Bred for Brilliance

Bred for Brilliance | Shooting Sportsman Magazine
David Cannon for Blue Cypress Kennels

The British Labs of Blue Cypress Kennels

The 2020 Rufriver Working Gundog test, in North Norfolk, England, was a departure from its normal operation. Land Rovers did not haul muddy dog trailers down gravel roads, just as no dogs retrieved pheasants from heather or lush, green fields. Not a single Lab from England, Scotland, Ireland or Wales wowed the gallery with an impossible blind retrieve. Covid-19 shuttered most UK field trials, just as it canceled others around the world. Instead of watching dog after dog hit tranquil ponds like surface-to-air missiles or jump over stacked stone walls to fetch pheasants, judges watched videotaped performances. In the “Year of the Pandemic,” the Rufriver Working Gundog test got creative. Out of 50 entries, Jeremy Criscoe, the head trainer at Florida’s Blue Cypress Kennels and a Eukanuba Pro Trainer, came in first. The oddity is that he’s a Yank.

To Criscoe, winning in the year of the virus felt a little flat. The previous year had been quite different, for in 2019 he traveled a quarter of the way around the world to compete in trials throughout the UK. He loaded up Augustus Fink-Nottle (call name Gus) at his home in Union Grove, Alabama. He drove to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and checked in the dog and three weeks’ worth of gear. He flew from Atlanta to Amsterdam—and, while direct, the flight was long. There was a little more than a day overlay in Amsterdam, whereby Criscoe and Gus got over jet lag to prepare for the second leg of the trip.

Callum Macgregor prepares to send Gus (Augustus Fink-Nottle) to flush a covey of quail on the Yeehaw Plantation. Photograph by Chip Laughton for Blue Cypress Kennels.

Amsterdam might be Holland’s capital, but it also is the world’s party town. Fortunately Criscoe, a retired US Navy E-5 rescue swimmer, knows a thing or two about shore leave. He wasn’t in the Dutch city to smoke hash at the Bulldog or cruise the Red Light District for a date. He left Amsterdam alone, for he was there to compete. He caught the morning ferry to Newcastle and drove to Scotland. The plane-train-boat-truck combo might have qualified him for an award of his own: the longest distance traveled to compete in a field trial.

Criscoe arrived early to get Gus acclimated to the changes. Gus didn’t fly first class but instead spent the several hours in the cargo hold. Once on the ground, Crisco knew that Gus would encounter weather and terrain that were dramatically different from back home and that these differences would be hard on him. So Criscoe set up a treat. To get him adjusted, Criscoe gave Gus a present he knew he’d love: picking up at a Scottish driven shoot. Two days of doing what he was bred to do would reduce Gus’s travel-related stress just as it would sharpen his focus and smooth out any GI-tract issues. He’d get used to the change in conditions from hot and dry in the States to cool and moist in the UK. He’d run across rolling hills, jump over fences and sit motionless while a line of Guns shot all around him. Though whelped in the States, Gus’s sire and dam were FTCh Adoraden Quinn and FTW Emmanygan Locket. He was the product of Labs born in the UK, and British sporting life literally was in his blood.

Photograph by Chip Laughton for Blue Cypress Kennels.
British Labs are known for being explosive in the field and calm at the feet—traits that attracted kennel-founder Randall Rollins to the dogs. Photograph by David Cannon for Blue Cypress Kennels.

Gus was born at Blue Cypress Kennels, which has a unique breeding program established a quarter-century ago by the late Randall Rollins. The kennel’s inspiration began when Rollins was invited to England for a driven shoot. It was the first time the lifelong dogman was exposed to British Labs, and boy was he smitten. He loved their size, which was slightly smaller than their American counterparts. He favored their ripped musculature and incredible stamina. Square heads that were packed full of bird smarts begat intensity and athleticism. The dogs—mostly black and yellow but some fox red and silver—were wired to hunt but still had unusually calm dispositions at heel. There was no barking in their kennels or dog runs, and they were peaceful inside homes. Rollins was captivated by these dogs that were calm at home but explosive in the field. Equally unique were the handlers’ positive training methods that favored encouragement and praise instead of compulsion training’s scolding and punishment. So Rollins set about creating an impeccable UK Labrador retriever breeding program the same way he worked on every other business.

Over the years, the Rollins Family has been well known for its diverse business endeavors as well as its philanthropy. In the late 1930s farming was replaced by the launch of a regional broadcasting network in Georgia. The Rollinses then purchased Orkin Pest Control in what became known as the first leveraged buyout in the US. Along the way the family added oil and gas enterprises, boat companies (think Robalo) and many other businesses. The overarching quest has been for innovation and perfection, with one enterprise significantly influencing the family’s kennel: cattle.

For a half-century Randall Rollins had perfected the art of animal husbandry for beef cattle on his five ranches in Georgia, Florida and Texas. His study of genetics and breeding was impeccable—so much so that he used it to develop other animals. In the 1960s Rollins had the idea to breed championship Tennessee Walking Horses. He applied genetic principals learned from his cattle and ultimately got his wish. The same year the Beatles broke up, the US invaded Cambodia and men wore bell-bottomed trousers with platform shoes, Rollins’s horse, Ace’s Sensation, became the 1970 Grand Champion Walking Horse of the World. Rollins wanted to raise the bar again, but this time he wanted to do it with the dogs he had admired in England. He would create a superior line of UK Labs in America. While he had the knowledge of breeding, he needed a start. The answer came clear when he consulted his Chief Legal Officer, Callum Macgregor.

Bespoke gundogs deserve stately kennels, and the facilities at Blue Cypress are impeccable in all regards. Photograph by Chip Laughton for Blue Cypress Kennels.

Macgregor, a lawyer, was born into a family of Scottish gamekeepers and field-trialers. Born in Scotland and raised in Florida, his personal provenance was heavily intertwined with the rich fabric of British sporting life. Macgregor didn’t need to search that hard to get dialed in to the best Labs on the UK circuits. To find fountainhead dogs, all he needed to do was determine which lines were of interest and then ring up an uncle or cousin and see if dogs from those lines were available. That kind of provenance is immeasurable, especially in the highly competitive field-trial world.

Sourcing dogs was easy, but finding champions was different. The quest for the Holy Grail motivated Macgregor to study performance and multigenerational pedigrees, always looking for dogs with sharp on-off switches. To his mind, those were dogs with calm dispositions at rest and explosive-yet-controlled drive in the field. His ideal was for dogs to have a natural focus that was razor sharp—a trait that was bred in and couldn’t be trained. Macgregor looked for the kind of intelligence that enabled dogs to figure out any situation they experienced.

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Blue Cypress Kennels is located at the Rollins Ranch Yeehaw Plantation, outside of Vero Beach, Florida. There are thousands of acres with training ponds and seasonal flights of ducks. There are fields of Johnson grass full of wild bobwhite quail. Everything is traditional, right down to the dogs’ registered names. Thank the Lord for call names, for, as mentioned, Augustus Fink-Nottle (named after the P.G. Wodehouse character) is called Gus. INT FTCh Drumgoose Warlord responds to Murph, FTCh Waterford Ganton answers to Costa and FTCh Rockingheart Voyager is known as Sam. Their names, as their genetics and training, remain true to their countries of origin.

Labrador retrievers are the most popular dogs in America and have landed in the No. 1 position for the past 27 years. Labs are America’s Sweethearts, but there is a tremendous difference between UK and American Labs. To understand how Blue Cypress Kennels’ dogs differ from their American cousins, it’s helpful to understand the differences in their breeding. In both the UK and the US, winners carry forward genetics that enhance the breed. The way in which winners are chosen, however, is very different.

Head trainer Jeremy Criscoe loves developing dogs that are hard charging on task but well mannered at heel. Photograph by David Cannon for Blue Cypress Kennels.

What UK field-trial judges look for are dogs with excellent manners. Retrievers must sit absolutely still, be calm and exhibit no movement even when there are hundreds of birds in the air and a barrage of discharging shotguns. Handlers are less involved, and when running blinds and marks, retrievers are allowed the latitude to determine the most efficient lines to the birds. If those runs take them out of sight of the judges, so be it. On top of it, the Labs need the discernment to bypass dead birds in favor of first tracking cripples. As a result, the dogs with the best noses, calmest dispositions, highest drive and excellent bird smarts win—and after winning they enter the gene pool to be bred.

In the US field-trialers have a far more active role. Marks need to be run straight, and the straightest lines are highly prized. That kind of obedience is developed through routine and the repetition of running lines, marks and blinds. American judges also like to see dogs when they’re on the ground. If a handler’s dog runs out of sight, then the dog is considered to be out of control and is disqualified. American field-trial Labs aren’t required to be quiet, and in some instances aggressive behavior is valued. The genetics of those winners are promoted.

Blue Cypress Labs are all-around performers, whether they are retrieving from water, flushing upland birds or picking up on driven shoots. Photograph by Chip Laughton for Blue Cypress Kennels.

This isn’t a UK versus US Labs smackdown, for just as the field trials are different, so, too, are the characteristics of the lines themselves. But if you have dogs bred from UK genetics, then it makes sense to trial them in the UK; and that’s how Criscoe came to trial abroad, both in person and on a Covid-free video. The 2020 Rufriver Working Gundog videotaped hunt test was set up in true British fashion. Bumpers replaced live game, and dogs were challenged on four simulated hunting courses. The first run required dogs to jump a 4½-foot fence, make a blind retrieve, jump back over the fence and deliver the dummy to hand. The second required a blind retrieve run uphill and through an open field. The third test called for dogs to retrieve bumpers after crossing a pond. And in the fourth test dogs cast off of marks run across flat, open ground. Should 2021 be virus-free, expect to see Criscoe, Gus and upcoming dogs retracing their travel to Scotland via Amsterdam.

UK Labs aren’t better than American Labs, but they sure are different. Any owner, handler, competitor or hunter can find a dog that matches his tastes, preferences and working requirements. Selection comes down to personal choices—and if yours are for a UK Lab that comes from the highest levels of breeding, then think about Gus and Blue Cypress Kennels. After all, Gus is the only American-bred and -trained dog of first-generation UK lineage to return to his homeland and win. In fact, he may be the only dog with enough frequent-flier miles to earn a free return trip.

For more information, visit Blue Cypress Kennels.


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