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Retrieving The Title Competitions Put Gun Dogs Through Their Paces, Testing Instincts And Training In Field Environments

That C.J. would one day have a mouth full fo feathers was preordained.

That his tiny teeth and puppy lips would know what to do with the mass of quills and plumes the first time he encountered them was less certain.

The little guy figured it out.

One a sunny Saturday morning in late April, just west of Medical Lake, the golden retriever waddled his chubby, 3-month-old body across a small clearing to where a dead pigeon lay.

Seconds before, he had watched the bird drop from the sky. He wasn’t exactly sure where it landed. The grass was so tall.

But C.J. followed his nose. He found the bird and brought it to Anita Raithel, his owner, who was cooing to him a few yards away.

With this flawless maiden retrieve at a North American Hunting Retriever Association field test sponsored by the Spokane Bird Dog Association, C.J. launched his hunting career.

“He’s never even seen a bird before,” said Raithel. “I’m so proud?”

Generation to generation

Had anyone taken bets that day, the odds would have been good that C.J. would find such early success. He has genetics on his side.

At the same time C.J. met his destiny, his dad, Chance, was trying to earn a senior hunting dog title.

It was the last leg of the five-part test for seasoned dogs - a triple land mark. Chance’s objective was to find and retrieve three birds downed in a field.

With whistle and hand signals his owner, Chuck Raithel of Vancouver, Wash., directed him to the first bird. Then the second. Then the third.

Like his son, Chance responded without hesitation, and without error.

It had gone that way all morning for the 6-year-old dog.

He followed a scent trail. He cut back and forth through a field to flush birds. He held steady while his owner shot. He swam across a pond three times to retrieve three dead birds.

“We named him Chance because we were taking a chance that there still were golden retrievers out there that had hunting instincts,” Raithel said.

Raithel said he likes the breed because his grandfather hunted with them.

When he started to look for his own dog, however, the prospect of finding a golden retriever that could hunt was bleak.

As the breed became popular with nonhunters, Raithel said, much of its working ability was lost.

Competitions like the one Chance and C.J. participated in keep working dogs working.

At the events, it’s common to find generations of dogs bred to spend days and weeks afield with their owners.

These are dogs that pursue game birds in terrain as varied as the deserts of Arizona, the open plains of Kansas and the thick swamps of Georgia.

For Carol Ramsay, who owns four Labrador retrievers and one German short-haired pointer, the dogs are beauty in motion.

“I watch with fascination how they work and use senses that we really can’t quantify as humans, but which they do automatically,” she said. “To watch that turn on is fascinating, especially when you and the dog are a team.”

Afield for competition

Depending on what part of the country you’re in and who you talk to, hunting dog competitions will have a varied nomenclature.

Technically, the term “field trial” is reserved for events at which dogs compete against other dogs.

At “field tests” and “hunt tests,” dogs are judged against a predetermined standard.

The standards vary slightly from event to event depending on which national hunting dog organization is the sponsor.

There are even competitions specific to one of the three categories of hunting dogs: retrievers, pointers and flushers. These sometimes go by different names, like the Shoot to Retrieve events for pointing breeds.

In the Spokane area, most competitions are sponsored by one of five gun dog organizations: the Spokane Bird Dog Association, the Spokane Retriever Club, the Inland Empire German Short-Haired Pointer Club, the Inland Empire Brittany Club and the North Idaho Gun Dog Association.

The organizations stage local competitions during the spring, summer and early fall. Most attract dogs and owners from throughout the U.S. and Canadian Northwest.

The field test C.J. and Chance attended drew a typical crowd - 48 dogs and 31 people.

No matter what the angle, however, almost all hunting dog events require dogs to move through skill levels that are progressively more difficult.

“Personally, I think they are all good,” said Ivan Lines of the Spokane Retriever Club. “The important thing is that people are out there training their dogs.”

A place of their own

It is midmorning on a Friday and John Gilbert is surveying the landscape.

From the brush, fields and ponds before him, he must compose a good training strategy for his dogs.

Zach, a black Labrador retriever, is 7. Cutter, a female black Lab, is 2. Zach has already earned his grand master hunter title. Cutter is at the intermediate level.

Gilbert analyzes the terrain. He settles on a pond near heavy brush.

“The dogs live for the hunt and they live for the training,” he said. “Personally, I don’t think a dog gets into full stride until they are 3 or 4 years old, some people say 5.”

Zach and Cutter prove his point.

Older and more mature, Zach floats effortlessly into the water, the bushes, anywhere Gilbert tells him there is a bird to retrieve.

Although Gilbert uses a whistle and hand signals, he almost doesn’t have to. He and Zach know each other so well, they can communicate with just a glance.

Cutter, by contrast, is still a teenager. She wiggles with almost uncontrollable excitement. Although she is obedient and gaining confidence, she still needs Gilbert for direction.

The trio are honing their skills on a 320-acre piece of land the Spokane Bird Dog Association and the Spokane Retriever Club lease from the Department of Natural Resources.

On weekends, the grounds are often filled with the bustle of men and women and their dogs competing in the clubs’ field and hunt tests.

But this day it is quiet.

Gilbert, Zach and Cutter have the scabland country to themselves. Moving against the horizon, they make a rather romantic image.

“It’s the teamwork that attracts me,” Gilbert said. “It’s just you and the dogs.”

MEMO: Mary Sagal writes a monthly dog column, About Dogs, which appears the first Sunday of each month in the IN Life section.

This sidebar appeared with the story: UPCOMING EVENTS Field trial - Continues today and Sunday. Espanola. DNR land west of Medical Lake. Information: 924-2353. Field test - May 24-25. North American Hunting Retriever Association Northwest Regional Competition. Lethbridge, Alberta. Information: (403) 282-5096. Shoot to retrieve - May 24-25. Fort Lewis, Wash., Area 21. Information: 448-6023. Field test - June 7-8. Cataldo, Idaho. Information: 466-9243. Field test - June 14-15. Espanola. Information: 466-9243. Field test - Aug. 30-31. Espanola. Information: 466-9243. Field trial - Sept. 26-28. Espanola. Information: 924-2353. Field trial - Sept. 26-28. Fishtrap, Wash. Information: 299-5181.

Mary Sagal writes a monthly dog column, About Dogs, which appears the first Sunday of each month in the IN Life section.

This sidebar appeared with the story: UPCOMING EVENTS Field trial - Continues today and Sunday. Espanola. DNR land west of Medical Lake. Information: 924-2353. Field test - May 24-25. North American Hunting Retriever Association Northwest Regional Competition. Lethbridge, Alberta. Information: (403) 282-5096. Shoot to retrieve - May 24-25. Fort Lewis, Wash., Area 21. Information: 448-6023. Field test - June 7-8. Cataldo, Idaho. Information: 466-9243. Field test - June 14-15. Espanola. Information: 466-9243. Field test - Aug. 30-31. Espanola. Information: 466-9243. Field trial - Sept. 26-28. Espanola. Information: 924-2353. Field trial - Sept. 26-28. Fishtrap, Wash. Information: 299-5181.



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