Rule Book Ambiguities and more

Written by: Ted Shih and Dennis Voigt - November 01, 2009


by Theodore Shih, Denver, Colorado and Dennis R. Voigt


Over the past year, we have been exploring various aspects of evaluating marks and blinds. Often, we quoted the Rule Book to provide guidance or substantiate a viewpoint. In several cases, we encountered areas where ‘interpretation’ of the Rule Book was required. We offered our opinion on the intent of the Rule. In the last issue, we commented that the Rule Book can only provide a framework but judges still need to judge. We made an analogy with the justice system which has laws and statutes but uses case law often for interpretation.

        We’ve had a lot of really good feedback on our discussions; the most notable comments said: “Your discussions have made me think a lot more about how I judge!” After the last issue one of our readers identified the problem that in judging retrievers there isn’t a large body of case law like there is in the legal world. He was correct. While we have the ideas in the “Bluebook” and the ideas presented by notable judges in seminar and workshops, those really are all just somebody’s opinion. We suspect that is all we will ever have in this sport unless we can think of some other process . . . we don’t see a Retriever Supreme Court being formed any time soon!

        Over time, conventions have developed in judging retriever field trials. Many experienced judges have developed their interpretations of the Rule Book and often as not those interpretations are widely accepted (although not completely). There are a lot of conventions that are not explicitly described in the Rule Book. Examples include what words can be said and when. There is no doubt that the Rule Book contains some ambiguities or unclear sections. Almost every new judge or handler raises some of the same questions. Examples include: what’s the line to the bird and what’s its value? How do I evaluate handles on marks? What is the area of the fall?

        In this article, we start to explore some of those interpretations which people commonly read into the Rule Book (but might not be there), as well as areas where we believe the framework is unclear. We’ll also start to look at areas where changes have recently been made or suggested and explore whether they are helping. Perhaps you can help us by identifying more issues to discuss in the future. Perhaps, together, we can start to develop more “case law” even if is not presided over by any Supreme Court justices.


Intimidation and Taboo Words

Ted: In discussions at field trials and on the internet, you will frequently hear people talk about “intimidation.” However, a careful examination of the Rule Book finds no mention of the word. The phrase “threatening gestures” is found in paragraph 25 of the Standard Procedures section of the Rule Book. That paragraph states as follows:

    No handler shall (1) carry exposed any training equipment (except whistle) or use any other equipment or threatening gestures in such a manner that they may be an aid or a threat in steadying or controlling a dog ... Violation of any of the provisions of this paragraph is sufficient cause to justify elimination from the stake ... A handler who projects his hand during such period [as the birds are falling], whether for the purpose of assisting his dog to locate a fall or otherwise, should be considered to have used a threatening gesture, and his dog penalized accordingly.

        Read in context, a convincing argument could be made that threatening gestures (what is commonly referred to as intimidation) can only occur “on the line” and that intimidation cannot occur elsewhere. Taken to its logical extreme, a handler could yell at his dog in the field using a loud, threatening voice without fear of any negative consequence. Can this really be true?

        Other judges believe that a handler who double taps (blows a whistle, waits several seconds then blows another whistle before casting) has committed the sin of “intimidation” and must be eliminated from competition. Are we prepared to accept this interpretation?


Dennis: I agree that “threatening gestures” can be legitimately connected to “intimidation” and thus I don’t get too excited when judges’ talk invokes intimidation. Gestures are “non-verbal actions that are usually designed to intimidate”. I always like to think about what was the original intent of the Rule. In this case, it’s not that clear but perhaps they were thinking about things you shouldn’t do such as take your hat off or some other apparel or who knows what (a belt?) to threaten your dog. But since it does say “steady or control” I wondered whether perhaps it did extend to controlling a dog out in the field. Yet, since by definition gestures are non-verbal and a ‘whistle’ is distinguished from “other equipment” it doesn’t seem to cover yelling or double whistles out in the field. It’s unlikely any gesture is going to be very threatening at a distance! Perhaps, not all the original wordsmiths might have been lawyers –  Ted! The first question becomes can we interpret this to refer to handler behaviour only at the line?


Ted:  Dennis, if I subjected paragraph 25 to a legal analysis, I would note:

1. It is found in the broad category of “Line Manners;”

2. It discusses actions taken on the line, such as holding or touching a dog;

3. The paragraph before it discusses barking and/or whining on the line; and

4. The paragraph after it discusses breaking from the line.


I would then reach the conclusion that “threatening gestures” refers to non-verbal actions taken on the line.


Dennis: I’ll buy that interpretation. The second question then arises, “what can you say to a dog in the field without penalty?” Convention says that you can’t bellow “no” to a dog that took a wrong cast. But convention allows us to blow a whistle as hard as we can at any distance. I’ve even seen handlers blow a loud whistle right into a dog’s ear at the line before signaling for a bird. Surely, these examples are an attempt to threaten the dog.


Ted:  I agree that these are examples of handler efforts to threaten or intimidate a dog and should not be condoned. However, I have thoroughly examined the four corners of the Rule Book and nowhere does the Rule Book specify what language a handler may or may not use when running his dog at a field trial. However, the Code of Sportsmanship, which serves as a preface to the Rule Book, may offer some guidance. In pertinent part, the Code states:

  • Sportsmen respect the history, traditions and integrity of the sport of purebred dogs.
  • Sportsmen commit themselves to values of fair play, honesty, courtesy, and vigorous competition, as well as winning and losing with grace.
  • Sportsmen find that vigorous competition and civility are not inconsistent and are able to appreciate the merit of their competition and the effort of competitors.

        By extension, one could argue that the Code prohibits the use of profanity or other language that people would find to be uncivil or discourteous. Most experienced people view the word “no” by a handler in the field as an indication that the handler has admitted defeat on the test and is picking up his dog. Is this then an example of “tradition?” If so, where does a newcomer find the catalogue of traditions, so s/he may know what they are?


Dennis: The Sportsmanship Code is relatively new but the convention that you can’t yell “no” is very old, so that can’t be a satisfactory rationale to me. Unfortunately, as you know, there is no catalogue of such traditions. I’ve become aware of those traditions over time but, in reality, I don’t think I’ve had to use one to drop a dog. Instead, what I have done while judging is my honest best to interpret what I think is happening. I try to read the dog and the intent of the handler in the context of the situation and determine whether any major fault or repeated moderate faults have occurred. I try to avoid being a too literal word interpreter (there’s an Achilles heel, Mr. Lawyer). For example, consider the situation where a dog is in a precarious position, where a wrong cast off the point would lose him and the handler blows a 2nd whistle before casting. I may consider it good handling. If a handler is doing it every time, I’d say the handler is doing what he can to get the dog to focus and pay attention. It’s not a very threatening gesture at 150 yards to blow a whistle a 2nd time. But, when the handler has to repeatedly cast and the dog is ignoring him and the whistles and voice are getting louder and more frantic, it’s clear the dog is not listening and the handler is losing control. I don’t have to invoke threatening or any convention because the dog is failing anyway. When a handler continually bellows commands at a dog and blasts his whistle at him on line, there are sections throughout the Rule Book that talk about how the dog should be “obedient”, “tractable”, and not “noisily restrained” or “frequently restrained”. Most of these faults are listed as problems with the dog and usually when handlers yell, the dog has already displayed these faults.

        Since people train and handle in different ways we can’t make rules about “how” they cast. Similarly making rules about words could be a problem. We allow a “no” on the line after all and so we should because it can be used in a most team-like fashion (examples: quiet “no”, “here”, dead bird” during a poison bird routine). Two other examples are using “here” and “sit” while the dog is on line. Most everybody would say that you can’t say them to a dog in the field except with a whistle. These have become such strong conventions that perhaps they should be in the book. I don’t see that that would cause any problems but at the same time it doesn’t bother me too much that they aren’t there. I’m still going to judge the dog — handler team for how they work together to present a pleasing performance. Perhaps we just have to be more careful about how we rationalize penalizing a dog. I don’t want to get too wrapped up in semantics to the point where we need every possible contingency spelled out. How much do we need to regulate and define versus use common sense in evaluating dogs? What do you think?


Ted: I am torn here. On the one hand, I want to focus on the dog in the field. However, I think that there is value to tradition. I am not sure that I would be in favour of letting handlers say whatever they want to encourage their dogs to take their casts. However, I could live with either option so long as we as a sport agree to which convention we wish to follow.


Dennis: I wonder what the majority out there think now that we have raised the question!


Attempts to Regulate Tests – Dry Shots, Diversion Shots, Diversion Birds and Placed Birds

        In recent years there have been some changes to the Rule Book that are designed to regulate how tests are designed and to try and avoid trickery or extreme tests. These changes include not having dry shots or dry pops in a marking test, not allowing a dead “placed” bird unseen as a poison bird in a blind test and how diversion shots can occur with blinds. How are these being handled?


Ted: One of the most recent new changes has some of us even more confused. The AKC Rule Book now addresses concerns about the use of “diversionary birds” in conjunction with blinds. It now states:

     “A diversionary bird or birds (but not more than two) may be used as a diversion in a blind retrieve, but only if the diversionary bird (or birds) is/are thrown or shot so that the running dog has a clear view of each such diversionary bird as it is thrown or shot.”

Yellow Rule Book, page 30, paragraph 20.



1. The Rule Book does not define what a diversionary bird is.

2. Although paragraph 20 says the running dogs must have a clear view of the diversionary bird as it is shot or thrown, it does not say that the guns must be conspicuous (see Rule Book, page 28, paragraph 8) nor does it say the dogs must see each bird in the air, and each bird as it falls (same). This seems to suggest that diversionary birds are different than marks.


        Are diversionary birds different than marks?

        Consider these two scenarios:

Scenario 1.   Poison bird blind. 350 yard blind. Run from 6 o’clock to 12 o’clock. Gunner about 100 yards deep of line. Throws bird left to right. True line to the blind is under the arc of the poison bird. After completion of blind, dog is instructed to pick up the mark.

Scenario 2.   Interrupted marks. Triple shot in the field. Dog is pulled off marks and sent for blind. After completion of the blind, dog is instructed to pick up marks.

Now consider these questions:

1. What makes a bird “diversionary”? If by diversionary, we mean that the birds make it less likely that the dogs would take a line from the mat to the bird on a blind, because their attention would be diverted to some degree by the birds that were shot and thrown, then as a practical matter, aren’t any birds that are shot and thrown diversionary? After all, isn’t that why we ban dry guns in the field? If instead, there needs to be some threshold level of diversion to make a bird “diversionary,” what is the threshold level?

2. If a bird is diversionary (whatever that may be) can the diversionary bird be scored as a mark?

3. If all three birds in Scenario 2 are considered to be diversionary, does that mean that the judges could not score any since they are not allowed to shoot more than 2 diversionary birds?

        Do we need more Rules to address these – and other issues – in the Rule Book? Or do we need commentary which provides elaboration on what the intent and meaning of the Rules is to be?


Dennis:  You ask some good questions and I’ll start with the last ones. I’ve got concerns with needing more rules to address these issues when/if these new rules raise more ambiguity no matter how well their intention. Your scenarios point out the dangers of introducing new regulations designed to steer the sport in a certain direction. Invariably, rules that invoke restrictions fail to consider all the consequences. We’re dealing with dogs, setup designs and the foibles of an uncontrolled environment. I fear that, for many people, commentary which provides elaboration may only be helpful if it considers virtually all scenarios and doesn’t raise even more questions – a daunting task. I think new rules should reduce not increase ambiguity.


Ted: First, Dennis, I don’t think that all-encompassing commentary is necessary. I think that a discussion of intent would be very useful in illuminating the purpose of certain rules. Perhaps – for starters – the membership could identify which Rules most require clarification. Then a select group of old salts that people know and trust could provide commentary concerning the purpose of the rule and general guidelines to be considered by judges in the field.


Dennis: Your earlier questions are relevant here. The section that you quoted above is followed directly by this:

No bird which the running dog does not see may be placed and hidden on the general path to a blind. Nothing in this provision precludes the use of visible flyer crates, bagged birds, placed at the location of previous gun stations, or bird throwers as diversions from the blind.

        This section strongly suggests to me that the intent of the new rule on page 30 was to disallow the use of “unseen placed” birds in a blind test. It’s not clear to me why the section you quoted is even necessary. For starters, what was this rule designed to stop beyond the placed bird procedure by judges? The section you quoted above applies to the typical “poison bird” scenario as in your No. 1. Was this intentional? Are there judges out there throwing more than two poison birds? Are they throwing them so that the dog can’t see them (making them seem like a dry shot?). Perhaps just as importantly, regarding your second scenario above, I have always interpreted the Rule Book to say that you can’t specify the order in which marks are pickup but you could ask a handler to pickup a blind first before collecting marks, even if those marks were thrown first. Has this rule inadvertently ruled that you could only shoot a double in such a case?

        I’d be very surprised if the rule meant a diversionary bird to be different than a marked bird. In other words, I expect that the thrower and the bird are implicitly visible if the bird is as it is thrown and lands. Thus, I would have no problem scoring any seen bird as a mark unless I had specified the order the marks were to be picked up. But frankly, I’m still at a loss as to why the part that you quoted was invoked. Do you have any better explanation?


Ted: I do have some ideas. In fact, I believe that I was at the field trial which ultimately led to the implementation of this rule.

        Open All Age Stake. Weather was garbage. Hard rain – I went through 3 pairs of boots. Judges had an excellent test, but let handlers go for long retired bird after dogs handled on nasty middle retired bird. As a result, they had 10 dogs left to run Saturday morning. Mechanics went poorly on Saturday and they started land blind around 1 pm. Judges felt pressure to get some answers and whittle the field. They set up a very long and hard crosswind land blind that crossed a small inlet and a road three times. 300-350 yards. The judges placed three big piles of birds about 10 yards off of the line to the blind.

        First 25 dogs in the Open picked up. Think about that – first 25 dogs in the OPEN picked up. Finally, people started running zigzag blinds to get through the test. The test did what the judges wanted and cut the field significantly. The next day in the Amateur, judges used two hidden piles of birds with very similar results. The next month, the practice of multiple piles of hidden birds was used in 5 different Field Trials with very similar results.

        People began training their dogs to do the blinds. The offshoot was that dogs started ignoring their noses when they winded the short retired bird on marks. The dogs also began popping repeatedly on blinds. The test also rewarded the slower, more mechanical dogs. Many pros were upset, and eventually the new rule was proposed. Unfortunately, the Rule overcompensated. In my opinion, the issue was the multiple piles of hidden birds. The birds were placed very close to the line. A handler with a hard running dog who kept his dog on line had a very difficult time keeping the dog from picking up a bird.

        A sack of birds would present many of the same challenges without the danger of elimination when a dog honoured its nose. Now that option is gone.


The Process for New Rules

Dennis: The introduction of new rules always has good intentions. For example, one of the “good’ rules put into the AKC book awhile back disallowed “dry” shots in the midst of a marking test. The AKC Rule Book states:

On marked retrieves, a dog should be able to see each bird in the air and as it falls, and the Guns shall be so stationed as to be conspicuous to and easily identified by the dog. No Dry Guns should be stationed in the field and visible to the dog while a marking test is run, or while the marking portion of a combination mark/blind test is run.

        A similar recommendation to the CKC Retriever Council has prompted them to regulate this also. Their new wording, to be implemented soon, is a follows:

Diversion shots, otherwise known as dry guns or dry pops, are shots in which no bird is thrown and shall not be used in marking tests. As well diversion shot gunner(s) shall not be stationed in the field visible to the dog during a marking test or while the marking portion of a combined mark/blind is run.

        I think this rule about dry shots in marking tests is a good idea and that the Retriever Council certainly had good intentions. Unfortunately, we have a potential confusion collision course of new rules. What this means now is that considering both AKC and CKC rule books we now have diversion shots, diversion shot gunners and diversionary birds. Yikes!

        I really wish we could see more coordination between the AKC Retriever Advisory Committee (RAC) and the CKC Retriever Council (RC) rule makers. At the least, they should be studying each other’s rule changes. In addition, I’d also like to see an improved system of rule changes. While CKC has a group of representatives from across the country who will act on agenda items put before them, they unilaterally make the changes. The RAC equivalent develops their own rule proposals each year but at least they are presented to delegates at Nationals and then all member clubs have a vote. It seems like one group has a democratic submission process, but not decision making, whereas the other has a restricted input but democratic voting. Given a will wouldn’t it be easy to improve both? More importantly shouldn’t improvement be directed at ambiguous type of content or elaboration and clear interpretation of any new changes?


Ted: I certainly agree for the need for coordination between the AKC and CKC.


Ted and Dennis:  In addition, perhaps both the RAC and RC should consider the following process:

1. RAC/RC solicit areas of concern and annually lists those issues that it believes requires attention.

2. RAC/RC solicit input as to possible solutions.

3. RAC/RC address most viable of the solutions, and seek input from member clubs.

4. RAC/RC then make proposals for adoption – or rejection – by the member clubs.

        Communication between the RAC and RC about proposals would help avoid confusing terminology. We do not expect that all rules are equally applicable to both sides of the border.


Dennis:  But perhaps we’d avoid the confusion of terms like “diversionary”. Perhaps we’d circumvent some other confusing rule changes. For example, the CKC RC recently decided to regulate some aspects of retiring gunners. I supported this but they initially adopted almost ‘carte blanche’ the AKC wording which states in part,

“The permitted movement of retired Guns and their associated bird throwers should be limited to the minimum distance required for effective concealment. Such retirement should be in a direction away from the direction in which the bird is thrown. Retired Guns and throwers should be concealed by a blind that provides complete coverage, adequate space, and natural camouflage to conceal the distinctive shape of the blind. The blind must be so located as to minimize the development of a trail that will lead the running dog away from the area of the fall.”

        A close read suggests that if you move “in a direction away from the direction in which the bird is thrown”, it becomes impossible to “minimize the development of a trail that will lead the running dog away from the area of the fall.” Fortunately, and to their credit, the RC fixed up their wording from the AKC version. In contrast, the RC decided to address the ‘dry pop in marks’ issue and they came up with the “diversionary shot” phraseology. Why not the simpler AKC wording?

“No Dry Guns should be stationed in the field and visible to the dog while a marking test is run, or while the marking portion of a combination mark/blind test is run”.


        It seems to me that both RAC and RC are working to improve our Rule Book and I applaud their efforts. The questions that arose here are:

1. Do unwritten conventions need to be addressed?

2. Would clarifying the intent of rules help interpretation? And;

3. Can the process of rule changes be improved?


Ted:  I think that the answer to all three is “yes.” Perhaps, you and I can continue to discuss in future issues areas of concern and possible interpretations of general intent and purpose that may help us – and others – arrive at some sensible answers.


Dennis: Yes, and perhaps the readers of Retrievers ONLINE can suggest topics of concern. 


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Written by: Ted Shih and Dennis Voigt| November 01, 2009
Categories:  Judging

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