Though we continually conspire to sustain the fiction, human activities seldom divide themselves neatly into decades or centuries; still less the number of years served by a reigning monarch. Any attempt to offer generalisation has to be tempered by awareness of overlaps, because historical judgement involves drawing a balance between continuity and change.

And, especially where gundog standards are concerned, myth and reality tumble through one another. Memory seems a sure guide, but recollections are gilded in the re-telling. So it is with gundogs. We venerate the greats of the past whilst sensing that the dogs of the present era are capable of far more than their forbears. In saying that, of course, we must recognise that we are speaking of the apex of what is a very broadly based pyramid of gundog activity. Field Trials are the only public examination of gundog capability, and the respective championships are the highest expression of that competence. So, whilst acknowledging the broader picture, comment inevitably inclines to the highest expressions of the art – for art it is – of gundog training.

From 158 to 655 field trials in 60 years

In the year of Her Majesty’s accession we find 90 field trial meetings listed in vol. LXXIX of The Kennel Club Calendar and Stud Book. Forty-two were two-day meetings and three lasted for three days and, since many included both open or all-aged and puppy or novice stakes, some 158 trials were held in all. By the time of her Silver Jubilee, numbers had increased markedly with 226 stakes being run in the 1974/5 season. Growth in the decade after was nothing short of spectacular with vol. CXI showing 352 stakes held in the 1983/4 season. Growth during that decade was, moreover, comparable across the most numerous breeds, with retriever trials increasing by 49 to a total of 135 and those for spaniels by 51 to 128. In this 60th year of The Queen’s reign the most recent issue of the Stud Book lists no fewer than 655 trials.

A virtual doubling in less than 30 years is a heady rate of growth, coinciding as it does with significant structural changes in agriculture and countryside management policies and associated pressures on shoot economics. We should note that whereas the norm in the 1960s was for patrons to provide ground, game, guns and other necessaries, organising societies now often find guns and effectively take on financial responsibility for the day.

Labs lose just four times since 1952

In 1952 – when you could have bought a Land Rover for £598 and a five-bedroom Sussex farmhouse-style residence with four acres for about £7,500 – the Retriever Championship was won by Jean Lumsden’s (Miss E.J.C. Train as she then was) Golden Retriever FTCh Treunair Cala. That is worthy of note because it is an exception to an otherwise incredibly dominant rule. For, in the post-war period, only subsequently in 1954, 1982 and 2006 did the breed manage to break the dominance of labradors in the Premier Stake.

Held at Six Mile Bottom near Newmarket, that 1952 championship saw the winner hunt with initiative and cover his ground in a comprehensive and systematic manner, with one of the judges, Captain Medlicott, commenting: “I think he must be a delightful dog to shoot with as one could just send him out and leave him alone…” Showing great persistence and adjusting his pace to suit the very difficult conditions, Cala could certainly find game.

Game-finding, of course, is the quality which it is the principal purpose of trials to assess. With such startling growth in their numbers, the question of whether quality had kept pace was bound to be raised again and again. But so many factors have a bearing on it that, trying to compare across time, you quickly find yourself in a land where mythologies hold sway. We elaborate and embellish and the present can easily seem but a pale reflection of a bygone golden age: so critical distance really matters.

The stellar rise of the gundog ‘handler’

Three decades and more ago, in conversation with Audrey Radclyffe – a name synonymous with the yellow labrador – I asked about the differences between ‘then and now’. She did not have to ponder long. Dogs used to be expected, she said, to work out to their game whereas now there was, more often, direction to the area of the fall.

What we see much more of now, in short, is handling.

Over the period of Her Majesty’s reign, and particularly in the last decade, there has been clearly discernible improvement. Gone are the days when, as Keith Erlandson observed in the introduction to his book Gundog Training in 1976, if you had a steady dog in a spaniel trial you could expect to get a card. And more handlers are able to put their dogs where they are able to use their natural abilities, often routinely at distances which would have been thought a major challenge not so long ago. The growth of gundog working tests has clearly had a major impact as well, not least in relation to expectations.

The regulations task judges with finding the dog which pleases them most from a shooting point of view taking “natural game finding to be of the first importance”. But, though we might suppose that to be an innate quality, the reality is that it is sensitive training and handling which best nurtures it. If we consider the collection of wounded game, so often considered the gamefinding ‘gold standard’, the picture is complicated.

Enhanced handle-ability and runner collection do not always sit easily together. If dogs are to have any hope of picking runners they have to be given the chance to do so. They have to be left alone so they can respond to whatever messages their nose is giving their brain without having their head lifted. No wonder that John Halstead, four-time winner of the championship, commented recently that it is now 80 per cent handler and 20 per cent dog. In matters of handling – putting dogs to the area of a fall – gundog standards have probably never been higher: but so far as raw game-finding is concerned, the jury is very much out.

The last of the dual purpose champions

Trial dogs, as opposed to dogs that ‘go trialling’, have over the last three decades become very specialised. But even before then the chances of a dog excelling in the field and on the show bench had, in the most popular breeds, become vanishingly small. In 1953, the year of The Queen’s Coronation, Lorna Countess Howe, one of the greats of the pre-war era who made up four dual champions, won best labrador at Crufts with her Ch British Justice. For Countess Howe, the report said, “no gundog is worth his salt” who could not do both. But the last dual champion in retrievers was in 1957 when the golden retriever David of Westley gained the exalted title in the capable hands of Jim Cranston. His breeder Joan Gill, later president of the breed club, speaking in my living room in the early 1980s, said that he “did not have the quality to be a champion in either sphere now”. And that damning assessment indicates why dual-purpose ambitions invariably end in failure.

Royal commitment to gundog championships

In terms of their fundamental precepts and the regulations that govern them, trials are recognisably similar to those of the inter-war period. Vincent Routledge’s The Ideal Retriever and How to Handle Him (1929) set out the primary qualities of nose, brains, determination and mouth and how they relate to others such as style, pace, obedience and delivery: doing it so succinctly that it has never been bettered. He finally realised his ambition 33 years later when, after twice finishing second, he won the championship with FTCh Hallingbury Blackbird.

Golden retrievers have struggled to interrupt the dominance of labradors at the IGL Retriever Championship – winning just four times in 60 years – but they remain a wonderful sight on shoot days.

That 1962 victory was at Sandringham and Her Majesty’s beaming smile as he made his speech of thanks speaks of a strong commitment to gundogs which has been sustained throughout her reign. Quite aside from Spaniel Championships, the Retriever Championship was held at Sandringham in 1955, 1962, 1977, 1982, 1987, 1992, 1998, 2003 and 2010 and at Windsor in 1994, 2001 and 2007. Hers is a practical involvement too, for she is an able handler who has judged necessarily private trials at Sandringham, and her interest in the progress of championships she attends is anything but token. Without even mentioning competitive success with the likes of FTCh Sandringham Sydney, it is a record of exceptional generosity.

Line-breeding and the positive approach

The breeding behind high-level success is anything but a chance matter. Best advice has always insisted that a working sire and dam give the greatest chance of trainability and, as successive books of champions show, imaginative breeding does that systematically. Nowadays prominent sires have every chance to consolidate their influence. Between 1993 and 2005, for instance, dogs sired by David Garbutt’s 1991 Retriever Champion FTCh Pocklea Remus qualified for the Championship 54 times, a figure almost double that achieved by the next most significant sire, FTCh Greenwood Timothy of Holdgate. Wherever we look amongst the prominent breeds, line-breeding is a precondition of a dog which can be effectively trained.

The cumulative effect of Game Fair demonstrations, writings, training classes and the like has been to consolidate what, 30 years ago, used to be called the psychological approach. Although by no means gone, negative methods are progressively less in evidence now: notwithstanding the resort by some to electric collar devices.

Challenges to gundog standards as the Kennel Club grows

Imaginative breeding has produced impressive results, but the imaginative thinking in relation to the future structure of the sport called for by Wilson Stephens in The Labrador Retriever Club 1916-1991, a Celebration of 75 Years, is a much thornier proposition. Struggles over the Kennel Club’s proposed involvement in working tests at the time were testament to that. Success and sheer size brings its own challenges. There are now, for instance, 88 societies able to run qualifying stakes for the Retriever Championship and that number will undoubtedly rise.

An impressive drive to produce regulatory reform over the last decade has, though, borne significant fruit. The review and re-structuring of the so-called J Regulations relating to Field Trials begun in 2004 effectively made possible the subsequent introduction of a Judges’ Education Programme. Passing an exam is now a precondition for entry onto and movement through the Kennel Club’s panel of field trial judges. Widely welcomed, such changes have their counterpart in an increasingly apparent ‘professionalism’ which sees amateur handlers attending training days on game. An admirable seriousness about gundog standards lies behind such developments.

The best British gundog standards

We are fortunate indeed, at this time of celebration, that the Queen has been so closely involved with our gundog heritage. In 60 years much has been transformed: but persistence is no less apparent. There are continuities in fundamental precepts that must be fiercely protected, even as we embrace change. We have become used to perennially disparaging comments about our economic prospects so it is good, without any hint of complacency, to salute a success story. As the record and the esteem in which our premier events are held shows, it is not fanciful to consider British gundogs the best. Her Majesty has played no small part in sustaining that pre-eminence.

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