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The human factor
By Steve Bowman
Great Outdoor Games staff

In its simplest terms, competition in the Super Retriever Trials involves one dog following the direction of one man — the dog following the instincts that were bred into it, and the man watching a faithful companion do something it loves so much it can't stand it.

It's simple. But a Super Retriever Series title isn't awarded for the simple things. This competition is based on actual hunting situations replicated to test the bond between handler and dog.

The bond supercedes the training of the retriever and the ability of the handler.

"It's teamwork in its purest form," said Justin Tackett, organizer of the Super Retriever Trials.

The second of three Super Retriever Series competitions begins this week in Stuttgart, Ark., where 50 of the top retrievers in the country will compete to qualify for the ESPN Great Outdoor Games.

The competition will be filled with retrievers running through a course, picking up downed birds under the direction of their handlers. On the surface, a great deal of the attention is placed on the abilities of the dog. The retriever is the defining part of the event.

The other part of the equation, though, is the handler. And in some ways they may be the most important part. Like a NASCAR driver, these are the guys driving their high-powered machines, and making all the right moves at all the right times.

In the Super Retriever Series, what will likely set the winners apart is how well each of the handlers knows their dog, a relationship that is so close that they can figure out what the dog is going to do before the dog knows.

For instance, Tackett said a good handler knows where his dog will drift on a blind retrieve, and how far away he will react to a blown whistle.

"He knows which way his dog will turn when he blows the whistle," Tackett said. "They know their dog's strengths, and weaknesses. Most rookies think they have a dog without any flaws. But just like people, every dog has a weakness in their game somewhere.

"Shaquille O'Neil is incredible inside, but you don't see him dialing up threes, do you?"

To make his point, Tackett refers to Ritz, a black Labrador handled by Eric Fangsrud. The team won the Super Retriever Series last October in Missoula, Montana.

"Ritz is an incredible dog in every right," Tackett said. "He's one of the finest to ever pick up a duck. But, Ritz is poor at the line. He's so ready to go that he whines and is unstable. He has so much desire he puts himself in the hole on the line. Fangsrud knows this, and does everything in his power to put him at ease up there, and relax him."

Despite Ritz's weakness, Fangsrud took advantage of the dog's strengths in the field to ensure that the penalties at the line didn't figure into the overall score.

In another example, Tackett points to Barry Lyons, who handled Skeet to the inaugural gold medal at the ESPN Great Outdoor Games.

"Lyons knew Skeet's marking wasn't on par," Tackett said. "So he did everything he could to put Skeet in a position to see every mark as well as you could ever hope for. He then blew a whistle about every 40 yards to the blind. He read his dog, and knew he was going to have to pull it out for them. He didn't rely on him at all. If Skeet moved six inches off line, Lyons whistled, and put him back in position.

"Scott Greer in last year's (Super Retriever Series) Stuttgart event did the same thing. When they lined the blind in the finals, he could have stopped her 10 times. As an observer it looked like her head was swinging from side to side picking up different scents. When I asked how he kept from blowing a whistle he said, 'I have run 5,000 blinds with her, and I know when she is just looking, and when she is really considering going off line.'"

That intimate relationship is crucial for retriever/handler teams in events like the Super Retriever Series, where there is very little room for error. And in Tackett's mind it's the handler who can really make or break the team.

"Most of the dogs at this level are great markers," Tackett said. "That is expected. But very few dogs are great markers, and great handling dogs. Even fewer are great markers, great handling dogs, and have great handlers handling them.

"A great trainer is not necessarily a great handler. Nerves and anxiety change everything. You put eight cameras in their face, thousands in the stands watching over their shoulder and millions watching on television, and things mysteriously change."

It's likely the dog could care less. The handler, though, feels like he is under the microscope, which creates an anxious feeling that that can be passed down to the dog, producing mistakes that start with the handler.

All of those factors will come into play when the Super Retriever Series gets under way this week.

It's all teamwork.

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Super Retriever Series: The seeds of experience

Seeding list for the Super Retriever Series event, March 13-16, Stuttgart, Ark.