Skip to main content
Original Issue

A Series of Trials and Tribulations

Although training a retriever is hardly duck soup, the participants get to whistle while they work

Its adherents claim that no sport is more demanding, time-consuming and nerve-racking than running a retriever in field trials. Some retriever addicts train or trial 365 days a year, and this commitment is necessary if success is to follow. Ordinarily, it takes several years of hard work to qualify a dog for either the National Amateur or the National Open, and the average age of a dog in a National is six.

Licensed trials are held throughout the U.S. every week except in December and January, when many dogs are taken South or to California for two months of intensive training. For a field trialer the hours are onerous; trials begin early Friday morning and end late Sunday. On a Thursday evening handlers and their dogs start arriving at field-trial headquarters, usually a motel in the boondocks, handy to the swamps and fields that serve as the trial grounds.

The retriever people are occupationally a disparate lot—fireman, airline captain, housewife, contractor, doctor, lawyer, Wall Street chief—but sartorially they are strangely of a piece. There is a profusion of fedoras studded with club medallions, white jackets that enable a handler to stand out against the background when he or she seeks to direct a dog at 100 yards, and always—but always—a lanyard with two whistles, usually plastic, hung around the neck. Why two whistles? One might not work. Why plastic? In cold weather metal can stick to the lips. Retriever people leave little to chance. Through experience, they have arrived at Branch Rickey's great truth: luck is the residue of design.

Above all, there are the dogs. Excited dogs, ecstatic dogs, dogs that would gladly swim the English Channel to retrieve a feather duster. Under American Kennel Club rules, six breeds are permitted to compete in retriever field trials: the Labrador, the golden, the Chesapeake Bay, the fiat-coated, the curly-coated and the Irish water spaniel. The Labrador dominates the field, and about 90% of competing dogs are black Labs. In the U.S. the yellow Lab is a favorite in the show ring, but in the field the black Lab rules.

A number of golden retrievers and some Chesapeakes have done well in trials, but, so the thinking goes, goldens do not like the water as much as Labs, and Chessies are considered hard-headed. Flat-coated and curly-coated retrievers are rarely seen, and an Irish water spaniel last competed in a licensed trial a couple of years ago. He was eliminated after he suddenly stopped halfway back from his retrieve to dig a hole to bury the duck.

The sport of field trialing retrievers started in England at the turn of the century and began in this country in the 1930s on Long Island under the aegis of the Big Rich. In the last 10 years the sport has grown enormously, mostly for the simple reason that a lot of people are attracted by a dog that does something. It is still possible to buy a pup of good breeding for $250 or $300, sometimes even less, but older dogs that have been working well command a high figure. Recently a very promising 2-year-old sold for $23,000, and a field champion brought $30,000. Last year there were 22,000 entries in licensed trials, almost triple the number for 1963.

Although the sport has spread, Long Island remains its spiritual home, and the photographs shown here were taken at the spring trials of the Long Island Retriever Field Trial Club. A number of established amateur handlers competed, including August Belmont, Roger Vasselais and Mrs. George H. (Torchy) Flinn Jr., all of whom have champions. And there was the inevitable cluster of professionals: Paul Genthner, Bud Hedges, Ray Staudinger and J.J. Sweezey.

Typical of the relative newcomer to the sport was David B. Bandler, who commutes from suburban Hartsdale in southern Westchester to New York City, where he works as a securities analyst. A genial man in his 60s, Bandler brings perspective to retrievers; he was in beagle trials for 30 years. "I don't regret any of the time I spent with beagles," he says, "but after a beagle is a year and a half old, he's cast in a mold, and you can't teach him to do any different. With retrievers you continue to teach and to learn yourself."

In 1967 Bandler and his wife Ruth bought a Lab from the Whygin Kennel in Bedford Hills, N.Y. They named the puppy Whygin Wellmet Angus, and began training him with canvas dummies, mostly on a dammed-up portion of the Saw Mill River. This small stretch of water is hardly an ideal training area, Bandler points out, because "the Saw Mill River Parkway is on one side and the New York State Thruway on the other. In between are the Putnam Division tracks of the Penn Central."

When Angus was six months old he began running in puppy stakes, in which a handler is permitted to hold the dog before it is sent out to retrieve the bird, usually a shot pigeon. Angus did very well, and when he was a year old he moved into the derby class. Bandler suddenly began finding himself hundreds of miles from home on weekends. Instead of taking a regular vacation, he now takes 15 to 20 Fridays off a year to run Angus in trials.

In derbies, the dog cannot be restrained while waiting to retrieve but must sit obediently by the handler's side until the judges call his number. Derby dogs are tested in land-and-water retrieving, and training a dog to hold steady and not break after he sees the first pheasant can be a task, especially since a good prospect is just about ready to explode with excitement when he spots any kind of a bird—even a starling on the lawn. Angus showed promise in derbies, accumulating seven licensed points. He was not among the leaders of the national derby championship but, adding the unofficial points he won in sanctioned trials, he was the top-scoring derby dog for 1969 owned by a member of the Westchester retriever club, and the Bandlers left the organization's annual dinner with a pewter cup.

After graduating from the derby stake at age two, Angus began running in amateur and open stakes. In these stakes a dog must—among other things—be able to work blinds. A blind is a bird hidden, say, 135 yards away, across the third channel in the marsh just to the left of that little bush. No, not that little bush, the other one. The handlers are told all this, but the dogs, back in their crates, are blissfully unaware of where the bird is planted. When a dog is brought up for the blind the handler must "line" him toward the bird. If the dog starts to veer off course, pulled, say, by a tempting swerve of a channel to the right, the handler blows his whistle, extends his left arm and shouts, "Over!" Not all dogs, especially young dogs, take heed. Many get sudden notions of independence or feign deafness to the whistle when 50 yards away, and in training a handler has to run out and correct the dog on the spot. Too much correcting, however, and a dog may start to "pop"—that is, turn around every 10 yards or so as if to ask, "Where now?"

In four years of competing in championship stakes, Angus has won 13½ amateur points. He would be a champion now except for the fact that Bandler committed a couple of memorable goofs. The worst occurred when he cost Angus a sure win: out of sheer nervousness he spoke to the dog on line before his number was called. Bandler didn't realize what he had done until Angus was out retrieving a bird and a judge quietly told Bandler his dog was eliminated.

Last year Bandler began a new training technique with Angus, making him wait between double or triple retrieves. "Logic would tell you that you should send the dog out quickly before he forgets where the birds have fallen," Bandler says, "but I think he has a mind like a Polaroid camera, and so I just wait a little longer between birds and let the picture develop more."

Last May in Maryland, Angus had his biggest day when he earned five points for a first-place finish in an open, and he now has, by the arithmetic of the sport, 8½ points toward a 10-point open championship and 13½ points toward a 15-point amateur field championship. Angus did not score at the Long Island trials, but if he manages to earn only 1½ more open points by November, he will not only win his field championship but be one of 70 to 80 dogs eligible to run in the National Retriever Championship later that month. For almost anyone, but particularly for a latecomer like Bandler, running in the National Open is like a weekend golfer being invited to play in the Masters. Says Bandler, "Why, that would be the opportunity of a lifetime."





THE DOGGY BUNCH at the Long Island spring trials included Dave and Ruth Bandler (left row, center) and Gordon Allen, who is sending his black Labrador out on a practice retrieve.