Field Trials and Hunt Tests

Labs are the ultimate field dogs. They are the winningest breed in field trials, and they earn more hunt test titles than all other retriever breeds combined. Approximately 20 to 25 percent of the Labs in this country are used for hunting or participate in competitive and noncompetitive events, such as field trials and hunt tests. Individual dog clubs sponsor field trials and hunt tests, which are held under AKC rules and regulations.

Field trials and hunt tests are performance events that evaluate a Lab's ability to retrieve game, the function for which he was originally bred. A good retriever is able to follow the trajectory of a shot bird and find where it landed. He isn't afraid to go after a bird, no matter where it is, and he retrieves with style. He pays attention to his handler, has a good sense of smell, and doesn't shy away from the sound of gunfire. Retrievers should perform equally well on land and in water. Just as important, a good retriever has a soft mouth, meaning he doesn't damage the bird during the retrieve. Retrievers are judged on their ability to mark, or remember, the location of downed birds, retrieve them quickly, and then deliver them gently to their handlers.

Labs were bred to retrieve game birds while hunting, just like this male yellow Lab is doing.

Field Trials

A field trial is a competitive event, meaning that dogs compete against each other for placements and points toward a field championship. Titles that can be earned are field champion (FC) and amateur field champion (AFC). Once earned, these titles become part of the dog's name. For instance, a dog with a field championship would have a registered name that looks like this: FC King Buck.

Like a conformation show, the purpose of a field trial is to determine the best breeding stock, so spayed and neutered Labs may not compete. To participate, dogs must be at least six months old and registered with the AKC. Field trial classes, known as stakes, test dogs of varying ages and levels of experience. Stakes also separate amateur and professional handlers. Retriever field trials have four stakes, two major and two minor. The major stakes are classified as open all-age and amateur all-age; the minor stakes are classified as qualifying and derby. Championship points are earned in the two major stakes, with at least two judges officiating.

Some Labs do more than retrieve. They point as well, making them the perfect hunting partner in the eyes of some hunters. Fewer than 5 percent of Labs are born with this ability, but the International Pointing Labrador Association and the American Pointing Labrador Association have been formed to identify and perpetuate these dogs.

Judges determine the tests that will be given and try to test each dog equally. They call back the best dogs and continue testing them until they decide their placements. Dogs are judged on natural abilities — memory, intelligence, attention, nose, courage, perseverance, and style — and on trained abilities, such as steadiness, control, response to direction, and delivery. As retriever trials increase in difficulty, the dogs must mark (find) multiple birds or find unmarked birds, a skill called a blind retrieve.

Field Trial Championships

Championship points are awarded based on the dog's placement in open all-age and amateur all-age stakes, with five points for first-place wins, three points for second-place wins, two points for third-place wins, and a half point for fourth-place wins. The field champion or amateur field champion titles require the dog to earn ten points in the open all-age stake, of which five points must be for a first-place win. To earn an amateur field champion title in amateur all-age stakes, the dog must earn fifteen points, of which five must be for a first place. Open all-age points can be combined with amateur all-age points for an AFC title.

Retrievers can be eliminated from trials for such behaviors as failure to enter rough cover, water, ice, mud, or any other unpleasant or difficult situation; returning to the handler before finding a bird in a marked retrieve; stopping the hunt; repeated evidence of poor scenting ability; or failing to pick a bird up after finding it.

Training for Field Trials

Lab puppies show retrieving instinct early and can be introduced to birds as early as eight to nine weeks of age. Labs that are going to participate in field trials also need basic socialization and training. They should be comfortable around other dogs and with having strangers touch them. And of course they need to become accustomed to the sound of a gun.

Commands that form the foundation for hunting training include “Sit,” “Down,” “Stay,” “Come,” “Fetch,” and “Give.” A retriever in a field trial should come at heel, sit promptly where the handler indicates, and stay quietly until given further instructions. Barking or whining is penalized and can even cause a dog to be eliminated from the stake.

The only dog ever to appear on a federal duck stamp (issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) was the black Labrador Retriever Nilo's King Buck, who earned back-to-back field trial championships in 1952 and 1953.

Other preparation involves conditioning, making sure the dog is in good shape for the amount of work he'll be doing. Work him gradually until he's able to walk or run for several miles a day. He also needs to be familiar with environments similar to those at a trial. Take him for walks in woods, fields, and parks so he becomes accustomed to different types of foliage, the sounds of snapping twigs and crunching leaves, and the presence of many different smells.

Labs make great hunting dogs, including this 2½-year-old female chocolate.

Hunt Tests

Hunting tests are a means of judging the dog's ability to perform against a standard of perfection established by the AKC regulations. Unlike field trials, they are noncompetitive, meaning the dogs must simply meet a standard of performance, rather than beat other dogs. Labs receiving qualifying scores at a given number of tests can earn the titles junior hunter (JH), senior hunter (SH), and master hunter (MH). Each successive title requires more skill, and dogs are judged more strictly as they advance. Once a dog has qualified at a higher level, it cannot move back to a lower level.

Beginners start with marked birds, meaning they can see the bird or bumper fly and fall. They must then stay until the handler gives the command to retrieve the bird. As the dog advances, hunt tests become more difficult, but at all levels the dog is usually not required to retrieve from a distance greater than 100 yards.

Dogs with an indefinite listing privilege (ILP) number — meaning they are recognized as a given purebred, although they have no registration papers — are eligible only for hunt tests. Owners may handle their own dogs or hire a professional handler.

To get started in hunt tests, find a local retriever club and join it. Joining a club gives you other people to train with and other resources. By training with a group, you can benefit from the experiences of other people and see a variety of training techniques. Choose the ones that work best for you and your Lab.

The National Retriever Championship Stake

The National Retriever Championship Stake is the retriever Olympics. All retrievers are eligible to compete, not just Labs. To qualify for the National, a Lab must be the previous year's champion or amateur champion, the winner of the previous year's Canadian National, or the winner of a first-place, with five championship points in open, limited, or special all-age stakes in trials held within the past year.

The National Retriever Championship Stake includes at least ten tests, or “series,” equally divided between those on land and those on water. The judges place only the winner, and that dog is entitled to bear the official designation “National Retriever Field Trial Champion” for that year. Since the National began in 1941, all but four of the championships have been won by a Lab.

Organizations that sponsor agility competitions are the American Kennel Club, the United States Dog Agility Association, the North American Dog Agility Council, and the United Kennel Club. Titles vary from organization to organization.

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