Chasing Ribbons, Finding a Companion

By Dan McMackin

Napoleon is said to have made the comment, I’m paraphrasing, “when I realized people would lay down their lives for little bits of colored ribbon, I knew I could conquer the world…”

How’s that for an opener? 

I’ve been on the ribbon circuit since my dog, Wildrose Tara, was a puppy. Both United Kennel Club (UKC) and American Kennel Club (AKC) trade organizations have versions of hunt tests based on waterfowl and upland hunting scenarios. Each group awards ribbons and points for passing grades. The chase for ribbons excites and satisfies those of us who like to train and compete. The competition is against a “standard,” not with other dogs, though just as with high school math class, “grading on the curve” can happen. In other words, if all dogs are struggling with an aspect of a test, the judges may use discretion in scoring. Like all judged events, subjective evaluation is part of these tests. 

Hunt tests are considered to be a team sport. Handlers receive as much scoring input from the judges as the dogs do, as each dog/handler team communicates and navigates the defined and often technical course. Tests often use topography, the lay of the land, and other natural nuances as “factors” to influence a dog’s ability to remember a mark or stay on a straight line for a blind retrieve. “Technical” ponds are built that include islands, fingers and points, all used to challenge a dog/handler team. A tough blind retrieve may require a dog to cross a finger of land, with reentry into water for a long swim. Another scenario might have the dog skimming the tip of a point of land, keeping the dog “wet.” 

Tara is my second Wildrose dog. She and my first dog, Kayla, were bred from the same sire, Blackharn Bob. The Dams were Astraglen Dawn and Brooke, respectively. (Tara’s litter being through artificial insemination). The two dogs are half-sisters, with Bob being the constant. Kayla was also a competitive retriever, with tremendous marking skills and nose work that set her apart. She too had a wicked level of drive. Bob’s lineage was prodigious, to say the least. Ask Mike Stewart about all the dogs he’s imported and trained, and he’ll single out Bob as one that was special. In the world of retrievers, Bob was royalty.

Tara has excelled in most phases of testing. We received our UKC Finished title by the time she was two, and an Upland title before she was one. We recently achieved the 500-point level, which is the first major milestone after getting a Finished title. Each UKC Finished test is worth 15 points. We also received our Master title in AKC testing not long ago. AKC tests were notorious for being difficult to enter until they changed the rules recently, allowing amateurs to enter before pro trainers. We waited almost three years to enter an AKC Master test. Prior to the rule change, tests would fill up in less than 60 seconds. 

Both trade groups’ tests are very technical. Marking, lining and control are central to what judges look for. AKC tests tend to be more involved, with walk-ups, double blinds, poison birds and a scoring system that is more detailed and perhaps more subjective, though that could be argued. And both group’s tests are “pass/fail,” with a trip home possible seconds after the first bird is thrown. Breaking, poor sportsmanship, and other flagrant behaviors sometimes elicit the comment, “put a rope on your dog, sir,” and “thanks for the donation…” from either of the two judges.

Tara loves the adventure of test weekends, the loading of gear, coolers, food, the overnight accommodations. She insists that I keep a window down during the drive so she can sample the outside air at various mile markers – the scents of the roadway giving her a sense of where we’re headed. 

We’ve been all over the Southeast chasing ribbons. During a test, Tara actually drools at the line as birds are being thrown. She is also a leaper, sometimes called a “big air” dog – not always the safest behavior in a stick pond – but leap she does, despite me trying to discourage it at a very young age. At one test, a “wipeout” mark was thrown, left to right, landing only about 15 feet from us in the water. Tara leapt so high and so far she landed on the bird, taking it and herself completely under water. She must have gone ten feet up and 15 feet out. One of the judges laughed so hard he fell off his camp chair, knocking his coffee and scoring book up in the air and on the ground. The other judge laughed so hard at the first judge that he fell off his chair. A good time was had by all, so to speak, and Tara passed the test. 

Tara was blessed with an abundance of prey drive, a Wildrose trait, and one that separates average dogs from exceptional ones. That prey drive can be fabulous in a duck hunt or a pheasant drive, but it can be ulcer-inducing in a technical, prescribed and judged test. Nevertheless, drive is essential for a solid retriever. 

It’s been said that there are dogs that do what they do because they have to, for fear of correction etc., and there are those that do it because they love it. Tara loves it. And that’s why I do it, not just the testing, but the pheasant work, quail, partridge, ducks, geese. Ribbons are great but, Napoleon notwithstanding, once you have a pile of them, or milestone certificates and jackets with patches exclaiming another rung on the hunt test ladder, it really comes back to why I have a Wildrose dog. I wanted a companion. I wanted a partner in the field. I wanted to see a dog learn, and I love exploring a dog’s DNA and selective breeding traits through training. The tests are fun, and they give us something to do in the off-season, which, for a dog with preternatural prey drive is almost essential. Tara would need psychological counseling if we could only pick up birds for a couple months. 

So the chase for ribbons has its place, but the essential place for a Wildrose dog is in a pheasant field or a duck blind. There’s no ribbon in the world as impressive as watching a dog break ice in a swamp at daybreak, chasing a crippled bird destined for the table. And there’s no judge’s score that can equal a handler’s pride when their dog gives chase to a wounded chukkar in tough cover. Game conservation is still our dogs’ purpose in life – and it’s our benefit to watch them do it. 

Dan McMackin

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