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Outdoors by Will Elliott: A dog’s life can be for the birds

The dogs are on the pond – and on fields and woodlands in search of game birds handlers want retrieved.

That was how things went April 30 and May 1 during an Empire Retriever Club (ERC) Field Event held on Tonawanda Wildlife Management ponds west of the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. EFC is one of several clubs in the Western New York Federation of Dog Clubs and the North American Hunter Retriever Association NAHRA.

Saturday’s sunlight gave way to more duck-like weather on Sunday, with overcast skies, moderate temperatures and a light rain, conditions more akin to a hunt-with-retriever-dogs scenario.

“This is about as close to actual hunting as can be found in any dog-judging contest,” Jim Karr, ERC event coordinator, said while handling his 2-year-old lab Harley during one leg of retriever trials on a Tonawanda pond that Sunday.

Two or more judges rate dogs’ performances for establishment of ranking in a series of levels called stakes, beginning with a rank of Started up to a title of Grand Master in standards the NAHRA sets for regional and national trials.

Four senior judges were on hand and pond-side for four levels of stake testing in Started, Hunter, Intermediate and Senior testing. John Fincher is from East Pembroke, Tom Stasierowski lives in Marilla, Dave Combs came from Geneva, and Rick Irick traveled all the way from South Burlington, Vt., for the weekend of judging.

Empire Retriever Club was established in 1983, but Stasierowski pointed out that these standardized tests of field-dog performance trials have been conducted since 1951.

Each level of testing requires good dog-handler communications and functions. Karr said, “You got to know your dog,” as he walked Harley to and from the pond site. This mutual understanding showed with every dog and handler that stepped up to each stake entry.

Vic and Nancy Krone travel from home in Colden to pond sites at Tonawanda and other sizeable distances often two or three times a week. Nancy said, “These judging trials and formalities come down to people having fun with their dogs.” She added the fun was for dogs always and people sometimes.

While qualification for each stake level requires a considerable amount of effort and applied skills, the trials do not determine ranking among entrants for top finishing scores. Age is not a factor in determining where a retriever dog enters a judged field event. Rules allow dogs with higher stake completion to enter a stake of earlier ranking for exercise or just for fun. With judgments of successful performances for each stake, dog and handler receive a ribbon for completion of that stake’s qualifications.

Fincher said of performances, “Judges look for control during each performance, such as heeling on and off leash, (not) barking and crisp responses to commands.”

Even basic Started level requires good control and a dog’s willingness to stay on the bird and retrieve to the handler’s hand. All retrieves are done with actual ducks, mostly mallards, which are either dead and shot from a sling or shot live for dogs to retrieve.

At the Started level, a dog must successfully retrieve four birds. Hunter entries must retrieve two birds on water and two birds on land, plus follow a scent trail and retrieve a bird on that trail. In the Intermediate stake the dog must do all the previous levels of retrieval plus complete a quartering test to cover field areas.

The Senior stake, held at a larger pond to allow for greater retrieval distances, is a wonder to see. Dogs retrieve at greater distances in two directions on commands from handlers. What appears to be the ultimate test in the Senior stake for dog handling and a dog’s retrieval skill is the “blind” test.

A bird is placed on the opposite side of a pond out of sight on a pathway without obstructions. The handler must give hand signals, lateral and forward, directing the dog to the bird not visible to the dog. All did.

Nine ribbons were awarded that Sunday. Even the Krone’s 4-year-old yellow lab Moose, who loves to bark at projected birds, got his Senior stake status.

All participants at ERC events provide help for dog owner/handlers interested in improving their hunting dog’s basic retrieval functions as well as training skills for completing stake-level qualifications. For more information about ERC involvements, check with Jim Karr at 863-2201 or Vic and Nancy Krone at 249-7158 or visit