This happened at a retriever field trial recently, and the Lab's reward for his quick reflex action was immediate disqualification and elimination from the contest. For, technically, the dog had "run in"—retrieved a bird without a specific command from his handler—and, except for biting the seat out of a judge's pants or eating a retrieved bird, there are few worse crimes a field-trial retriever can commit, since he's supposed to be under his handler's control at all times after coming to the line.
Basically a field trial—both the national events and the fast-growing numbers of small, local trials—is an effort to reproduce conditions that might be found in a normal day's shooting and to judge the competing retrievers on their ability to cope with normal problems. Not infrequently a losing handler will complain that a test on which his dog failed had no relation to field conditions, but it's hard to imagine any field-trial test that might not be duplicated under actual hunting conditions. (In his valuable book, Training Your Retriever, James Lamb Free scoffs at such complainers and says, "...I feel that any retriever taking up the time of the judges in an Open All-Age Stake should be expected to do...anything but answer the telephone and take a message.")
For example, a hunter in the field might shoot three ducks as they flew through a pass and want his dog to retrieve first the one drifting away on the tide, remembering where each of the other two had fallen in dense growth and retrieving them after getting the one from the water. This condition can be easily duplicated by having three ducks shot (or three shackled live ducks tossed into the air) within the dog's view as it sits beside its handler; the judge will tell the handler which duck is to be retrieved first and will indicate when the dog is to be sent out.
It's not unusual in the field for a dog to be retrieving one pheasant from heavy cover, when another gets up, is wounded and flies two or three hundred yards to another field. Since the dog was unable to see this action the hunter will want to direct him to the wounded bird by a simple set of hand signals. Therefore most field trials—exceptions are the Derby, Junior and Non-Winners Stakes—will include at least one "blind retrieve," in which the handler directs the dog to a distant bird by whistling him to instant attention, then sending him left, right or back until he scents and retrieves the hidden game. Here the ability of the dog to "take a line"—travel a straight line in the direction his handler points out to him until he hits the scent of the bird or is given a signal to change directions—is important.
One series at a recent eastern trial required each dog, from a point on the shore of a circular one-acre pond, to retrieve a duck floating about 20 feet out from the bank almost directly across the pond. Most of the dogs plunged straight into the water, swam across the pond, retrieved the duck and swam back with it. One Labrador, when his turn came, raced around the edge of the pond to a point opposite the duck, jumped in and retrieved it, swam back to the same point and raced back overland to its handler, making much faster time than the dogs that swam the whole way.
"Isn't that dog smarter than the others?" asked a bystander. "Didn't he bring back the duck a lot quicker? Wouldn't most gunners rather have that dog working for them in the field?" "That's true," said the dog's owner, a veteran of field trials, sadly, as the judges turned thumbs down on his ingenious animal. "But if you were the judge, you'd vote for the dog that hit the water with a grand splash and took a straight, brave line to the bird. And dammit, so would I."
Most of the dogs at top field trials today are entered by wealthy amateur breeders, many with extensive kennels and professional trainers and handlers. Yet it's possible for the sportsman of moderate means to invest in one good young Labrador or golden, train it himself, kennel it in the house, handle it himself at trials and even see it become a Field Trial Champion. He can get all the sound training advice he needs from the James Lamb Free book or from P.R.A. Moxon's Gundogs: Training and Field Trials. The former is a real boon to the novice trainer, and the latter (Popular Dogs Publishing Co., Ltd., 1952) is also excellent. And don't think that women won't find training a retriever rewarding, either. A number of them have distinguished themselves as field-trial handlers, particularly...say, whatever happened to that nice old lady? She was last seen going which way? Like a bat out of where? Oh.