As in any sport, there will always be an element of field triallers prepared to resort to unsportsmanlike tactics to achieve their ends, says David Tomlinson

It’s a sad fact that in virtually every competitive sport there are those prepared to try to win or fix a result by unfair or unsporting means. Sometimes it’s for financial gain or it may be for personal glory, but it’s all about cheating. You don’t have to look far to find examples in cricket, cycling, athletics, even pigeon racing. Years ago I lost an important squash match because my older and more experienced opponent cheated at match ball — for those who understand squash the score was 99 in the fifth. That loss still rankles with me to this day.

The world of field trialling also has its cheats, as I was reminded when I recently received a highly detailed 2,500-word account of the alleged wrongdoings of a spaniel trialler. Even if only some of the allegations have any foundation, it still adds up to an extremely damning indictment, and one that could also raise many questions over the Kennel Club and its management of field trials and disciplinary matters. The base of the allegations is that the individual, whom I won’t name for legal reasons, has deliberately crossed English springers with cockers in what has proved to be a successful exercise to enhance the latter’s performance in competitions.

To do this, it is alleged that there has been illegal manipulation of Kennel Club pedigrees, recording a different sire or dam to the dog that produced the puppies. For anyone with a number of dogs in their kennels this is remarkably easy to do.

Sprocker spaniel

English springers have been crossed with cockers and pedigrees manipulated, it has been alleged

Sprocker spaniels ruled out of competitions run under Kennel Club rules

I admit to being a fan of sprockers as I like their hybrid vigour. They are not a designer cross-breed like a Labradoodle but simply spaniel x spaniel, and it should not be forgotten that both breeds share the same ancestry. However, since a cocker crossed with a springer is a cross-breed, it cannot be registered with the Kennel Club, and this rules sprockers out of any competition run under Kennel Club rules.

I’ve no doubt that running a sprocket against pure cockers does give an unfair advantage — it’s a bit like racing a car with a six-cylinder engine in a class where only four-cylinder engines are allowed. What is more, it does seem likely that in recent years several successful dogs in cocker trials and even the cocker championship have been sprockers.

What is sprocker? And what is pure cocker?

It is apparently becoming increasingly difficult to know what is sprocker and what is pure cocker, a situation compounded by the fact that one FTCh, “well known to be a full sprocker”, has been used repeatedly at stud, covering numerous bitches. Another disturbing allegation is the substitution of dogs running in trials. According to the letter, “there have been numerous occasions where the dog running was categorically not the same animal as the one entered and named on the programme”.

Without microchip checking of competing dogs at trials this is an easy way to cheat. There’s even the suggestion that one particular FTCh may in fact be two or three different dogs that have all competed under the same registered name.

The letter contains many other allegations. It points out that “many honest and unsuspecting people” have unwittingly used stud dogs or bought puppies believing that they were acquiring top cocker lines, when they were getting no such thing. This, of course, is fraud. The letter containing all these allegations wasn’t only sent to me: a copy was also apparently sent to the Kennel Club.

sprocker spaniel

It can be difficult to tell a sprocker from a pure cocker because the two have a shared ancestry and can look alike

Fatal flaw

However, even if it was received the letter contains one fatal  aw: it wasn’t signed. Sadly, there’s a climate of fear in the trialling world, for if you dare to make accusations of malpractice, there’s a concern that they can mis re and damage you. This discourages people from putting their name to complaints.

Regardless of whether the Club received the letter and whether or not it investigates the individual concerned, there’s still a lot it can do to ensure fair play in future trials. The most obvious would be to check the microchip of every dog competing in trials to ensure that it is the animal it is claimed to be. This could be coupled with random DNA testing, or in the case of cocker trials, compulsory testing of winning dogs in both open and novice trials, and the top three dogs in the cocker championship.

DNA testing for sprocker spaniels

DNA testing is no longer prohibitively expensive. The Kennel Club already offers a DNA pro ling and parentage analysis, explaining on its website that “the DNA profile is the ultimate in individual identification and offers a ‘tamper-proof’ means of identity. The profile need only be produced once and the DNA sample used to produce it can be stored as a permanent DNA record throughout the dog’s life.” The club charges £25 for its DNA profiling kit.

However, I believe that it is equally important that the many judges and competitors who are worried about cheating in cocker trials — and I have every reason to believe that there are plenty of them — should have the courage of their convictions to put their names to any accusatory letter sent to the Kennel Club. Anonymous letters just won’t do.