• Janean Marti

New Zealand Field Trial Champion Curly Coated Retrievers: the tests.

The country of New Zealand can probably boast of the most field trial champion curly-coated retrievers than any other. The requirements for obtaining the title of Field Trial Champion (FTCH.) or Grand Field Trial Champion (GFTCH.) are explained here. They might not be quite what the average U.S. field retriever enthusiast would expect.

Perhaps the most famous New Zealand field trial champion was "Tan", formally known as Ch. and G.F.T.Ch. Waitoki Tamatakapua. Tan was a liver male who had a great career as a field trial dog and also in conformation shows in New Zealand. Some of his get were exported to the U.S. There have been numerous other New Zealand field trial champions throughout the years. New Zealand field trial competitions are about on par with American Kennel Club senior hunt tests or United Kennel Club seasoned tests with the exception that the New Zealand trials are competitive, not pass/fail. Here we compare New Zealand field trial tests to U.S. hunt tests. Fortunately, we have a written description and diagram of one New Zealand Retriever Field Trial by a curly breeder/owner. Gill Wise of Toakaha curly coated retrievers wrote a wonderful article about one of the major New Zealand field trials in 1989. The Wise's curly coated retriever Toakaha Heiheinui tied for first place in this trial and another of their curlies, Ch. Velvet of Craigdhu, placed sixth. According to Gill, the year 1989 was the first time a New Zealand field trials required a dog to retrieve more than 2 birds in a series and it was the first year field trials featured a blind retrieve. New Zealand field trials include a land series and a water series. Here is a diagram by Gill Wise indicating the water portion of the test. I have added color and explained the original notations in detail because some of the original notations are difficult to read.

Map of the water series of a1989 New Zealand Retriever Field Trial
New Zealand Retriever Field Trial Diagram, 1989


The test would start on the right at the lower green dot. That is the "peg" (an actual peg or stick in the ground) where the handler starts heeling his dog. The dog is heeled up to the second peg, which is what we in the U.S. call 'the line'.

Gill Wise wrote: "Both pegs marking the line of walk at heel were set up on the top of the stopbank on the right side of the canal. The front peg was set up only ten yards back from the riverbank, necessitated by the need for a clear view of the left bird." This test was a marked double retrieve, meaning the dog had to sit at the side of the handler and watch both birds go down before being sent to retrieve the first bird. The first bird in this series, a duck, is indicated by the orange arrow in the middle right of the page. That is a marked retrieve, approximately 50 yards, thrown from shore into a canal and into a flock of duck decoys.

The water immediately in front of the dog is the Styx River, approximately 40 yards wide. "This was a relatively easy mark," Wise wrote. "For the dog that did not swim directly to the canal but chose the straight swim across to the bank, there were distractions. The temptation to go straight up the stopbank was first. Dogs which did so and forgot their mark inevitably pulled right into thick scrub along the bank's borders and on out into very dense rush cover."

The second bird of the double (indicated by the orange arrow on the left) was a pigeon thrown from dense cover into an area where the cover had been flattened for the test. According to the rules at this test, the birds could be recovered in any order.

As the dog was returning with the second bird of the double, the handler was required to turn and fire a shot in the direction of the blind, which was to the right of the heeling peg and about 50 yards from the handler. The blind was on a line about 15 yards from and parallel to the bank. The judge "had placed the pukeko (Ed note: a type of gamebird about the size of a ring-necked pheasant) fifteen feet from the bank, on a small clear spot amongst rushes. He (the judge) didn't believe it necessary to complicate the find by placing the bird right in cover," Wise wrote.

The judge, Gordon Clarke, was one of the most highly regarded field trial judges in the country. "This was certainly a championship trial--and how. Exciting and difficult. A challenge to both handler and dog," Wise wrote. Wind changes and the lack of wind and the beach portions of the shore gave trouble to some dogs. "Overall the trial certainly proved its challenge. Despite the dogs which top-scored with 90/100 (points) making the trial appear relatively easy, it claimed a good percentage of dogs. With the land run also incorporating a blind bird, the standard of work required from both handlers and dogs was high. The land run claimed its share of competitors and in the final analysis of the aggregate scores for both the land and water sections, which is used to determine placings, only six completed."

The Wise's curly coated retriever Toakaha Heiheinui and a Labrador retriever, G. F. T. CH. Hine of Tangiwai, tied for first place. Labradors placed third, fourth, and fifth and the Wise's other curly entered, Ch. Velvet of Craigdhu, QC, placed sixth. A total of three curlies were entered. Also entered were two golden retrievers, an Irish water spaniel, and many Labrador retrievers.

The test diagrammed and described here is similar to an AKC senior hunt test. Two aspects make it quite different from an AKC senior and that is the New Zealand field trials are competitive and some of the retrieves are timed! In this test, dogs were given 3 minutes per marked bird to complete the retrieve and only dogs receiving top placements received points toward a field trial championship. In AKC hunt tests, the dogs are not judged against each other but to a test standard. AKC hunt test dogs are not given placements; instead, the hunt tests are pass/fail. The New Zealand dogs probably have an advantage in having the handler aim toward and shoot a gun when the dog must run a blind. This shot comes when the dog is returning with the bird from one of the marked retrieves but AKC senior tests also have diversion shots and sometimes diversion birds. The handlers in AKC senior tests use an unloaded shotgun or even a fake wooden gun to point toward marks but do not actually shoot. (The shot or the sound of a shot comes from the bird station out in the field from behind a blind or hide.) Another aspect of New Zealand field trials that is markedly different from AKC senior hunt tests is rabbits may be used in New Zealand trials. A dog in an AKC hunt test who encounters a rabbit is supposed to ignore it, even if the rabbit is dead and lying on the path to the bird.

New Zealand trials do not require a dog to "honor" another working dog but AKC senior and master tests do. An honor requires the non-working, honoring dog to be placed close to another dog who is preparing to run his retrieves. The honor dog must sit or lay quietly while watching the birds go down and watching the other dog run out to retrieve.

Retrievers in New Zealand can earn field trial championship points by winning placements in tests that resemble an AKC or HRC (Hunting Retriever Club) upland test. The New Zealand upland tests are either range, find and flush or find, flush and retrieve. All gundogs are eligible to run these tests so you might be able to see spaniels, retrievers, the continental pointing breeds, setters, and pointers all running the same test for championship points! Wouldn't that be fun to watch?

The retrieve distances in retriever championships in New Zealand appear to be about the same as they were back when this test was run in 1989. According to the New Zealand rule book, The current New Zealand rules for retriever trials say:

All Retriever Championship Field Trials Shall Include: 1. A minimum of two separate sections with separate Judges. Where more than two sections are included, a Judge may judge more than one event. 2. A minimum of two retrieving sections with two or more game in each. 3. A minimum of one section to include a double bird retrieve from on or across water, the dogs must have to swim.

Distances for New Zealand retriever trials are: No thrown birds to land more than 100 metres or less than 55 metres from the handler. Blind retrieves may be over any practical distance but should not exceed 75 metres from the position from which the dog is sent. (Editor's note: 55 to 100 meters is about 60-109 yards. The blinds would be equivalent to about 82 yards.) It appears U.S. with a senior hunter (SH) title would be competitive in New Zealand field trials and New Zealand curlies field trial champions would do very well in AKC senior hunt tests. The U. S. curlies would have to be trained to pick up rabbits before they could run in New Zealand trials. The idea of retrieving rabbits fits in so well with the history of the curly-coated retriever. Rabbits were valuable and important food sources for people in the 1800s and curlies were prime actors in harvesting those rabbits.

Happy hunting or trialing to all!

A curly coated retriever dog accompanies two men and a ferret on a rabbit hunting trip.
Rabbit hunting with curly coated retriever and ferret, 1908, Essex, UK.

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