How to Increase Interest in Retrieving Trials – An Alternative Approach  

 By Robert Tawton


I read with interest the Viewpoint article entitled “The Derby Revisited” written by Peter Betteridge.  While I fully support the underlying sentiments i.e. how do we attract more competitors to our beautiful sport and how do we retain those who, for whatever reason, own dogs that are rarely successful.  Nevertheless, I struggle with certain aspects discussed in Peter’s rationale.  

In performance terms, the hierarchy of Retrieving Trials is the National Championship, followed by State Championships, All Age Stakes, Restricted and Novice Stakes with Beginners Tests, Puppy Stakes and Water Tests at the lower end of the scale.  A dog’s progression up the scale is achieved by a defined number of successes at Beginners Test, Novice Stake and Restricted Stake levels.  To simply say “three wins in Novice Stakes and you are out and likewise in Restricted Stakes” misrepresents the situation.  For a dog to win three Novice Stakes it has demonstrated that it has mastered that level of competition and it is time to move on, just .as a tennis player, or any other athlete, would expect to be promoted from C Grade to B Grade etc. following the prescribed number of successes at each level of competition.  Why should our sport be any different?


It is true that the performance levels currently required (to be competitive) at Novice, Restricted and All Age have changed and the “step” required, especially from Restricted to All Age level, has become so large that only very talented dogs and/or dedicated and knowledgeable handlers can successfully make the transition.  I believe that over time some of our judges have contributed to this less than satisfactory situation. Faced with a decrease in the number of competitors, some judges may have unwittingly tailored the complexity of their tests to suit the competitors rather than striving to maintain a “STANDARD” and only awarding places to dogs that achieve that “STANDARD”.  I suggest that in the longer term the tailoring approach becomes self defeating and, in part, has contributed to the situation that the sport is currently facing. One should never lose sight of the fact that one win in a Restricted Stake entitles the dog to compete in a National Championship and therein should give some guide to the level of work a winning Restricted dog should be capable of attempting and not be an embarrassment to its handler.


Another facet of this complex issue is the unexpected impact that increasing the number of wins to three at Novice level has had on Restricted Stake numbers.  The number of wins at Novice level was increased to three in an effort to bolster interest in the sport and to encourage competitors new to the sport.  The adverse flow-on effect on Restricted Stake entries was not foreshadowed.  Let me explain; it is statistically more difficult to gain three wins if the field size is say 20, than it is to gain the same three wins if the field size is say 8 to 10.  With Novice Stake fields sizes approaching 20 competitors, dogs are therefore competing in more trials to gain their three wins than is the case in Restricted Stakes, where typical field sizes (in NSW) may be as low as 6 competitors.  It is not difficult to see that Restricted Stakes are losing competitors to All Age faster that the pool is being topped up by competitors being up-graded from Novice.  This is especially true if judges unwittingly adjust the “standard” to suit the competitors and award places to the dogs just because they completed the tests.


Perhaps the solution lies in part to adopting the approach taken in WA, whereby all dogs are given the opportunity to attempt the first two Runs in a three Run Stake and the first three Runs in a four Run Stake independent of whether or not the dog recovers all of its birds. The net effect of this approach is that the competitors stay in the competition for a longer period and their dogs gain more experience competing at the relevant level.  More importantly this approach does not require any change to the current Rules.


The last issue that I wish to address relates to the level of assistance (or lack thereof) that is available to newcomers to our sport.  I believe that this is largely a Club issue and that if Clubs were to organise training days/weekends at which senior and experienced handlers shared their knowledge, we could attract more people to our sport.  While there are many reasons why the Obedience world enjoys its tremendous following and success, one of the key ingredients is the “training” support and advice that is provided.  Several Victorian Clubs have in recent times run “training days” and all reports suggest that they have been a huge success and certainly their competitor base has increased.  Well those are my thoughts on this issue and I would be interested to hear other views and/or suggestions.