Retrieving on a Grand scale
HRC Grand shows off at Morgan County’s Burnt Pine Plantation
story by Greg Sullivan
photos by Angelina Bellebuono
As one hunter put it, it's poetry in motion to watch a well-trained retriever in action. Gliding through air, paddling and splashing through water as though nothing on earth held priority over the moment's objective: using all their cunning to fetch game for their handler.
Monday morning at Burnt Pine Plantation in Newborn marked day three of the Hunting Retriever Club International Grand Hunt where only the elite competition's best dogs were still in contention for the prestigious and elusive title of grand champion retriever.
"You're starting to get to the cream of the crop," said Grand Hunt committee member Mark Botts, of Davenport, Iowa, while looking on at the second water field test taking place before him. "This is the best of the best. It's a lot different today."
The field backed a big, rectangular pond. The water was mostly shallow; to the level that a medium-sized dog could run across it, scattering muddy water in its dust.
Everyone was silent when the dogs were at points of the test requiring concentration, as everyone in attendance seemed to be aware of most of the nuances of the test.
A dog is walked down to the starting platform by its handler. Simple as it sounds, the entrance can even be stressful for a handler or owner. If a dog were to run ahead of its handler while being walked down to the starting line, the dog can be disqualified. In the first couple days of the competition, Botts said, a handful of dogs were disqualified for just such a violation. However, he assured that that wouldn't happen by this stage of the competition. The dogs were just too well-trained.
Owners bark out commands to their dogs, which have often been preparing for such events since the early weeks of their lives. The best dogs obey obediently to prove their worth to the judges panel.
Mallards that were humanely euthanized earlier that morning are launched into the air following the bellows of a duck caller. The event, unlike some similar ones around the country, uses ammunition called poppers, which simulate a shot being fired. The ducks are “shot” to the ground at what is about the height of their flight.
Eyeing the ducks, the retriever waits patiently for the commands of its owner. Three mallards are “shot down” in succession as the dog continues to wait. Ideally, it can keep
in its memory each of the
different general points where the game went down and sniff the birds out amidst the high grass when the chance approaches.
On command, the dog then takes off to retrieve the ducks one at a time for their handler. Starting on the left-side of the course and working their way to the right.
One factor taking its toll Monday was the wind, unforgivingly swirling the scent of the mallards around the land beyond the pond, leading many a dog astray.
To overcome this, the retriever has to exhume patience, a lesser dog would give up under these conditions, but one that is going to have a shot at winning a grand will have to fight any desire to give up and return to its owner empty-mouthed.
When the dog finally finds the third duck, it grips it between its teeth, and paddles it through the deep point of the pond, waist deep now after the weekend of rain, and back to the handler for what turns out to be the home stretch of the test.
After overcoming all the obstacles of the field test, the dog then faces a final challenge, they must watch the next dog in line hunt from near the platform as their owner stands beside them. To the eye, the retriever just exhibits sportsmanship; to the trainer, this part of the test is yet one more way the retriever can prove its mastered control for the eyes of the judges that will ultimately decide whether or not each dog will last to see another day of field tests and remain in the running to be a grand champion.
Over the weekend, when the Morgan County area received scattered rain and the hunt commenced, dogs started out with two land tests and the first of two water tests, eliminating all but the best-trained dogs. Following the second water test Monday, the remaining retrievers were scheduled to take part in an upland test as the event was set to wind down Tuesday and Wednesday mornings.
The event draws to Morgan County hunting enthusiasts from every corner of the US and Canada. At Monday's trials you would overhear conversations from people bearing accents of Midwestern and French Canadian varieties, and everything in between.
Most of the handlers as HRC events are men, but there are exceptions. Glenda Mitchell, of Brownwood, Texas, is among the trailblazers in the sport, first getting involved about 14 years ago.
"It used to be just a man's sport but more and more women are becoming involved," Mitchell said. Mitchell brought three dogs with her to this year's grand. She said her goal was to have all three dogs competing through the end of the event but she only had one dog still in the hunt.
"It's very disappointing when one goes out," Mitchell said. "But that's just part of it."
The judging for the event is strict, and has been since it started back in 1987, giving out grand champion credentials to a total of 350 dogs during the entire history of the event. With grands held just twice a year, handlers say it makes the title so difficult to come by and also prestigious.
Mitchell has been a professional retriever handler for the last six years. Previously she'd been a horse trainer.
"It was easy for me to make the transition," she said. "I got into it really big and it's turned into a business for me."
Mitchell said she currently has 15 retrievers and 12 client dogs in her possession.
Aside from just participating in the hunt, Mitchell is also very involved with the Hunting Retriever Club organization. She currently serves as the group's national youth director.
The sport, she said, is growing in popularity for families, including with young girls.
One twelve-year-old girl from Texas, she said, was competing in this year's spring grand.
"We're all rooting for her to do well," Mitchell said. "It's exciting getting the kids involved."
The Grand Hunt, and hunting retriever events, in general, lends itself to dog owners and handlers building camaraderie amongst each other over the course of the multiple day events. Rather than taking part in direct competition with other dogs, the dogs are judged on set standards of memory and control in simulated hunting situations. The dogs, mostly labradors and golden retrievers, were required to pass each of the five tests to move on to the next one.
Putting on this year's grand was the local Old South Hunting Retriever Club. This year marks the second time the local club organized a grand in Morgan County, it also did so in the spring of 1996.
"It was very successful," said this year's grand co-chairman Scott Baldwin, of Morgan County, of the 1996 event. "This one is probably twice as big as how that one was."
Additionally, the event can't be underestimated for bringing hundreds of visitors to the area for multiple days.
"Madison has been a very friendly town," Mitchell said. "And what a beautiful place," referring to the fields and wooded area surrounding her. "This is just breathtaking."