Ticket, the golden retriever in the Retriever Trial finals
By Steve Bowman
Great Outdoor Games staff
Alex Washburn of Plains, Va., slipped past Jerry Day and Super Sue, 2001 gold medalists, by what equated to one whistle or one breath of air.
Washburn and black Labrador Ticket finished the medal round with a score of 30 points, Day and Super Sue had 32 points, and bronze medalist Larry McMurray and Pepper finished with 34 points.
"I'd do anything if I could go back and swallow one of those whistles," Day said.
In a contest that scores a man's relationship with his dog, all of the medalists scored well, so well that there are a half dozen small instances in each of their rounds that made the difference between gold and silver and bronze.
The trial serves to emulate a pseudo-waterfowl hunt. Training dummies are launched at varying intervals and distances in a 200-acre course. The course is made of rolling hills, dead timber ponds, marsh, thick brush and cattails.
Handlers are scored on their ability to guide their retrievers through the course and pick up the training dummies without making mistakes. In each round, the teams were required to pick up three marks, or dummies they saw fall, and a blind retrieve, a dummy that was hidden on the course.
The handlers knew where each retrieve lay and guided their retrievers with whistles and hand signals. Scoring was based on the number of whistles. Each whistle was assessed two points, with points added to the overall score for a variety of other mistakes. Points were added for leaving the hunt area, refusing a cast or whistle made by the handler and "popping," a five-point penalty where the dog becomes confused and sits down before the handler blows the whistle.
With marks and blind retrieves that where as long as 300 yards, the fact that there were so few whistles by the gold medalist was described as amazing. That all three dogs were within a few points of each other seemed impossible, considering the difficulty of the final round.
In that round, three marks were thrown. The first landed about 250 yards from the retriever handler team. The next was much closer, 75 yards, but almost in line with the first and the last to the side at about 50 yards. In retriever trials these were deemed exceedingly easy marks, but the organizers threw in a twist.
Those marks, mostly in plain sight, were deemed "poison birds," which meant the retriever could not pick them up until it had first found the blind retrieve, hidden some 300 yards away, but requiring a cast that took it through the middle of the marked birds. If the dog picked up a marked fall first, they were disqualified.
"I've seen something like this only once in my life," said McMurray, who recently guided Pepper to her ninth International Grand title. "This really tests the trust factor between you and your dog. They know those birds are there and they've got to trust you enough to push past them and find something they really don't know for sure is out there."
Because that retrieve came first, it required each of the handlers to blow at least five whistles to guide the dog around the marked falls. All fared well enough, but the situation created some confusing times.
McMurray and Pepper, for instance, would have won the gold medal if not for two times during the casts when Pepper became confused and popped gaining two five-point penalties.
"She just stopped and looked back at me like, 'What do you want me to do?'" McMurray said.
Going into that final round, expectations were that the initial blind retrieve would separate the field. For the most part, it accounted for the majority of the whistles and the overall score.
But defending champion, Super Sue, missed the two closest marks and had to be handled to them costing the retriever/handler team four points. Likewise, Pepper had to be handled on one of the short marks costing them an additional two points.
Washburn and Ticket on the other hand lined the two short marks without any penalties to win the gold medal.