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ESPN Super Retriever Series: The dog days of fall
By Jeff Windmueller and Montana Kaimin
Special to ESPN Great Outdoor Games

Armand & Ninja
Armand Fangsrud and Ninja await their turn during the ESPN Super Retriever Series.
Ninja sat trembling with anxiety at his handler's side awaiting his command to tear through the brush. The first duck launched, and a shot fired; the second, and the same. Armand Fangsrud swung left almost 180 degrees and fired the third and final round.

Then Fangsrud shouted the release signal "Ninja," and the 2-and-a-half-year-old black labrador struck out at a blistering pace, down a steep hill and headed toward the riverbank. But before he could pierce the stream's frigid water the judges yelled, "No bird."

A whistle blasted from Fangsrud's mouth and the dog returned to his owner unsettled.

Fangsrud, a Missoula resident, has trained years for a day like Thursday.

He and his two black labs, Mahfi and Ninja, joined 20 other teams in ESPN Super Retriever Series, a competition created to simulate a real hunting scenario.

"Mahfi is my older, calmer one, she's my Ford Fairlane. Ninja is a Ferrari," Fangsrud said.

Interestingly enough, Mahfi's entire name, Mahfi Mushkala, means "no problem" in Arabic.

Ninja, on the other hand, had a few problems in his first run.

The mechanism that throws fake ducks into the air had malfunctioned and judges decided it would be unfair to make Ninja retrieve a dummy launched so low.

"These things happen," Fangsrud said. "He's been in his kennel for three hours with the sounds of shotguns and whistles going off, he's really pumped up, and now it's gonna be hard for him to concentrate on the birds."

Judges allowed another dog to go on his turn. Meanwhile, Ninja and his master headed for a wind break (an on-deck circle of sorts where the next competitors wait their turn) to rest. Ninja, however, was not ready to settle down.

Armand & Ninja
And he's off!
The young dog showed tremendous strength; flicking his paws slightly, he leapt to heights equal to his 5-foot-6-inch owner's head.

When his turn finally came, there were no other competitors left. Ninja was the last to retrieve.

This time, each bird was thrown successfully, and when the release signal sounded, Ninja pounced into the brush and began his run.

The first duck to retrieve was in the center of a creek. Without hesitation the dog splashed into the water and swam out to catch it. A quick whistle and he returned to the starting point.

"What makes a truly great dog is one that gets in the water," Fangsrud said. "That's what separates the man dogs from the boy dogs."

Fangsrud directed him to the next two targets. The first was a close target that many of the dogs had problems finding right away; the second, a distance shot. When Fangsrud whistled, the dog stopped immediately, ears perked, to receive directions. Standing on his toes and extending his arm with the use of a baseball cap so Ninja could see, Fangsrud lifted his arm diagonally and directed his dog toward the dummy ducks.

With only a few whistles, Ninja was able to retrieve all three ducks.

It was now up to Ninja to follow his handler's commands and find a "blind bird," one which had been placed in the field without the dog knowing.

Although it was hidden about 325 yards from the starting point, finding the blind bird proved to be an easy task for Ninja, and the young dog proved his skill.

When the judges scores came in, Ninja placed first overall with a score of 12, which is excellent considering that, like golf, the lower the score is, the better. The second and third place finishers scored in the 20s and 30s, respectively. Four of the dogs were unable to finish the test, and a few scored more than 100 points.

Scores are based upon a few criteria. Dogs must run in a straight line toward their duck, pick up the duck immediately, and run in a straight line back. Every time a handler has to whistle and direct his dog toward the mark, a few points are added.

"(The competition) is a combination of field trials and hunting tests," said Justin Tackett, the Super Retriever's designer and scoring creator. "We had to come up with a combination that was fair."

Ninja and Mahfi both did well, but the course proved to be difficult for many of the competitors.

"I thought it was brutal," said Rick Roberts, a trainer from British Columbia. His dog, a golden retriever named Sniper, was a stunt double in the movie "Air Bud 4: Seventh Inning Fetch."

"The distances are longer," Roberts said. "The blinds were especially difficult. It was a concept that the dogs just didn't get a handle on."

Although Ninja and Mahfi appeared to have quite a handle on the competition, Fangsrud said he had initially hesitated registering Ninja to compete. At two-and-a-half years old, Ninja is very young and has less experience than the other dogs, most of which get their full stride at four years old. However, Fangsrud felt Ninja had an excellent week of training prior to Thursday's event and his dog deserved a chance.

"There's no guarantee you're going to get the Michael Jordan of the dog world," he said, petting the hyperactive labrador. "But, I'm hoping this guy just might be one."

Since 1996, Armand has spent about $30,000 dollars on his dogs, which includes purchasing the pups, training and traveling with them. And then there are the countless hours Fangsrud has put into working with them in preparing for competitions like this weekend's.

Training dogs has helped Fangsrud to remain mentally and physically fit. As a boy, he suffered from Polio and was unable to participate in many of the sports. Now, as a retiree, Mahfi and Ninja keep him active in an activity he loves.

"Sometimes you see people in their 80s running dogs, they say, 'By God, if it wasn't for my dog, I'd be dead by now,'" Fangsrud said.

All the time and money Fangsrud has poured into his dogs has created quite a bond between the three. And it is the strength of this bond that comes through in competition and ultimately proves it is the best team, not just the dog that wins.

"The man can't do it alone, and neither can the dog. It is a relationship built up over years," Fangsrud said. "I've seen men tear up when talking about the dogs they've had."

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