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Welcome to Robert Milner's DuckHill Kennels

British Labradors and Breeding Selection

British Labs of Excellence from the founder of Wildrose Kennels

An article on British shooting by Robert Milner for the July 2013 issue of Shooting Gazette: Read

British Labradors as Product of Field Trial Breeding Selection
Working Labradors in England are heavily influenced by the relatively small population of Labradors that are actively bred and trained for competition in retriever field trials. The defining characteristics of this field trial population are not looks or appearance but rather temperament, behavior and trainability. The typical successful field trial Labrador in England tends to be calm of temperament, is typically easy to train, has a tendency toward natural good manners and tends to have a genetically inherited tendency to deliver a retrieve to hand. There are two major factors driving the breeding selection producing these characteristics of dogs in the field trial population. Those breeding selection drivers are (1) a culture of gentle training methods, and (2) the behavioral requirements of a successful field trial dog.

Gentle Training Culture
The British retriever field trial sector is characterized by a culture of gentle positive training methods. The practice of force fetch training is nearly never encountered in England. Delivery to hand is in the main accomplished by breeding selection for natural delivery to hand. A typical puppy of British field trial breeding has a natural tendency to deliver to hand. All the owner needs to do is reinforce that tendency by rewarding it at the appropriate times. Nearly all competing field trial Labradors in England are trained and handled by their owners. When that owner encounters a dog that is too "hot" to train to field trial standards by traditional gentle training, the dog is generally found a new home. A more suitable field trial candidate is then sought. Thus breeding selection tends to favor dogs that are fairly sensitive and tractable.

Behavioral Requirements for  a Winning Field Trial Dog
British retriever field trials are run in shooting environments and settings that are very different from American shooting, but the gundog behaviors those field trials require are the same behviors desirable for anyone's gundog. To become a winner, the typical field trial retriever must exhibit good manners in extremely high distraction environments and he must demonstrate game-finding initiative and hunting persistence. Typically the trials will consist of two types of scenario, driven birds and walked-up birds. The British shooting scenario is a little different than that of American shooting, but the behaviors required of the gundog retrievers is very similar. The major important behaviors are:

1. Exhibit Good Manners in an extremely high distraction environment

2. Demonstrate game-finding initiative and hunting persistence

3. Leave the short visible dead birds and go for the long unseen cripple

Exhibit good manners in extremely high distraction environment
Driven pheasants comprise a large part of British shooting. Pheasants are driven from cover in sucb a manner that they fly over pre-stationed shooters. The shooting is usually fast and furious with many birds being dropped around the guns and the dogs. The dog must sit quietly in place during pheasant drives during which dozens of shot pheasants fall all around the dog. (I once saw a falling pheasant bounce off a dog's shoulder and the dog remained sitting) If either the dog or the handler makes any noise, they will be excused from the trial.

Walkups constitute the other major scenario of British Field Trials. Here a line of beaters walks line abreast across a field flushing birds as they go. Interspersed across the line are 6 to 9 shooters, and probably 4 dogs under judgment. As the line progresses the dogs must walk quietly at heel while the birds are flushed and shot. After several birds are down the line halts, and the birds are retrieved. The dogs must walk quietly at heel with no badgering from handler. They must remain quietly at heel during flushing and shooting of birds. Here again, both dog and handler are expected to be quiet.

Demonstrate game-finding initiative and hunting persistence
On driven birds, the dogs not only get the opportunity to demonstrate their steadiness in the face of immense temptation, they also get the opportunity to demonstrate their game-finding initiative and their hunting persistence. At the end of the drive, the judges will ask each dog to pick up a particular bird. The judges will select the wounded birds first. Thus the dog may be required to ignore 5 or 10 birds lying in plain sight out front and take line off to the left toward a cripple, which the dog did not see, downed 150 yards off in dense cover, out of sight of the handler. The handler sends the dog off on a line handles him up to the cover and casts him into it. Then it is all up to the dog. If he finds the bird he is a star, if he fails to find it, he is out of the trial.

The walked-up bird gets interesting when it is a big cock pheasant which is only slightly hit and sails off to go down 75 yards in front of the line. When a dog is sent for this bird, he is expected to go to the area of the fall, find the blood trail, and track down the wounded pheasant. Furthermore he is expected to ignore the freshly flushed birds that may spring up in his path as he makes his way along the wounded bird's trial. Chasing freshly flushed birds will cause the dog's elimination. The dog must stick to the wounded bird's trail and collect him, or the dog will be dropped from competition.

The Cream Rises to the Top
The British have one custom in their retriever field trial which helps insure that the best dogs tend to win at field trials. That custom is the eye-wipe. When one dog fails to find a bird for which he has been sent, then the next dog up is sent for the bird. If the second dog succeeds, he is said to have wiped the eye of the first dog. A superior performance score is generally given for an eye-wipe. If both dogs fail, then typically both are dropped, under the premise that they had the opportunity of picking up the scent trail while it was still fresh and they failed to do so.

The British Retriever Field Trial system has done a good job of preserving the genetics of a good working gundog. A British Labrador whose pedigree has a good sprinkling of British Field Trial Winners and British Field Trial Champions will have a high probability of having the behavioral tendencies which lead to proficiency in the three major behavioral elements of success in British Field Trials:

1. Exhibit Good Manners in an extremely high distraction environment

2. Demonstrate game-finding initiative and hunting persistence

3. Leave the short visible dead birds and go for long unseen cripple

In general one would expect such a dog to exhibit a calm temperament, to be tractable, sensitive, and easily trained by a relatively inexperienced trainer. One would also expect that dog to have an abundance of game finding initiative and hunting perseverance. These behaviors and characteristics of British Field Trial Dogs are highly desirable in anyone's gundog.

  Delivering a hare

PHOTO GALLERY - IGL Retriever Championship - Stratfield Saye - 1984

Stratfield Saye House

Judges confer in the shadow of the Duke's Cedar

A walkup in heavy cover

HM the Queen with Duke of Wellington and Stratfield Saye Dipper

Walkup thru a plantation of young pines

Interlude at the bridge

HM the Queen presents the awards - Stratfield Saye - 1984

Tracking a high pheasant

Stratfield Saye Dipper

Walkup at early morning

Photo Gallery - IGL Championship - Sandringham - 1992

Sandringham House

Competitors move toward next test

Several dogs on line honoring the working dog picking up a driven bird

HM the Queen stops for a few words with Bill Meldrum, head keeper and kennel master

Walkup line in a beet field

HM the Queen with guns - Sandringham - 1992

Competitors await their turn to go into the line

Walkup with four competing dogs honoring the working dog on a retrieve

Five well-mannered Golden Retrievers patiently await the return of their master

Walkup in challenging cover

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