Retriever and the corresponding decline, or in some cases the total absence, of the other 6 retriever breeds from retriever field trials, whether alternative arrangements are now required that will facilitate the recovery, or in some cases the reinstatement, of the other retriever breeds in competitive field trialling. 

The Kennel Club states: “Field Trials were developed to test the working ability of Gundogs in competitive conditions”. There was no distinction or preference given to any individual retriever breed and it is reasonably assumed that all seven retriever breeds were afforded equal status. However, it is clear that the majority of the breeds are not able to compete consistently within the current regime. Furthermore, the achievement of such field trial awards is a strong indicator of which individual dogs contribute to the working gene pool and ultimately go on to improve the working ability of the individual breeds. 

When asked to judge a field trial, judges have an input into a breed’s development and sustainability. The “J” Regulations at Annex A Para 3a) state: “A Judge must also have a very good working knowledge of the breed or breeds under Trial and have the interest and future of the breed or breeds at heart, since final placings may influence breeding plans and so determine the course of breed development.

It is generally recognised that success in field trials is the pinnacle of gundog working ability. However, it is argued here that the near total dominance of one breed in this sport may be contributing to the decline in the original core purpose of other retriever breeds, and the dominance of the show side of these breeds. If the current arrangements are left unaltered, it can be envisaged that within a generation or two, field trials will become the domain of only the Labrador Retriever. 

Single breed dominance in field trials:

Field Trial Champions: Data from the Kennel Club’s Library shows that over the period 1990 to 2018, 561 dogs were awarded the title “Field Trial Champion”. Of these, 39 were Golden Retrievers, and one a Flatcoated Retriever. The remaining 521 (93%) were Labrador Retrievers. There were no Chesapeake or Curly Coat Retrievers, Irish Water Spaniels, or Nova Scotia Duck Tollers. 

IGL Field Trial Results: The results from the IGL effectively paint the same picture. Page 22 of “The Best of the Best” describes the status of the other Retriever breeds as follows:

The first trial for retrievers in 1899, which was won by the Flatcoated Retriever Painter, was, in fact, a mixed stake with two Clumber Spaniels, one Irish Spaniel and one Field Spaniel competing alongside a Curly Coated Retriever and five Flatcoats. There was no Labrador present. The year 1908 marks the first occasion when a trial had more Labradors than Flatcoats running. The breed’s progress was such, however, that in the fourteen meetings of the last full season before the Great War some 247 dogs were entered and, of those, no fewer than 179 were Labradors. Succeeding years simply accentuated that pattern as Curly Coats departed the competitive scene and Flatcoats receded. Indeed, in the whole history of the Championship Flatcoated Retrievers have qualified on only 36 occasions: just 11 of them in the post war period. The breed’s only post—war Field Trial Champions have been The Hon Amelia Jessel’s FTCh Werrion Redwing of Collyers and, more recently, Phil Bruton’s liver bitch FTCh Shirlett Sweetheart who ran at Sandringham in 2003. 

Golden Retrievers, which were initially registered as Flatcoated Retrievers, were defined at that stage only by colour, and they were not registered by the Kennel Club as a separate variety under the title ‘Golden or Yellow Retrievers’ until 1911. The following year the breed secured its first trial award when Captain H. F. H. Hardy took second place in the Gamekeepers National Association Open Stake at Netherby. In more recent years it is only Golden Retrievers who have managed, on occasion, to mount a serious challenge to Labrador dominance at the highest levels of competition. On just four occasions during the period since 1945, in 1952, 1954, 1982 and 2006, a Golden has won the IGL Retriever Championship. The breed’s first victory had been in 1937 at Hungerford in Berkshire where FTCh Haulstone LdW won impressively. He did, however, carry Labrador blood because three generations before his owner Joseph Eccles, had put his bitch Haulstone Rusty to FTCh Haylers Defender, the first yellow Labrador to gain his working title. 

Goldens are currently the only breed able to challenge the Labrador in field trials, winning about 7% of the FTCh awards in the last 30 years, but significantly below where they should be based on numbers bred. Flatcoats are the only other retriever breed entitled to run Open Trials, regularly achieving awards in Open breed stakes and very occasionally wins or places in AV novice stakes, but despite this it is hard to see where a successor to Shirlett Sweetheart will be found. For the other four retriever breeds, the situation is far more parlous and it is nigh on impossible to ascertain how they could recover under the current arrangements.”

Possible causes of Labrador Retriever dominance in AV Field Trials:
It could be argued that part of the dominance of the Labrador may be due simply to numbers,  and this is no doubt a significant factor, with the Labrador Retriever being, until very recently, the most popular breed in the UK. However, this numerical dominance in numbers bred does not fully account for the figures above.

Regulation 6, 3 (c) states: Before being added to the A Panel, candidates must have handled a dog to win at least one Open Stake or in the case of Retrievers, been placed 2nd in a 2-day Open Stake and, since being added to the B Panel, have substantially increased their Field Trial experience. It is certainly the case that the majority of ‘A’ Panel Judges have qualified with Labrador Retrievers and in the majority of cases, the required experience will have been gained with Labradors. Indeed, the likelihood of the majority of judges acquiring experience in the assessment of the other retriever breeds in field trials will, at best (and for obvious reasons), be rather limited. This may lead to unconscious bias where judges unintentionally assess breeds against their own preference rather than the credit points stated in the ‘J’ Regulations. Going forward it is inevitable that the majority of those added to the ‘A’ Panel will have run Labrador Retrievers.

It is possible that with many judges having gained experience solely or predominantly in the handling of Labradors, some may be less likely to appreciate the natural working characteristics of the other retriever breeds when observed, and there is certainly anecdotal evidence to support this. Unconscious bias in favour of a single breed’s working characteristics is probably inevitable, but when one breed is dominant, the risk is that the preference becomes prevalent. 

With the Labrador’s numerical dominance in trials, it is difficult to see how future judges would have “a very good working knowledge of the breed or breeds”.

Another potential consequence is that when judging other retriever breeds, they are being compared with Labradors and not assessed on the basis of the individual breed’s natural working ability, style or behavior in relation to the ‘J’ Regs.  It is also difficult to see how the current arrangements are having a positive impact on “the course of breed development”.

The fact that 2 of the retriever breeds are characterised as air-scenting dogs inevitably results in a behaviour different to that of a ground-scenting dog. There is also some evidence that the conduct of Open field trials favours the Labrador: straight-lining, control and the ability to replace the natural hunting instinct with handler control; an example of unconscious bias. 

Many actively involved in field trialling, who started with another retriever breed, have migrated over time to the Labrador, citing the fact that their chances of success are much higher with a Labrador. This trend is also apparent with professional handlers, with only a few electing to compete with other retriever breeds. 

It is the case that of the other retriever breeds, only the Golden is currently able to run a 2-day breed stake, and the Flatcoat able to run a 1-day breed Open stake. For the other breeds still trialling, they rarely have sufficient dogs to run a 1-day Novice breed stake and therefore their only option is to run All-Aged stakes and give preference to selected breeds in order to exclude Labradors. As the Council will be aware, awards in All-Aged do not count towards the award of FTCh. 

The impact on the individual retriever breeds of show competitions is highly varied, but may also be a contributory factor. The Labrador in the show ring is a very different dog to the working variety, and the same can be said of the Golden, but to a lesser degree. The Flatcoat remains dual-purpose (for those dogs that are proven to work) but the increasingly dominant side is Show, as it is for the other retriever breeds, with only very small numbers being worked or used for picking-up, if at all. 

There may be other factors at play in the evolution of field trialling that has led to the dominance of the sport by a single breed, and the decline in the working side of the other 6 retriever breeds. Whatever the blend of factors, they appear to have created a virtuous circle for the working Labrador, and a vicious circle for the other breeds. 

Whether for some of these other breeds “natural working ability” is still genetically hard-wired, or has been lost from the gene pool for all time is a matter of conjecture, but we consider that whatever the current situation is, we believe that this Council and the KC should view this situation with concern. 

The rules that govern field trials inevitably evolve. Field trial rules have become more onerous over time, in part as the popularity of the sport has increased, and there have been calls from some quarters to raise the bar even higher. Whilst raising the bar is understandable for those breeds whose participation in the sport is increasing and needs perhaps to be regulated, the rules don’t make any distinction between breeds and that limiting or confining pressure may also be a contributory factor in the decline or absence of most retriever breeds from the sport. 

As a final observation, the KC will be aware that a similar single breed dominance occurred in Obedience and Agility, namely the Border Collie. This led to the introduction of ABC (any breed but Collie) Classes and qualifications alongside the existing competition regime. Accordingly, the precedent for change under conditions of single breed dominance has been established. 

Conclusions: 

The Flatcoated Retriever Society has no wish to see the current arrangements for conducting AV Retriever Open and Novice field trials altered. Instead it seeks the Field Trial Liaison Council’s views on whether a parallel system is now required that might encourage the working of the other retriever breeds and enable them to ultimately gain field trial awards or titles recognised by the Kennel Club. 

Field Trials were developed to test the natural working ability of Gundogs in competitive conditions and to improve the breeds “working” gene pool.
The outcome of field trials has become dominated by the Labrador Retriever, with the presence of other breeds being progressively reduced or eliminated over time. 

The causes are many but the dominance of one breed has influenced the conduct of trials arguably to the Labrador’s benefit, and to the decline and possibly the detriment of the other retriever breeds.

The Field Trial Liaison Council is therefore requested to consider proposing changes to the KC Field Trial Committee that would support the recovery and development of the working side and the more numerous participation in field trials of all retriever breeds. 

Ends. 

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