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Original Issue

Finding new fun in the fields

An informal kind of field trial gives family-bred retrievers a fine chance to enjoy themselves

On a recent Saturday morning a group of shivering, slicker-clad men, women and children converged upon the banks of a small, weed-choked pond in Bedford Hills, N.Y. After several weeks of premature summer weather, the temperature had dropped to around 40°, rain had fallen steadily for hours, and dark, gloomy clouds hung on the horizon. Undeterred by this discouraging weather, the newcomers immediately began erecting gaily striped tents, attaching strange extensions to the backs of station wagons and fencing off little areas in which coffeepots and Coleman stoves were set to sputtering. Throughout the activity, retrievers of various sizes and shapes sloshed about in the mud, sniffed at boxes of sandwiches and scurried from underfoot.

From the combination of miserable weather and dogs, it was clear that the occasion was to be a field trial. But from the preponderance of small children, picnic lunches and good-natured banter, it was also clear that it was not a field trial in any ordinary sense. It was, in fact, what is known among dog people as a "fun trial," and in spite of an apparent conspiracy of the elements against any kind of fun, everyone seemed to be having a wonderful time.

Because they live up to their name in providing genuine fun for all concerned, such trials are rapidly becoming a favorite weekend sport from Connecticut to California. Fundamentally, a fun trial is a field trial—but, unlike conventional trials, it is neither sanctioned nor licensed by the American Kennel Club, and is usually organized by a small, unofficial group such as the Westchester Retriever Club, which ran the Bedford Hills trial.

"In the retriever game," says longtime field-trial gun Charles Smith, "we are beginning to be aware of a developing schism between national field-trial dogs and ordinary, competent gun dogs. There is still a very important place in the retriever breeds for dogs that are principally hunting companions. However, there is no longer any place for these dogs in the high-pressure, supermechanized contests that national retriever trials have become."

Good companion

One of the major events at a fun trial is the gun dog class, a simple, informal test of a retriever's abilities as a hunting companion. The dog need not be a finished performer. On the line, if he moves about, wags his tail or has to be held steady by his handler, nobody minds. And if, when he goes after his bird, he lets out a squeal of good-natured delight, the breach of etiquette does not count against him as it would at a regular trial. Almost all the dogs at a fun trial are handled by their owners and only a few have had the benefit of professional training. Their lessons have usually been sandwiched in here or there by owners commuting from brokerage firms, advertising agencies or sales offices. Almost without exception, the dogs that compete are family pets. "When a dog goofs at a regular trial, people often say that he has spent too much time in the kennel," says Author Richard Wolters (SI, April 24, 1961), president of the Westchester Retriever Club. "At a fun trial, it is usually a question of the dog spending too much time in the family living room."

First and foremost, the fun trial is a family affair. When 8-year-old Jackie Macintosh of Millbrook handled her golden retriever Bruce at the Bedford Hills trial, a gallery of pint-sized peers watched as intently as experts. And when Jackie signaled the judges that she and Bruce were ready, the youngsters seemed almost to stop breathing.

Not a shiny yellow hair on Bruce's 50-pound body moved as he waited at Jackie's side. One duck was dropped in a small channel across the pond; another fell behind a weedy point of land well out of sight of the dog.

Jackie gave the command to fetch. Bruce leaped off the bank and swam for the first bird. He retrieved it neatly and then, on Jackie's signal, went after the second, more difficult one. For several tense minutes it seemed he would not find it—the bird had maneuvered up under the weedy point near which it had fallen. Undismayed, Jackie tooted on the whistle around her neck like an old pro. While the gallery, youngsters and adults alike, watched in hushed silence, her tiny arms flashed signals to the dog. Suddenly, Bruce was on the scent and, as he retrieved the bird, a broad, bright grin burst upon Jackie's face and on those of every youngster in the field.

"It's amazing how interested kids are and how well they can do in field trials once they know what a retriever's job is and how much the dogs can do," says Bill Alexander, an eighth-grade science teacher from Carmel, N.Y., whose interest in dogs dates from the time about a year ago, when he bought a 5-month-old Labrador puppy named Rocky and set about trying to train him for duck hunting. Helen Ginnel, who sold him the dog and who also happens to be secretary of the Westchester Retriever Club, suggested that he attend one of their weekly training sessions. From then on, Rocky, Bill and his young wife Nancy became familiar figures at informal trials throughout New York and Connecticut.

Rocky has already placed in nine trials, and Bill is so enthusiastic about what the sport has done for him and his dog that, two weeks ago, assisted by Helen Ginnel and Jackie's father, Jack Macintosh, he staged a full-scale demonstration in the gymnasium of the Carmel Junior High School. Youngsters in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades helped convert the school gymnasium into an indoor forest of logs, evergreens, bushes and artificial trees. Working with live ducks and pigeons, Rocky and six other Labradors demonstrated their skill to some 350 students. "Gee, they're really smart to be able to find those birds the way they do, even when the birds hide and all," said one interested observer. "A guy would be pretty dumb to hunt alone when he could take along a retriever like that."