Since acquiring their first Labrador Retriever over 20 years ago, Brenda and Ken Neil, AKC’s 2019 Breeders of the Year for Retriever Field Events, have been among the breed’s biggest champions. While that first Lab’s life was sadly cut short, the Neils are a long way from heartbreak now.
Today, they invite as many black Labrador Retrievers into their bed as they can fit. Sometimes it’s five. If cuddling and juggling for pillow space with 300 pounds of canine weren’t enough of an accomplishment, in the last 14 years, two of their 12 Labrador Retrievers have won National Retriever titles.
Becoming Breeders of the Year
How did the Neils reach the pinnacle of their sport? Flashback to Autumn 1999.
That’s when this couple from Jupiter, Florida, lost 6-year-old Harley, their first Labrador Retriever, to Lyme disease. Like others who lose beloved dogs too soon, the Neils were determined to add another Lab to their lives. So, they began searching for a new puppy.
After an acquaintance suggested they could meet breeders with puppies at a field trial in Gainsville, Florida, the Neils made the 3.5-hour drive to the event. Neil had grown up with friendly and pleasant pet dogs, but he vividly remembers his first impression of these superstar Labs.
“We had never heard of a field trial before,” recalls Ken Neil. “It was a hot, dry day. But after watching the dogs hand the bird to the handler and zip out again, I turned to Brenda and said, ‘we gotta do this.’ I didn’t know stylish, responsive, and athletic field dogs like these ever existed, but I knew I wanted one.”
The Neils didn’t find a puppy that day, but they did touch base with longtime field trial exhibitor Alex Washburn. Washburn showed them an advertisement for a kennel in Georgia. After several conversations, the couple drove to Atlanta and picked up their new 8-week-old black Lab, Whoa Nellie.
“Nellie lived up to her name,” says Ken. “In 2007, Whoa Nellie beat out 111 competitors and won the National Amateur Retriever’s Club’s Amateur Retriever Championship in Utah.”
In 2005, the couple purchased another Labrador, 5-year-old Windy (NFC-AFC Candlewood’s Something Royal), from Mary Howley of Candlewood Kennels.
“Windy gave us two gifts,” says Brenda. “The first happened in 2007 when she won the National Retriever Open, and the second arrived in the whelping box when she produced four litters of 23 puppies.”
Twenty of Windy’s pups later followed in their mother’s paw steps and earned titles, with six competing in several National Championships. Tubb (FC-NAFC Texas Troubadour) turned out a standout performance by also winning a National. In 2014, Nellie gave the Neils an extra present when she was inducted into the Retriever Hall of Fame.
A Lifetime of Labs
For an owner’s retriever to win a National Amateur or a National Open takes dedication, talent, and perseverance. For an owner to do it twice in one year with two different dogs means going above and beyond the ordinary.
No one in the history of the sport had accomplished this double win. That is, until 2007 when the Neils did it. Their Windy captured the top prize at the National Open. Nellie then copied her housemate’s accomplishment at the National Amateur.
“2007 was a year we’ll never forget,” reminisces Ken.
So, what’s the secret to the Neils’ success? For them, it begins by performing all health tests for Labrador Retrievers, progressing to the whelping box, and following with years of hard work and training. Finding a mentor to give advice and share ideas also goes a long way toward breeding quality litters and future dog stars
“People think breeding is easy, but every time you breed a female, it’s scary because you run the risk of losing her,” says Neil. “I also never did breeding without calling Mary Howley first. She’s a legend in our sport, and she knew which males might make good mates for our females.”
When Nellie was 17 months old, Ken realized he needed some help training field dogs, and contacted Alan Pleasant, a professional trainer in North Carolina. For ten years, Neil showed up every day at 8 AM, ultimately helping Pleasant bring 20 dogs to the line.
“I wanted to learn how to do it myself. So I bought a motorhome and parked it at his kennel,” recalls Neil. “Pleasant is a wonderful trainer who has won several National Opens. Now, with our own dogs, I begin training the pups the day they’re born. Like competitive NFL football players, we train every day.”
Ken and Brenda give their dogs house time, rather than limiting living quarters to an outdoor kennel. The couple affirms that doing so helps them establish personal relationships with their dogs.
The Rundown On Retriever Field Trials
At retriever field trials, Labs demonstrate their natural abilities of courage, memory, intelligence, and style, while following directions from their handlers to retrieve a pheasant or a duck in a large field. Judges evaluate these qualities in addition to how dogs deliver the bird to the handler.
“Judges like to see the dogs are happy about what they’re doing while going aggressively after the birds,” says Neil.
Labs are judged in comparison to other entries, including six other Sporting Group breeds — Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, Curly Coated Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Flat-Coated Retrievers, Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers, and Irish Water Spaniels.
Dogs who run in a field trial may earn a Field Champion (FC) or Amateur Field Champion (AFC) title. They accumulate points to participate in both the National Open Retriever Championship and National Amateur Field Championship, each held once a year. Every year more than 250 retriever trials occur throughout the U.S. Usually, the Neils pack up the dogs and spend winters competing in trials in the South, with summers in Minnesota. No one said becoming breeders of the year would be easy, but the Nells wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“This sport grabs hold of you because it’s so challenging and rewarding,” says Neil. “We meet people from all over and we get to see our grand dogs.”