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Labs—British vs. U.S.

Much has been written and said in recent years about British Labradors, particularly in ways they compare to American Labradors.

My wife, Jan, and I have studied, imported and trained British Labradors for nearly 26 years. In that time we’ve learned there are indeed differences between the two types of Labradors.

But to fully appreciate the nature of those differences, prospective retriever owners and others interested in Labradors need to know not only about British and American Labradors, but about British and American cultures and the ways hunting and shooting are practiced in both places.

For while there are differences between American Labradors and their British counterparts, they aren’t founded in mystery. Rather, they are the result, primarily — over time — of differences in training priorities, training methods and the way retrievers are field-trialed in England and the U.S.

If an American can understand these differences, he can maximize his gun dog’s potential for becoming a quiet, steady companion that is highly effective in the field.

History, please

Let’s begin by expanding on the last sentence, particularly the words maximize his gun dog’s potential for becoming a quiet, steady companion who is highly effective in the field.

The key word here is potential.

Each dog, like each human, is blessed with certain natural abilities. The degree to which those abilities are nurtured and developed varies from individual to individual.

While it is theoretically true that two dogs — or people — with identical natural abilities (if such a thing were possible) could develop identically if they were given the same opportunities, it’s not true in a practical sense.

Too many variables exist for identical development to occur.

That said, it remains true that a puppy that possesses a natural tendency to be quiet (not bark excessively) is more likely to develop into an adult dog that is quiet.

Similarly, a puppy that possesses a natural tendency to retrieve is likely to develop into an adult dog that retrieves.

And so on.

Previously, we have discussed traits we consider desirable in companion retrievers.

Good health is one. We also want a dog that is quiet in the kennel, pleasing to the eye, retrieves naturally, is athletic and intelligent and possesses a kind temperament.

In general, those traits can be found in most British retriever lines, which is why they have enjoyed increased popularity in America.

In general, those traits are less likely to be found in combination in many American retriever lines.

Note the emphasis here on the words “in general,’’ because exceptions abound to each rule.

Keep in mind our original precept: good retrievers, even great retrievers, come in every breed and color.

Yet some lines of retrievers have greater potential to develop into certain types of retrieverss than others.

And British Labradors, generally speaking, have, in our opinion, a greater likelihood to develop into high-quality companion gun dogs than do most American Labradors.

U.S., Great Britain differ

Here’s why that’s true.

Great Britain, as a nation and a culture, values, in a broad sense, tradition.

Yes, the U.K. is a modern nation in every sense of the word. But virtually all aspects of its culture — everything from its monarchy to its architecture to its sense of style — is influenced by the past.

American culture is also affected by tradition. But its influence here is considerably less evident.

The U.S. and its people are more often guided by change.

Everything about America changes virtually everyday — or so it seems.

These significant differences between Great Britain and the U.S. are evident in the types of retrievers that inhabit the two countries.

Example: In England, retriever field trials are held in much the same fashion today they were 100 years ago.

Typically, a British retriever trial begins when members of a field trial society send their entries to the trial secretary.

Perhaps 100 or more retriever owners will attempt to enter a trial. But unlike in America, where trial entries are unlimited, only 24 dogs are allowed in a two-day stake in England (12 dogs are allowed in a one day stake).

Those selected to run a trial are drawn from a hat containing all entries.

This is a critically important component of the British retriever field trial “system,” and one that plays a key role in its retriever development.

Because English field-trial entries are limited, even trialers who belong to a number of field trial societies — people who attempt to enter 40 to 50 trials a year — will only average between four and eight trials a year.

So a retriever field-trialer in England must not only be a good handler with a good dog, he must be lucky enough to have his name drawn regularly. Only then can he give his good dog enough opportunities to make him into a champion.

That’s why four, five or six years sometimes pass in England before even some great dogs are made into field trial champions.

A British field trial dissected

Let’s take a good look at a British retriever field trial.

Imagine yourself a bird soaring high above a two-day retriever stake in England.

Below, beginning at about 8 a.m., you see vehicles gather in a field on a large estate.

In some vehicles are trialers and their dogs. In others are judges.

Walking about are the guns, or men who will be shooting birds on this day. Also there is a trial steward, as well as various other people helping with the trial.

Also present are men and women who will be in “line’’ during the walk-up phase of the trial. These people carry walking sticks that they will use to “beat’’ the cover, whether sugar beats or bracken, in an attempt to put birds to wing.

In fact, the first day of a two-day trial typically is spent “walking up.’’ During a walk up, four or five dogs might be under judgement at any give time in a line of people that can stretch 100 feet (in heavy cover) or as much as 75 yards (in row crops such as sugar beets).

As the line moves through the cover, typically there is little talking. Indeed, the entire operation is conducted with a sort of reverence for the surroundings and particularly for the game that has been cultivated on the estate.

Unlike in America, where trials often are held on grounds groomed specifically for retriever training, in England, as mentioned earlier, trials are held on large estates.

The trialers are present on the estate at the invitation of the estate owner. Typically, the estate owner will supply the guns. Sometimes these will be friends. On other, less frequent occasions, they might be paying guests.

In some instances, the shoot will be sponsored by the estate owner for the specific purpose of accommodating the host field trial society.

In other instances, the trial is being held essentially in conjunction with a shoot the estate owner had otherwise planned.

Estates of this kind can range in size from several hundred acres to, in the case of one estate owned by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, many thousands of acres.

The Queen’s Sandringham Estate, on which she holds the British Retriever Championship every five years (typically), comprises more than 20,000 acres.

But regardless an estate’s size, game on it is carefully cultivated. In many instances this means pheasants are reared for release to supplement a wild population. In other cases, such as at Sandringham, the pheasant population is nurtured, but it is not supplanted by pen-reared birds.

In all cases, gamekeepers employed by estates will protect game by killing foxes and other vermin. Hawks and other aerial predators also were killed in the past but laws now protect these birds.

Considerable effort is expended on shooting estates to arrange cover types to accommodate the movement of game. Pheasants are not beat out of woods without the keeper knowing exactly where the birds are likely to fly.

That way the guns can be placed strategically, ensuring a productive day’s shooting. The gamekeeper also wants surviving birds to remain on the estate.

Before a shoot or a field trial, a keeper and his helpers might move game into key areas by beating it from one spot to another. This can’t be done with exact precision. But good keepers are remarkably adept at moving game from place to place.

Reverence is appropriate

Given the cost of operating a shooting estate, it’s understandable that field trialers and their dogs must do nothing to interfere with the gamekeeper in his effort to fulfill his many duties, or the guns in their desire to enjoy the outing.

Fundamentally, it’s also good manners for the handlers and their dogs to behave civilly. Foremost among their responsibilities is to minimize any interference with game that has yet to be shot.

Recall that the estate owner has a considerable amount of money, not to mention pride, invested in his estate. He wants to put on a good shoot.

Recall as well that the gamekeeper is a professional who prides himself in the quality of game he presents.

Therefore, dogs participating in the shoot must perform their duties while otherwise remaining, essentially, invisible.

So, too, the handlers.

In America, where field-trialers where bright white jackets, their English counterparts dress in traditional country colors, muted greens and browns. Why? The better to blend in.

Similarly, in America, field-trialers often use big megaphone-type whistles. British field-trialers employ small, quiet whistles.

The better to not scare game that has not yet been put to wing.

Looking below, and learning

From our perch high above a British trial, we see a walk up being organized in a series of large sugar beet fields. The test will be especially challenging for dogs from northern England and Scotland, where row crops are not typically grown.

Such fields give dogs many opportunities to follow their noses and open up their legs rather than listen to the whistle. Dogs that are too hot or otherwise disinclined to listen to their handlers are the most likely to be sent packing in this type of cover.

Alongside the line of judged dogs, guns, beaters and judges as it begins to move through the first field are dogs and their handlers who are not yet under judgement.

With them is the gallery, which, except for the national championship, is usually not very large.

The dogs that are not being judged are affixed to their handlers by rope leaches attached loosely around the animals’ necks.

No matter how many birds fly ahead of the line, or how many rabbits or hares are flushed, and regardless the amount of shooting that ensues, none of the dogs at the side of the field whine or otherwise show signs of nervousness.

Nor do any tug at the ends of their handlers’ leashes.

Instead they stand calmly at heel, aware of their surroundings, and certainly aware of the flying birds and shooting. But they are under control.

More accurately, they are controlling themselves. Or seem to be.

So too the dogs under judgement. These dogs, walking smartly at the heels of their handlers, are not leashed.

These dogs are subjected to nearly continual game scent — and game itself. As the line moves, pheasants, partridges, hares and rabbits scurry ahead.

This is another reason everyone participating in an English shoot wears drab colors, and why dog handlers use quiet whistles. No one wants to scare the game before it can be shot.

Because this is the first morning of the trial, initial birds and fur given the dogs will be felled more or less straight ahead. As dogs are eliminated, more difficult retrieves will be given, with dogs on the left end of the line asked to retrieve birds felled at the right, and so on.

We see on the far left end of the line a woman and her yellow Labrador. The dog is heeling nicely. The handler, as required, is not speaking to the dog — not even admonishing it in a whisper.

Instead she carefully watches ahead.


Thirty yards ahead and slightly to the right, a cock pheasant flushes. As the bird rises into the sky, the left-hand barrel of a 12-gauge double cracks. The pheasant helicopters down.

Long moments pass. The line stops and the judges allow matters to settle.

The judges’ first job is to assess whether the bird is dead or simply wounded — or what the British call a runner.

If they believe it to be dead, they may wait an extra moment before signaling to one of the handlers to send his dog. If it’s a runner, the judge likely will act more quickly, getting a dog on its way.

In either circumstance, a dog is soon off.

Unlike in an American trial, in which a retriever likely will spring to the area of the fall with its head up, its British counterpart probably will run with its nose down.

This is encouraged because the handler ultimately has no idea where the bird is. He knows where it fell. But if it is a runner, it possibly could be running back toward the line, rather than away from it. For that reason, the dog — while moving quickly to the area of the fall — must hunt along the way.

Amazingly, en route to the fall, the British retriever typically will flush other game. It might be another pheasant. Or perhaps a rabbit or hare. Maybe even a partridge or woodcock.

Though guns are encouraged not to drop secondary birds in the area where the first bird fell, game that arises while a retrieve is underway nevertheless is sometimes shot. But no matter. The British retriever must ignore it — though the dog can be whistled off the second fall by its handler — and concentrate on retrieving the first bird.

Which brings up another difference between British and American retrievers. In British trials, absolutely first-rate noses are absolutely required of retrievers to succeed.

Without the ability to track game, a retriever will never make its mark in England.

In America, by contrast, a good nose can even hurt a dog in a field trial, where dogs are required to run long, straight lines, with their heads up. This can be spectacular to watch and can be impressive in many ways.

But the encouragement of good noses by British field trials results in retrievers better suited for tracking, and therefore for hunting.

Watch now as the black Lab bitch sprints from the line, released by little more than a whistle.

The little girl, weighing about 55 pounds, puts up a hen pheasant en route to the fall.

The bird is allowed to climb over the line. Then it is shot.

The Lab watches this momentarily, then continues to the fall. In this instance the bird is stone dead, and it’s an easy pick. Happily, with the pheasant in its mouth, the bitch races back to her handler and gives up the bird.

The funnel narrows

But the test is not yet passed.

The bird is quickly given by the handler to a judge, who turns it over, inspecting it. Any sign whatsoever that the skin of the bird has been pricked by the dog will send the dog and handler home.

In Great Britain, a soft mouth in a retrieving dog is critical.

As we begin to understand more about the British retriever trial, this, too, makes sense in a very practical way. For a day’s end, game that is shot is not given to the guns, even if they have paid a handsome price for a day’s shoot.

Instead, the birds, rabbits and hares (except for a brace of birds, which typically is given to each gun) are retained by the estate owner for eventual resale on the open market.

Thus — and this is important to understanding the British retriever — the role of economics pervades of a day’s shoot in England. Game must be cultivated. Habitat must be managed. And people participating in the shoot, from the estate owner to the man trailing behind with spaniels and Labs “picking up’’ unretrieved game, must play by a set of rules that allows for the best shoot possible.

Therefore participating dogs must be absolutely quiet so as not to scare game away before it can be shot.

Participating dogs must also be absolutely under control for the same reason.

Quiet whistles also are used so as not to scare game.

What’s important to understand is that many, if not most, of the traits required in British retrievers participating in shoots — and trials — can’t be trained for, they can only be bred for.

Quietness? An inherited characteristic.

Steadiness? A trained characteristic best achieved with a dog predisposed toward it.

Soft mouth? Inherited.

Biddability? (Trainability?) Without this characteristic, a British dog could never be trained — as just one example — to ignore game it flushes and continue to a downed bird.

Great noses? Inherited.

Remember, the electric collar is not used in England. So what is achieved through breeding is what a trainer has to work with.

Consequently, in Great Britain, careful breeding is all important. Yes, retrievers there must be trained. But because so much is required of these animals that are factors of temperament and, virtually, temperament alone — quietness, steadiness, soft mouth, biddability — they must be very demanding in the type of dogs they breed.

Don’t forget, if a handler has to so much as whisper to a dog to remind it to stay at heel while in line, both will be eliminated.

And if a retriever lets out so much as a peep or a squeak while under judgment, he — or she — also will be eliminated.

So, rather than waste time and effort, a typical British field-trialer will focus on purchasing the right type of retriever puppy from the outset, then work to accentuate that pup’s natural tendencies — tendencies that the American hunter in search of a shooting companion also values

Next Up: Part 4: The Color of Labradors

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