This year twenty handlers and their gundogs participated in Wildrose’s annual Double Gun and Retriever Classic (TSR) the fourth weekend in October. Because it combines wingshooting with training, this is the course for handlers to evaluate their gundogs’ skill levels before hunting season. During the past year I had worked through the gentleman’s gundog training regimen with my pup, Mac (Kane x Molly [bl]). So, I entered with my eighteen-month-old to assess our work.
Of course, the field of twenty entrants included many seasoned veterans with finished dogs that routinely frequent fine hunting destinations. Heather Cass and Jack, the 2011 Champions, attended as did last year’s Gun’s Choice, Gunner and Sarah Barnes. Along with them the field included so many well-trained gundogs that Judges Ben Summerall and Steven Lucius oversaw the event’s closest competition for top dog, requiring extra care in assessing the final day’s field events.
Still other owners returned for a second year with dogs that had completed their first hunting seasons last winter, like Andy Kelley with Buddy. And then there were others, who entered their year-and-a-half old, self-trained dogs, like Kent Matthews with Tahoe and me with Mac.
When we arrived after noon on Friday for the three-day event the temperature was moderate, but shortly turned cold, with rain arriving later. Under Mike’s direction, the Wildrose staff had set up the various hunting sites in perfect field situations, including mown uplands and water venues. Split into three groups, we began with walk-ups, shooting clays and retrieving thrown or launched bumpers.
The simulated walk-up training clinic served as a great workout. For one thing it was good to get the dogs socialized to group work. Also, it helped with handler and dog communication, steadying the dogs under gunfire with bumpers flying and then sending them for retrieves on command. Always enthusiastic in training, Mac became very eager to get involved in the action, but stayed under control. Of course, that was before live birds were introduced.
Friday evening offered one of Wildrose’s best features: camaraderie. As so many folks attested, among the benefits of Wildrose are the hospitality that comes from the top down throughout the staff, the opportunity for clients to return at any time to train at the kennel locations, and the sense of togetherness everyone feels when they gather for evening social time. Regardless of where we live or what our occupation, we all have one common bond: the companionship of a Wildrose gundog. Because each of us belongs to a gundog team that follows the Wildrose Way, we have a world of experiences from field and home to share with each other. Gathered around a logfire, everyone warmed up with a Wildrose tradition: Chris and Lonny Willkie’s home made mint juleps.
On a chilly Saturday wingshooting scenarios got underway with live bird releases over water, including high-flying launches that challenged double gun shooters and lent the event a traditional sporting flair. With shooters and their dogs posted at various pegs around the water, handlers sent their retrievers for the downed birds after each round of releases. Many of us, who were handling small-gauge, side-by-sides were happy to know that points were awarded for the retrieves, not the shooting.
Mac loves water retrieves and performed well on fairly straightforward lining, even though the flooded timber presented submerged and floating obstacles. Mac remained steady onshore during most of the exercise, though he excitedly watched every single bird flight and drop. He moved only once, during the final release, when a falling bird splashed right in front of us at the shoreline. In a flash he broke for the water, but with a quick verbal correction I was able to bring him back to his position, although he continued to stare, still as a statue, at the nearby downed bird. Perhaps had I been more alert to Mac’s body language, instead of watching my fellow shooters, I could have prevented his breaking before it happened.
The field shoot with live birds was another excellent training simulation. The fast-paced shooting and live-bird flights and falls proved too much of a temptation for Mac, however. When one falling bird swooped just past his nose and sailed into the tall grass nearby, Mac bounded after it. No amount of my verbal correction interfered with his delight at picking the bird and running back triumphantly with it. I took little solace in the fact that many other older dogs broke as well, despite their seasoned handlers’ corrections.
For Mac and me that moment provided a telling measure of our progress as a gundog team. He was so exhilarated with the action and taste of live-bird fun that thereafter I had to put him on a lead to keep him steady. Naturally, I was disappointed—perhaps in my lack of ability as much as his youth. Yet the great benefit of such a discovery in this training event is that I got a diagnosis of where I need to focus my future training efforts with Mac.
Between events and in the evening we participants had opportunities to visit. Facing such challenging activities, we enjoyed the brief down times, as the staff readied the next events. With friends we shared notes about our performances in the events and caught up on news about dogs and families. As a relative newcomer, I was able to make new acquaintances with some good folks. Speaking of good folks, the Double Gun enthusiasts continue to support the diabetic alert dog program, this year through a silent auction and generous private donations.
Sunday’s competition was set in a large open field, at the center of which was an elevated pond. Shooters’ pegs were located at large, round hay bales arranged in a circle several yards away from and around the pond. Several rounds of live bird releases, shooting, and retrieving ensued. This venue offered yet another hunting-simulated site with wide, open spaces that challenged gundogs with long retrieves. Oftentimes, the fall was beyond the handler’s line of sight and the dog essentially had to make a blind retrieve. The large gallery, which had faithfully watched the weekend’s events, was especially responsive with loud applause for the excellent gundog work that they witnessed that morning. As for Mac, he concluded the activity on lead after making a couple of unwarranted early retrieves.
Afterward the crowd gathered back on the grounds for a sumptuous lunch behind the Wildrose Trading Company. And then everyone offered congratulations to Dan McMackin and HRCH Wildrose Kayla, winners of the 2012 Wildrose Double Gun Retriever Classic. In announcing the winner, Mike made an intriguing historical note. In 2004 he led the first U.S. Gundog team in history to compete in the U.K., winning the P & O Irish Sea International Retriever Competition with FTW Blackharn Bob, along with Drake and Jet. Bob, Kayla’s sire, was the highpoint retriever of all five international teams competing. It was gratifying for us to see the championship genetics re-emerge with Kayla.
Three teams tied for the Gun’s Award: Tom Smith and Dixie; Dan McMackin and Kayla; and Mark Turner.
The value of the training, the warm camaraderie, and the unsurpassed, simulated hunting venues at Wildrose will call many of us back to the DG classic again. Next year, come join the fun.