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Crossover considerations: hunt test changes can make sense.

DURING THE LAST 15 years, the American Kennel Club (AKC) quietly, almost unobtrusively, made changes to their hunting tests for retrievers and spaniels that are (take your choice): remarkable, stunning, incredible, unprecedented. My choice is "all of the above."

These changes are called "crossovers." The first one, a Group crossover, came in 1996, when AKC allowed standard poodles to run in retriever hunting tests. On the surface, this seemed to contradict AKC's historic position on dog breed Groups.

Poodles belong to AKC's Non-Sporting Group, whereas retriever hunting tests were only for breeds classified as retrievers in AKC's Sporting Group. But to anyone who ever watched a well-trained standard poodle do retriever work, as I have, this crossover made perfect sense. And it has worked out quite well for poodle folks, retriever hunting tests and (of course) the AKC.

The second, another Group crossover, came in 2007, when AKC allowed Airedales to run in spaniel hunting tests. Airedales belong to AKC's Terrier Group, whereas spaniel hunting tests were only for breeds classified as Spaniels in AKC's Sporting Group. This too worked out well for all affected parties.

After those two Group crossovers--which initially looked like wild pitches but turned out to be perfect strikes--no one should be surprised by two subsequent Classification crossovers within the Sporting Group. In early 2011 AKC allowed Irish water spaniels, which are classified as retrievers and were already running in retriever hunting tests, to run also in spaniel hunting tests. Why not? Functionally and historically, the IWS is both a spaniel and a retriever.

Later in 2011 AKC allowed American water spaniels, which are classified as spaniels and were already running in spaniel hunting tests, to run also in retriever hunting tests. Again, why not? The American Water Spaniel Club spent several decades debating whether to request spaniel or retriever classification, since AWSs are equally talented in both areas. To no one's surprise, both of these classification crossovers work quite well for all concerned.

So where does this crossover trend go from here? To help us polish our crystal ball, let's take a look at a little history.

NON-COMPETITIVE Bear in mind that these crossovers are limited to AKC's non-competitive hunting tests within the Sporting Group. They don't affect AKC's competitive field trials, and probably never will. (If someday I have to eat those last four words, I'll sip a simultaneous martini and enjoy every bite!)

From the beginning all AKC events were competitive and expensive, prohibitively so for most Depression-era Americans.

Then, in the late 1930s, as our significantly underpopulated middle class began to grow, AKC introduced non-competitive obedience trials, in which all titles were earned not competitively, but by measurement against an absolute standard.

True, judges have always scored each dog/handler team, but all with a score of 170 out of 200 qualify for a "leg" toward a title, and earn the title with the third "leg." True also, judges gave placements to the four highest-scoring dogs in each class, so an element of competition was included. Further, the competitive elements increased over the years, but the basic titles are still earned non-competitive.

This was the beginning.

NATIONAL CONTRIBUTIONS Each AKC-recognized breed has a sponsoring national club that is a member club of AKC (a "Club of Clubs"). Here I speak of such organizations as the Labrador Retriever Club, the American Chesapeake Club, the Flat-Coated Retriever Society and so forth.

Somewhere in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the various sporting breed clubs began conducting non-competitive Working Certificate (WC) tests, primarily to allow members interested in dog show competition to demonstrate the field ability of their breeding stock and earn titles attesting to that field ability. Eventually each sporting breed club--pointing dogs, retrievers and spaniels--initiated such a program.



Among the retriever clubs, these tests vary in difficulty from very simple (single marks on land and water) to quite challenging (triple marks and blind retrieves). Some clubs have singlelevel tests, while others have multilevel tests of graduated difficulty.

The American Chesapeake Club has long had perhaps the premier retriever program, consisting of three levels: Working Dog, with single marks and the title WD; Working Dog Excellent (WDX), with double marks; and Working Dog Qualified (WDQ), with triple marks and blind retrieves. This program long preceded the AKC, UKC and NAHRA hunt tests programs, all of which have similar levels and testing requirements.

These Working Certificate tests moved the non-competitive movement into the fieldwork world. The experiences gained there have been most helpful in the development and implementation of the subsequent hunt test programs. Several of these breed clubs have more recently introduced non-competitive conformation evaluation programs with appropriate titles, which may well lead to non-competitive AKC dog shows.

SHUNT TESTS Then, in the May/ June 1982 issue of Gun Dog magazine, Retrieve columnist Richard Wolters started a revolution with a column titled "The Gun Dog Stake." What he proposed--an additional competitive retriever field trial stake with more hunting-like tests--was not revolutionary. This had been tried before, back in the early 1930s, in the field trial qualifying stake, which was initially intended as a just-like-hunting sop for the worker bees in every field trial club who couldn't compete successfully in the major stakes. (See James Lamb Free's classic Training Your Retriever for details of the original qualifying stake.)

Yes, this had been tried back then--and it had failed, precisely because the qualifying stake was competitive, forcing judges to find a winner by a process of elimination and within four or five tests. Tests necessarily became more complex and less and less hunting-like tests, until qualifying stake tests became last years' major stake tests revisited.

But Mr. Wolters had awakened a huge middle-class market, which had been miniscule in the early 1930s. All he needed to satisfy that huge market was a non-competitive and therefore stable format. Somewhere in the next year or so of writings on this subject, he added that non-competitive element, and the hunt test movement took off like no other dog sport in U.S. history.

By 1985, three national organizations--AKC, UKC and NAHRA--sponsored very similar retriever hunt tests all over the country. All of these derived ultimately from Mr. Wolters' writings in Gun Dog magazine. AKC added a hunting test format for pointing breeds in 1986, and for spaniels in 1987. These also succeeded well and widely.

In my book, Retriever Hunt Tests (avail-able from the Gun Dog Bookshelf), I cover the early history of the hunt test movement in much more detail.

BACK TO CROSSOVERS Regarding further Group crossovers, my crystal ball is still all fogged up, so I'll leave all predictions in this area to those not so handicapped.

However, further classification crossovers seem inevitable, especially when you consider that not long ago AKC toyed with the idea of splitting their Sporting Group into two groups: one for pointing breeds, the other for retrievers and spaniels. They seem to have dropped that idea, but that they considered it suggests what AKC execs might be thinking in the way of further crossovers between retriever and spaniel hunting tests. In this, I'm speculating. I have no inside information. But consider these facts:

First, hunters use all retriever breeds for upland gamebird flushing/retrieving, as well as for waterfowl retrieving. Not every hunter and not all retriev-ers of every breed, but enough hunters and enough dogs of each retriever breed work in both kinds of hunting to make classification crossovers for all retriever breeds into spaniel hunting tests not only feasible, but beneficial for all concerned.

Second, hunters use all spaniel breeds for waterfowl retrieving as well as for upland gamebird flushing/retrieving. Again, not all hunters and not all spaniels of every breed, but enough to make classification crossovers for all spaniel breeds into retriever hunting tests not only doable, but beneficial for everyone.

Many will howl at this invasion by dogs of previously excluded breeds into our hunting test domain. Still, these crossover dogs will either do the work required in the tests of the "invaded" classification, or they won't. Some will and some won't, just as they do in their own classification's tests.

In non-competitive tests, this can't affect the success or failure of the other participating dogs, whatever their classifications, as it could if hunting tests were competitive.

So what's the problem?

Jim Spencer's book can be ordered from the Gun Dog Bookshelf: Training Retrievers for Marshes & Meadows; Retriever Training Tests; Retriever Training Drills for Marking; Retriever Training Drills for Blind Retrieves; Retriever Hunt Tests; HUP! Training Flushing Spaniels the American Way; and POINT! Training the All-Seasons Bird Dog.

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Title Annotation:Retrieve
Author:Spencer, James B.
Publication:Gun Dog
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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