AUSTRALIAN RETRIEVING TRIALS : IN WHAT DIRECTION ARE THEY HEADING.

Author:Joe Law


Having just returned from competing in several State Championships as well as the National Retrieving Championship in Tasmania, I, like many other competitors, will take stock and consider the future. The following are just some of my thoughts and observations.

To start with, it has always been my belief that Retrieving Trials should be about testing:
(a) Marking
(b) Control
(c) Game-finding ability.


MARKING : The dog should mark the area of the fall, meaning that once the dog understands the destination to which it is being sent to retrieve, it should demonstrate such qualities as memory, style, courage, sagacity, perseverance and scenting ability in order to proceed quickly and directly to the area of the fall and complete the retrieve. Now, surely this seems obvious and should be easy enough to test and assess provided the dog can see the bird in the air long enough for it to be able to identify the area of the fall__ but then again, what defines an "area of fall"? Clearly, if birds are cast and fall beyond the dog's horizon, the area of fall will be less clearly defined and must be considered larger than if the dog was able to see the bird all the way to the ground or water. Relocating the dog to another area before sending it for a mark also introduces a further degree of difficulty and if the relocation is such that the dog is sent away from the line of the original mark, the dog could be forgiven for not even recognising that it is being sent for that particular mark. Deductive skills are more the domain of human intelligence than of canine intelligence, and a knowledge of trigonometry is hardly a prerequisite for a dog to be a retriever. Marks which are not clearly defined will have large "areas of fall" associated with the task of retrieving and unfortunately this introduces a much larger element of luck besides the skills being tested. How does a judge evaluate the luck versus the skill factor and translate the result into a score? While luck will always be a factor in retrieving trials, good judges aim to minimise luck and maximise the skill factor in selecting their tests.


CONTROL: Control is surely the element where advanced training comes into play. In Restricted Trials most judges show moderation in the demands they make on the dog and handler when testing control. In All Age and Championship events, however, it should be a very significant factor in the testing. When a "man and his dog" demonstrate a great working relationship it is wonderful to behold. When the team-work is of a high standard, a good handler will know exactly when to give over to the dog and when to take control. In general terms, marking is about the dog being given and accepting responsibility for the retrieve while blinds are about the handler taking control and the dog responding accordingly. At all times it seems to me that trialling is about handler and dog working together. The handler is the team leader who has enough confidence in his dog to strut his stuff whenever the leader calls on him to do so.


GAME-FINDING ABILITY: There is a wiliness and shrewdness about some dogs that, when added to those skills needed for marking and control, make them a formidable force in competition. To some extent, this seems to be a natural quality that is honed through experience in the field and competition in trials.


A DISTURBING TREND: In recent times, there seems to be a disturbing trend for judges to want to separate a dog from its handler and virtually take the handler out of the equation with such things as relocations, the placing of handlers behind trees and down ditches where they are unable to monitor the situation. Combine these procedures with marks which are of poor visible quality and the result is a situation where dogs flounder. Effective control requiring advanced training is being discounted and even eliminated in many situations. Dogs are being eliminated from trials without either the dog or the handler being responsible for their failure and it is being passed off as "bad luck, mate!"

How can this situation be arrested or remedied? Maybe some rule changes that prescribe boundaries and demand a balance might regulate the situation but too many restrictions can also create limitations that only prove to be a frustration in the various situations we encounter in trials. In the end, it is up to judges (and I include myself in this) to search for balance in selecting their tests and to realise that it is part of their charter to provide an opportunity for handlers to exhibit their own capabilities as well as the capabilities of their dogs. The wonderful synergy that exists between good dogs and handlers is very much part of what is being evaluated and exhibited and appreciated by all who are able to witness the event. While on this point, judges would also do well to remember that galleries are an important consideration and that a gallery where there is nothing to see does not fulfil the definition of a gallery.


SOME STATISTICS FROM THE 2003 NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP:
Two judges each devised 4 runs requiring triple retrieves, 24 articles of game to be retrieved.

The 24 retrieves consisted of 16 marks
  5 blinds
  2 drags
  1 . double-rise bird

Of the 16 marks, 9 fell beyond the horizon for the dog and the handler and
3 other marks were beyond the horizon for dogs and some short handlers.
5 blinds tested control and 2 of these blinds required control in water.
45 dogs entered the Championship __ 4 completed the Championship.