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Retrievers Offer Preview of Master National

May 3, 2012
 
By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
 
With sleek, black coat shimmering in the west Alabama sunlight, the Labrador retriever shivered with energy as he eyed his handler. As I watched a hunt test recently at the M. Barnett Lawley Forever Wild Field Trial Area, I imagined what was zipping through the retriever’s brain.
 
“C’mon; c’mon; c’mon. Let me go; let me go; let me go, master. I saw exactly where those ducks fell. I can get ‘em; I can get ‘em; I can get ‘em! Please, please, please!”
 
Finally, the handler issued the retrieve signal, and the canine bolted from the starting position as if launched from a catapult and raced to pick up the first mallard at the Black Warrior Retriever Club of Alabama’s Hunting Test. The Labrador performed the retrieve flawlessly for all three ducks and then had no trouble following the handler’s signals to the hidden duck. When the dog stayed put as the next hunt test started, the well-trained Lab successfully completed that portion of the American Kennel Club (AKC)-licensed hunt test.
 
As big a deal as the Black Warrior hunt test, with its 516 retrievers, was to the folks in Alabama’s Black Belt, it was only a precursor to the “big show” that is headed to Alabama in October. The AKC Master National will be held Oct. 18-28 at the Forever Wild tract at what was previously known as the State Cattle Ranch. The event will attract retrievers, owners and handlers from all over the nation to the Greensboro area, which will be an economic bonanza for the communities surrounding the ranch.
 
Read Holland, vice president of the Black Warrior club and local chairman for this year’s Master National, said for a dog to qualify for the event it must pass six AKC-licensed hunt tests during the calendar year. The one recently held as a qualifier at the cattle ranch was used by some as practice for the premiere event.
 
“We normally have some fairly good-sized hunt tests anyway,” Holland said, “but people are coming this year, particularly to these grounds, to qualify for the Master National and get a feel for the area if they qualify. The Master National is the premiere event for retrievers running in hunt tests.”
 
To be selected for this year’s Master National, the Black Warrior club, with the assistance and partnership of Forever Wild Land Trust, submitted a 70-page packet with multiple photos of the Lawley field trial area. Alabama won out over clubs from Wisconsin and Minnesota.
 
“I think the tipping point was the support the state provided to host the Master National here,” Holland said of the winning bid. “The letter from Commissioner Lawley made quite an impact. The club couldn’t have done it without the partnership with Forever Wild. In my view, they have done an outstanding job of getting the grounds ready for a Master National.”
 
Holland said they are expecting at least 700 entries, which will have a conservatively estimated economic impact of $6 million in the Black Belt.
 
“That’s big money for communities like Demopolis and Greensboro,” Holland said.
 
Conservation Commissioner N. Gunter Guy Jr., who appreciates a quality retriever as well, agrees the state scored a coup when the Master National picked Alabama.
 
“Foremost, I’m very impressed by the number of people involved with this Forever Wild property and its use as a retriever trial area,” Guy said. “I’m also impressed with the economic impact of this event and the events leading up to the Master National on this area, the Black Belt in particular. Boosting the economy in this area is certainly one of the Governor’s goals and my goal as well. Everybody coming here will be buying gas, food and having a place to stay. They will be getting to know this beautiful part of our state. Nothing but positive things will come out of this.
 
“Maybe the irony of all of this is that of all the Forever Wild properties this one was somewhat questioned in the beginning. But I think people will now see the huge benefit from what we derive from this property – not only from these field trials but the many other events we have here, like the youth dove hunts, the youth deer hunts, youth turkey hunts, hunts for individuals with disabilities and the Becoming an Outdoors-Woman hunts. You take all those together, and it’s just a huge, positive impact. It shows you what is good about the Forever Wild program and how it really is beneficial to the state.”
 
The hunt tests are truly designed to be a test of the dog, its training and trainer/handler. Holland estimated that only between 30 and 40 percent of the entries will pass all six tests at the Master National.
 
“First of all, a dog has to mark – watch where a bird falls and remember where a bird falls,” Holland said. “On the test we’re at now, there are three marks and the dog has to remember all three. To the extent that he (or she) remembers that and trusts his memory, that’s the most important thing for a dog. The next thing you look for is that the dog exhibits controls. In other words, the dog is well-trained. He responds to the handler’s commands and is very responsive to those commands. Those are the two most important elements.
 
 “The judges want to see a dog work. At the Master National, the dogs have six hunt tests. In the weekend tests, there are three tests – a land series, a water series and a land/water series. To pass, a dog has to excel in all three.”
 
Once a dog receives a qualifying score in the six tests at a Master National event, the title of Master Hunter goes on its pedigree. In the past two years there has been a new designation added. If a dog receives qualifying scores in three Master Nationals, the dog gets the title of National Master Hunter on his pedigree.
 
Melissa Robinson of Pelahatchie, Miss., Region 2 Director for the Master National, said the event will attract the top retrievers from all over the nation. All retriever breeds (Labrador, golden, Chesapeake Bay, Nova Scotia), standard poodles, Boykin spaniels and Irish water spaniels are eligible to enter if they qualify.
 
“The Master National is a big to-do because it brings the top hunting dogs together,” Robinson said. “This is the first year we’ve gone to four flights, and we’re starting a day earlier. It’s just gotten to be such a big, prestigious event that everybody is trying to qualify. The local retriever clubs are seeing huge entries this year to try to qualify.”
 
Many times the dog owners and handlers start the hunt tests innocently enough but soon find themselves enthralled with the competition, according to Robinson.
 
“A lot of them start with duck hunting and seeing the dogs work,” she said. “You appreciate how a dog works and the teamwork between the dog and the handler. There are some pros getting into this, but it’s still an amateur game. The AKC mandates that the judges make sure it is a challenging test. They are always adding new elements, like the steadiness of the dog and making sure they’re not way ahead of the handler. You’re supposed to go to the line as a team and work as a team.”
 
“This should be great for the local economy. The Master National is so big that when they announce the location for the next event, people are calling that day to make reservations. It’s that big.”
 
PHOTOS: (By Billy Pope) Chuck McCall, owner/operator of Chumac Kennels in Baton Rouge, La., tries to calm one of his Labrador retrievers that was entered in the Black Warrior hunt test recently at the M. Barnett Lawley Field Trial Area near Greensboro. Well-trained retrievers, like this black Lab, are a joy to behold when they properly retrieve a duck and successfully complete the hunt test.
 
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