On January 17, 2012, history was made in the field-trial world. Not since the 1976-1977 season and Mr A.M. Gregory’s FTCh Tayburn Cockle has a dog won the Cocker Spaniel Championship twice in a row.

“I was doubly nervous last year,” says champion handler Ben Randall. “In 2011 I thought that there was a possibility of winning, so I felt the pressure. But this year I didn’t expect to win – nobody wins twice in a row – so I was more relaxed.”

Next year will be a different matter. The only time that the championship has been won three times in a row was during the 1972-74 season when the late Keith Erlandson handled Speckle of Ardoon to success. The prospect of repeating that remarkable achievement is now tantalisingly in sight. In 2013, at Sandringham, all eyes will be on one little liver bitch, Ben Randall’s FTCh Heolybwlch Fatty.

Twenty years ago, I stood as Ben Randall did, a championship winning handler looking to repeat the win. I can recall the nerves, the buzz of the crowd and the butterflies at my first championship. I understand all too well as Ben Randall describes that feeling of elation as the results are called out and you realise you are the winner. It is quite true that the following year, a defending champion, you don’t expect lady luck to shine again. It didn’t for me but it did for Ben Randall. Will it shine a third time? With so many more people competing these days I wonder how much cockers, and cocker trials, have changed in the intervening years.

Ledbury Lodge Kennels in Herefordshire, where Ben Randall and wife Nicky board as well as train dogs, is a tribute to the thought and effort this couple put into everything they do, and effort and care seem to be their undermining motto. Given that Ben Randall no doubt puts the same amount of thought and effort into his dog training, it’s no surprise he has become so successful. He is a good person to speak to about how things have changed in the trialling world.

“Retrieving has improved significantly, even in the last few years,” he says.

In the early 1990s it was commonplace for cockers, particularly in novice stakes, to be poor retrievers and even worse at handling for retrieves. Judges would tolerate dogs running around in ever-decreasing circles until they eventually homed in on the bird.

My own bitch won most of her trials as she had started her training at labrador classes and had been schooled to their standard.

“Nowadays, first-class retrieving and handling is the norm,” he says. “At championship standard, and in open stakes, a dog is expected to go straight to the fall of a shot bird.”

It seems that where handler assistance was accepted 20 years ago, today more emphasis is placed on marking ability. Reduced tolerance of dogs needing a lot of handling is a good development. It identifies dogs with good eyesight, the ability to judge distance, and those with that all-important quality – gun-sense – the experience and talent to use the flight of the quarry, the timing of the shot and angle of the gun to work out where the retrieve is likely to be. It’s a quality that makes the difference between an open stake winner and a championship winner. Involve dogs with this ability in breeding programmes and standards are sure to improve.

Improved hunting and retrieving skills

Top-quality hunters existed among the trials dogs of the 1980s and 1990s but many excelled only in light cover. Lack of body weight, muscle and drive resulted in many springer handlers rather dismissing the abilities of their smaller cousins.

“Thoughtful breeding by skilled people such as Peter Jones has improved standards,” he says.

Other professionals have taken on the little dogs and as more people have entered cocker trials, the standard required to win has gone up. Cockers are now commonplace in the beating line. Twenty years ago they were almost as rare as clumbers are today. In 1991 it was common for the same handlers to be at a field trial from one day to the next, and trials were often under-subscribed. Nowadays, two or three open stakes can take place in different parts of the country on the same day and all will be full.

I ask Ben Randall about stamina. It’s often a criticism levelled at trial dogs that they are fast and flashy but lack the engine to last a full day in the field. Ben Randall is aware of the view.

“Trials dogs are shooting dogs. Mine all do their apprenticeships in the beating line and picking-up. Trials are the shop window of the working spaniel world and as competitors we have a duty to produce sound, healthy and capable animals, as most of the dogs we breed are going to end up in the hands of people who want to work them, not trial them.”

It’s a good point. Look at the pedigree of the vast majority of working spaniels and there will be successful trials dogs listed. As he puts it:

“Trials dogs are all working dogs first, it’s just that they have that bit of extra polish and the winners have that bit of extra ability.”

As we chat, I examine numerous magazine articles displayed in his office. Standard of dog work isn’t the only thing to have changed in the trials world. Twenty years ago there were no mobile phones, email, or internet. There were no chat forums, fewer magazines and less publicity in the sport. My win resulted in a few phone calls, some cards and a half-page write-up. Nowadays media such as Facebook, Gundog Forum and Twitter mean that reports on trials and comments on dogs are available almost before the trial is finished. Sponsors have not been slow to recognise the opportunities this presents, something which is invaluable because running dogs in trials is hugely expensive.

Recording the championship

Video recording of championship trials used to be the realm of enthusiastic amateurs until Paul French entered the sector in the early 1990s. With little experience at the time, Paul’s first efforts were limited but as time progressed his team improved tremendously. A DVD of the championship will now take you right into the action with the handlers and judges, and give views hitherto unseen. Interviews with judges and competitors give the viewer even greater understanding of the pressures that exist on the day.

The championship itself bears little resemblance to past events. In 1991, the meeting point for the championship was a roadside car park and the trophies were presented to me from a back of a car in pouring rain – not that it mattered to me. Today, the Cocker Club, under the stewardship of Mike Smith, runs the event over two days. A headquarters hotel is booked where guests and followers can mix with competitors. Entertainment is organised and dinners are well attended.

It is a testament to the dogs themselves that they are still able to perform to the standard they do under the pressure of so many developments. Ben Randall likened the footfall of the following public gallery to the noise of a wildebeest herd trampling through bracken. People are chatting, cameras flashing, officials moving here and there. And all the time a little dog has to concentrate on its job, find its quarry, look for where the bird lands and then retrieve it quickly in the face of hundreds of watching faces. It can’t be easy to pick out their own handler but they do, time and again. It’s a testament to the dogs and a testament to their trainers.

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Martin Puddifer’s article on Ben Randall from 2011 can be found here