A grizzly looking Lab with a gray muzzle and a coat as black as coal curled in the holding blind by his handler. You could tell he’d been here before and you wondered if this would be his last visit.
With a determined look on her weathered face, the dog’s handler reached down and scruffed his head. Both paid little attention to the gunshots and the commands from handlers sending their dogs on some of the most difficult retrieves imaginable.
This was a downright hot day for the last week of October, but these veteran retrievers could bare up to whatever the weather brought. They had endured it all from icy swims to sweat- humid days to get here for the 24th running of the Master National Hunt Test
The site was H. Cooper Black Recreational area, a 7,000 acre South Carolina haven for retriever and bird dog field trials and hunt tests and equestrian events, two miles from Cheraw and a two and a half hour drive south from Raleigh.
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The old Lab moved out of the blind at heel beside handler Sallie Sullivan, the grand dame of sporting dogs from Thomasville, Ga. She has run every Master National but one, a record of sorts surpassed only by Frankie Predergast, a retired Mass. fire fighter, who has never missed one.
Miss Sallie, as she is affectionately known, says she is concerned with how the event has grown too large and difficult to manage. “It’s out of hand,” she said.
Almost 1,000 retrievers are here with their handlers and owners to run what is described as the largest performance event in the history of the AKC. It takes more than a week to whittle down the entries to 272 qualifying dogs. Ten judges designed 15 of perhaps the most difficult waterfowl scenarios imaginable for the retrievers to conquer.
It is a far cry from the first event run in Chesapeake City, Md., in 1991 with 94 entries, 26 of which qualified. MNs are hosted by member clubs across the country, rotating among four regions on the east and west coasts and the heartland. All entries must carry the master hunter title and pass six master stakes within a year, running from August 1 through July 31. Retrievers do not compete against each other but qualify by meeting AKC standards.
The MNRC describes the annual event this way: “In order to carry out our commitment, master hunters will be tested annually in a non-competitive manner at the master national stake to the maximum of the standards set forth by the AKC. We believe firmly in supporting the hunt test program and that all parties should conduct themselves as good sportsmen. To obtain maximum of the standard there shall be such utilization of terrain, bird placement and natural conditions so as to provide a significant challenge to the abilities of a master hunting dog.”
The majority of sporting dogs that run the national are Labs, followed by golden retrievers, Chessies, flat coats, standard poodles, curly coated retrievers and Boykin Spaniels.
Robert Rascoe, a retired corporate attorney from Winston-Salem who has qualified several dogs in the national, was selected by his peers to be a MN judge this year. He along with co-judges spent a week setting up tests.
The 15 setups included five land series with blinds, five water series with blinds, and five land-water series with blinds. The location of the birds are unknown to the dogs running blind retrieves. Handlers use hand signals to direct their dogs. Retrieves can be 100 yards or more.
“I appreciate watching a good handler and dog working quietly and precisely to figure out a difficult hunting scenario together,” Rascoe said. “The joy of judging is getting to watch such great teamwork.”
Handlers include both amateurs and professionals who spend months training for the national. Like most sports training or practicing never ends.
Ellison Armfield of Advance in Davie County has dedicated much of her life to breeding and training black Labs. She has obtained a uniqueness by making four of her dogs both conformation champions and master hunters. Show dogs rarely make fine hunting dogs. Armfield brought her second MN plate home this year.
“Tiger is my fourth champion master hunter,” she said. “There have been 72 since 1985. I was not the first but the only one with four and the only one with three that I bred from the same bitch. And owner-trained to the master hunter…”
With MN completed only about a month ago, handlers such as Armfield are already back in the field training and running hunt tests hoping to qualify for the 2016 event.