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It’s 6 AM on the second Saturday in March.  It’s dark, and there is a slight chill in the air.  Not cold, but cool enough for a jacket.  I found myself driving south toward Moyock, North Carolina as a guest of the Albemarle Retriever Club where a two-day UKC/HRC sanctioned hunt test was to be administered.

This event was to be held on a vast tract of rural land in Camden County, NC, which is home of the U.S. Training Center, formerly known as Blackwater.  The company provides tactical training experiences for military, security and law enforcement professionals.  Special permission had to be obtained from the security-minded company to allow me to enter the center with my camera equipment.  Although they were very friendly and professional, I was advised to make sure I limited my photography to the event.  Images of their facilities or any training activities were strictly forbidden.

Truth is, I really didn’t need that admonishment.  I spent the better part of two days focused on a group of energetic and active retrievers with their owners/handlers.  I didn’t have the time or energy to do much of anything else.

The Hunting Retriever Club is a non-profit volunteer organization conceived by hunters for hunters.  Affiliated with the United Kennel Club, it strives to create a closer relationship and encourage cooperation between breeders, owners, trainers, and fanciers of hunting retrievers by improving the breeds. It also provides hunters and hunting enthusiasts a method to experience controlled situations very close to actual hunting where they can test their training techniques, provide experience for other hunters, and participate in a sporting competition.

The first difference you notice when attending one of these events is that unlike a field trial, the dogs do not compete against each other, and there are no competitive 1st, 2nd and 3rd place finishes.  Rather the dogs are judged pass/fail against a “Hunting Standard.” These are events that are great fun where everyone can root for the other person’s dog and help each other with their training.  The goal is to successfully progress through a series of tests earning titles from “Started Hunting Retriever” to “Grand Hunting Retriever Champion.”

I chose to spend my time with the “started dogs.”  Typically, these are the younger dogs or those just starting the process of obtaining points to gain a title.  The tests were pretty straightforward.  A total of four marked retrieves were required, two on land and two over water each day.

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The “participants” were mostly Labrador Retrievers (black, chocolate and yellow) with a few Chesapeake Bay Retrievers and one Golden Retriever.  Over the two-day period, the judges put the dogs and their handlers through their paces over land and water.  For the most part, they all did well.  Did they all pass and gain those coveted points toward a title?  No, some dogs came up a little short.  Once or twice, the owner came up a little short.   But what they may have lacked in experience, they more than made up for in enthusiasm and the pure joy of being together in the field.  It was obvious that every dog wanted to please his owner.  Unfortunately, there were times when the dog just wasn’t sure what the owner wanted and times when the owner wasn’t quite sure how to effectively communicate his desire to the dog.  For me, it was those occasions that made the event special.  When it was obvious that a dog or handler was struggling and was not going to pass a particular test, the judges would stop and turn the test into a training moment.  They would talk with the owner and offer suggestions.  Sometimes they would call the dog back in and start all over just for practice.  And, when the dog left the line, there were other competitors there to offer help and encouragement.

All in all, it was a fun and relaxed atmosphere where owner and dog could work together as a team.  If you own a retrieving dog, even if you are a non-hunter, I encourage you get to know one of these clubs.  The members of the Albemarle Retriever Club were friendly, knowledgeable, and encouraging.  If you want to make you and your pup a better team…give them a try.

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I recently had the pleasure of visiting Washington, NC to attend the East Carolina Wildfowl Arts Festival www.eastcarolinawildfowlguild.com/.  Washington is a charming city with a population of about 10,000 sitting on the bank of the picturesque Pamlico River.  The festival is in its sixteenth year and is an extremely popular event.  While decoy carving, retriever demonstrations and duck calling are all parts of the festival.  I was there to photograph a relatively new event added to the lineup,  “Dock Dog Competition.”

Maybe you’ve seen this on ESPN television.  Dogs jumping off the end of a ramp into a tank filled with water.  The goal is to jump the greatest distance.  Or at least that’s what I thought before I got there. Actually, it’s a bit more involved than that.  There are really three different events.  “Big Air” is indeed based on distance.  The second event is called “Extreme Vertical” where, as the name implies, the goal is to reach a maximum height.  The third event is the “Timed Retrieve” competition where the winning dog is the one who jumps in the water and retrieves a dummy at the end of the tank in the fastest time.  A few quick facts:  the ramp is 40’ long by 8’ wide; the tank is 40’ long, 20’ wide and 4 feet deep; it holds 24,000 gallons of water.  I’m not going to go on and on about the details of the events and rules and such.  For that information click on this Dock Dog link www/dockdogs.com/.

Although I loved the dogs and the fun of the events I was most impressed with the overall atmosphere of the competition.  It was relaxed.  It was fun.  Most of all is was “family friendly”.   I do a fair number of events every year–field trials, hunt tests, herding competitions and the like.  A lot of them bill themselves as family events.  To be honest, some are more about family than others.  Now I can’t speak for every Dock Dog Competition, but this one was undoubtedly a family affair.  There were young couples with small children, older couples with teenagers and grandparents with grandchildren.  All having a great time with their dogs while the dogs were having a great time.  Sure, everyone wanted to win but it wasn’t the end of the world if they didn’t.  Sometimes it was enough just to get the dog to jump into the water.  But they were all having fun, together as a family.  It was great to be around those folks with their animals.

If you own a dog and are looking to get involved in something a little different, I suggest you consider a local Dock Dog Club.  You don’t have to own a retriever type dog, or a purebred.  It seems that all dogs are welcome.  Here are links to a couple of local Virginia and a North Carolina Clubs, www.tidewaterdockdogs.com/, www.carolinadockdogs.com/.

If you would like to view more photos from this event, click here, www.bigbarkphotography.smugmug.com/clients/.

One last bit of semi-related conversation.  This past month I was photographing an old style plantation quail hunt for a group of bird hunters in Washington, Georgia.  The townsfolk there told me that their city was the first in the nation to be named after General George Washington.  Well, this month the people of Washington, North Carolina told me the exact same thing.  Their city was the first in the nation to be named after the General.  How do you suppose they reconcile those differing views?

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