British Braggin' Rights: The Advantages of British Retriever Trials

Field-trial_001Many retrieverites assume the blind retrieve has always been with us, as if Eve taught Adam to fetch apples, so she could remain in her lawn chair while directing him (by whistling and waving her arms). Later, she found dogs were more trainable — fewer "no-goes,"  "slipped whistles," and "cast refusals."

Actually, retriever folks had to make do without the blind retrieve until sometime in the early 1920s, when David D. Elliot, a Scottish gamekeeper/dog trainer, chanced upon it while goofing off. Probably exhausted from the daily grind, he took a day off and — speak of a postman's holiday — spectated at a nearby herding dog trial. He saw one handler after another send his dog (probably a border collie) on a long trip to the far side of a flock of sheep (lining). Next, the handler whistled and his dog turned, sat and awaited further instruction. Then, the handler gave a wave of his arm that sent the dog scampering behind the herd (casting). After again stopping his dog behind the herd, he tooted another whistle that brought the dog towards him with the flock ahead of it (more casting).

Line 'Em Up

Dave watched handlers direct their distant dogs this way all day. At some point, it occurred to our hooky-playing hero that, if he could train his retrievers to take those whistle commands and arm signals, he could "wipe eyes" in British retriever field trials.


Huh, he could what?  "Wipe eyes?"


In British retriever trials, then and now, several handler/dog teams are positioned among a line of shooters. The entire line moves forward, flushing, shooting and retrieving birds as they go. Frequently, multiple birds flush at once all up and down the line, so many that no dog could mark every fall. The judges designate which dog is to retrieve which bird. If one dog fails on a specific bird, the judges give another dog a go at it. If that dog succeeds, he is said to have "wiped the eye" of the other dog. This was a brag factor among handlers, and a great way to win field trials.


It was pretty chancy. If the first dog failed, your dog may or may not have seen that bird. If he did, he would probably wipe an eye for you; if he didn't, well, he might fail, and you would perhaps watch a third dog wipe both unsuccessful dogs' eyes, which would be big bragging rights.

After learning from herding dog trainers how they taught their dogs this advanced type of handling, the bright and enterprising young Mr. Elliot hurried home and went back to work with renewed enthusiasm. He tried this new handling technique with one of his Labs, and it worked!  He also tried it with his string of dogs and it worked over and over, not always with the same speed and success, but well enough. He named this new retrieve an "unseen," because it enables a dog/handler team to pick up a bird the dog hadn't marked.

Young Dave tested it in field trials. He did so well, many other handlers cried "Foul!" But as he won more and more trials all over the British Isles, those who had complained the loudest stopped protesting and started imitating him, with varying degrees of success. But all through the 1920s and into the early '30s, Elliot was the handler to beat.


Incidentally, I learned all this years ago from Elliot's now long out-of-print book, "Training Gun Dogs to Retrieve." Amazingly, he tells this entire story without ever mentioning a single date! But he almost had to have started after WWI, because prior to that flat-coats dominated British trials. Labs only became popular after WWI. Since he mentions only Labs in his narrative, I assume he started in the early '20s after Labs were well established. I also know from other sources, Elliot came to America in the early '30s, after he and his "unseen" were well known.

American Influence

During the '20s, several prominent members of our American aristocracy frequently traveled to the British Isles to hunt and hobnob with the nobility. They learned about Labs and participated in British retriever trials. Mr. and Mrs. Marshall Fields, Averell Harriman, Jay Carlisle and others were among these American luminaries.


Back home, they transformed extensive land holdings into estates, like those of the British landed gentry. They also imported both Labradors and British gamekeepers. Carlisle grabbed the brass ring for his Wingan Kennels on Long Island when he hired Elliot in the early '30s.

These American luminaries also formed the Labrador Retriever Club (LRC) and conducted the first-ever American Kennel Club (AKC) retriever field trial in December 1931, patterned after the British trials most of those folks were long familiar with.

These trials soon began to diverge from the British model for one reason: Over here, we don't suffer the same restrictions on planted birds, dead birds and thrown birds that limit the format to real hunting situations. Our judges could set up marks of any length, involving any set of hazards (terrain and cover variations, wind direction, etc...) and in any sequence and with whatever hazards they saw fit.

As a result, the British "unseen" became our American "blind retrieve." Over there, they "handled" retrievers (via whistle/vocal commands and arm signals) only to birds that had flushed, been shot and had fallen in plain sight, but which the dog had not seen (or remembered). Over here, judges can set up blind retrieves that none of the competing dogs see fall, and then run all dogs identically on the same test, which can require whatever handling skills they want to evaluate.

Full Circle

Over the years, our tests have become so complex and hazard-riddled one might wonder whether the Marquis De Sade was involved in their design, because the judges have to find a winner in about a day and a half from larger and larger entries of better and better bred and trained retrievers. Granted, dogs that succeed in these long and complex field trial tests can also handle ordinary hunting situations. But few hunters want to spend all their free time training a retriever  year-round to field trial standards just to have a good hunting dog.

Field-trial_002The post-WWII economic recovery produced a large middle class in America, with leisure time and disposable income for hobbies. Many took to hunting with dogs and needed an off-season dog game. But field trials were way too much for most of them. So the search was on for a simpler game, something more like hunting.

In the mid-1980s they made a significant step with non-competitive "hunt tests," designed by hunters with strict limitations on the length and complexity of the judges' tests. But­ — some thought — why stop there?

Very recently, a group of breeder/trainers re-introduced British-style retriever trials in this country. These are more than "like hunting." They are hunting with your dog, but under judgment!

Jim Spencer's books are available from the WILDFOWL Bookshelf.

Recommended for You

Take it from a pro: Less is more. For Dogs

Dog Discipline Tips & Gear

Joe Genzel - June 20, 2019

Take it from a pro: Less is more.

Make summertime barbecues super easy by grilling up one of these duck recipes from Scott Leysath, Recipes

2 Easy Duck Recipes for Summertime Grilling

WILDFOWL Online Staff

Make summertime barbecues super easy by grilling up one of these duck recipes from Scott...

To date, Ducks Unlimited has played a role in conserving 14 million acres. Industry

Ducks Unlimited: A Duck Man's Best Friend

David Hart

To date, Ducks Unlimited has played a role in conserving 14 million acres.

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Browning A5 Shotgun -

Browning A5 Shotgun - 'Gun Stories'

Gun Stories host Joe Mantegna talks about the origin and history of the Browning A5 shotgun.

Picking a Puppy

Picking a Puppy

Wildfowl contributor Mark Romanack shares advice about choosing your next retriever.

Cowboy Fernandez Commemorative Yentzen Classic Duck Call

Cowboy Fernandez Commemorative Yentzen Classic Duck Call

As Groves, Texas duck call maker Sure-Shot Game Calls celebrates their 60th anniversary during 2019, company CEO Charlie Holder shows off the limited edition Yentzen Classic aimed at commemorating the life and times of company founder Jim 'Cowboy' Fernandez. With a special autographed box and a laser engraved call body, the Cowboy Classic is a perfect way to honor the legacy of the 1959 world duck calling champ and inventor of the double-reed duck call.

See more Popular Videos

Trending Stories

As Groves, Texas duck call maker Sure-Shot Game Calls celebrates their 60th anniversary during 2019, company CEO Charlie Holder shows off the limited edition Yentzen Classic aimed at commemorating the life and times of company founder Jim 'Cowboy' Fernandez. With a special autographed box and a laser engraved call body, the Cowboy Classic is a perfect way to honor the legacy of the 1959 world duck calling champ and inventor of the double-reed duck call. Calls

Cowboy Fernandez Commemorative Yentzen Classic Duck Call

Lynn Burkhead - January 28, 2019

As Groves, Texas duck call maker Sure-Shot Game Calls celebrates their 60th anniversary during...

SITKA Gear waterfowl product manager Jim Saubier shows off the Bozeman, Montana company's full line-up of women's waterfowl hunting gear for 2019. From warm and moisture wicking base layers to water and windproof outer layers, this is a complete system for women who love to chase fall and wintertime ducks and geese across the four flyways! Clothing & Waders

New SITKA Women's Waterfowl Lineup for 2019

Lynn Burkhead - January 28, 2019

SITKA Gear waterfowl product manager Jim Saubier shows off the Bozeman, Montana company's full...

Consistency is what pushes today's shotshell makers to constantly improve new waterfowl loads Ammo

11 Best New Shotshell Loads For Waterfowl

Wildfowl Online Staff - August 17, 2017

Consistency is what pushes today's shotshell makers to constantly improve new waterfowl loads

See More Stories

More Retriever

Editors Note: Part 3 in a Series

It has taken two columns to get to this point, but your dog is Retriever

How To Finish The Trained Retrieve

Tom Dokken - August 17, 2017

Editors Note: Part 3 in a Series It has taken two columns to get to this point, but your dog...

Having a difficult time with your four-legged hunting partner? Author Tony J. Peterson offers some top-notch training tips for your duck dogs.f Retriever

Training Tips for Your Distracted Duck Dogs

Tony Peterson - May 04, 2018

Having a difficult time with your four-legged hunting partner? Author Tony J. Peterson offers...

Make time for these three drills every month, and watch your pup prosper. Retriever

3 Duck Dog Drills to Practice Every Month

Tom Dokken

Make time for these three drills every month, and watch your pup prosper.

See More Retriever

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.