You’re vice president of the Talbot Retriever Club. Tell me how the organization started and what it does. Currently, there’s about 25 to 30 members. It’s an old club. Personally, I’m only a recent member. I think it goes back to the ‘60s or maybe even earlier. It was started by some retriever enthusiasts, here, in this area, and most of the members have been, historically, people who ran retrievers in field trials. Augie Belmont—he’s now deceased—but he was one of the members. His dog, Super Chief, won the National Amateurs twice, which is the premiere, Holy Grail of retriever-dom and he also won the National Open, which is open to both pros and amateurs, so the club has a lot of history with field trials. In recent years, in the retriever games, there are a couple new formats. I generally run—and a few other members run—hunt tests. The only difference is, field trials are like, it’s a competition. Handler and dogs compete against other handlers and dogs, and typically there’s first, second, and third. Hunt tests are your dog is judged on a standard. And there are different levels: junior, senior, master. If you get a pass against the standard, you can eventually title your dog. I think it takes four passes in junior to get a title, four passes on senior, and five passes on master to get a title. But there you’re judged against the standard, so it’s not dog against dog.
How many dogs do you have? I have two. I have two females that are both Labrador retrievers. Teal is my oldest. She’s seven. I’ve got a pup out of her last litter. That dog’s name is River. She’s two.
What do you like so much about retrievers? Well, really they were developed to retrieve waterfowl, and I do hunt waterfowl. I probably wouldn’t hunt as often as I do if I didn’t have the dogs, because they live and breathe retrieving ducks and geese. They just love it so much. So I spend a good bit of my fall and winter taking them hunting. But that’s their main purpose. And the advantage of a retriever is that they save you a lot of walking in the marsh. They can certainly save you from having to go retrieve a down bird by boat and, more importantly, because they can smell so well, they can find birds in heavy cover that normally, without a dog could not find. So they’re a great conservation tool. So, birds that you might knick and not kill immediately, plopped in the decoys, or a bird that swims off, they’re great for being able to recover those birds that you normally would not get.
As far as Labs . . . You know, there are several types of retrievers. Labs are probably the commonly registered dog with the American Kennel Club. They’re good family dogs, and all –around good pets. Our dogs, although they are in the kennel during the day, they are in our home during the evening. Teal sleeps in the bedroom and River sleeps in the hall. They’re great family pets. They’ve got a great disposition.
Your dogs have an unusual coat color. How’d that come about? There are three recognized colors of Labrador. There’s black, which is the most common. Most of my friends have black. There’s chocolate, and then there’s yellow lab. Now, the yellow will range anywhere from almost a white color to a dark color like I have. Mine are what they consider fox red. And they’re pretty uncommon. We actually bred for that color. We bred Teal to a dog in Minnesota by artificial insemination that was a fox-red male to produce fox-red puppies. So River is a little bit darker than Teal. But it’s a pretty unusual color. We get a lot of comments on it. But we bred not only for that color but also for performance. I think the dog that we bred to is a—in the hunting retriever game—is a master hunter and his father was the 2004 National Field Champ. So they have the breeding to really do a great job in retrieving, in addition to that color.
The Talbot Retriever Club will be at the Easton Waterfowl Festival in November. Yeah. We usually run retriever demonstrations on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
What do those demonstrations show? Well, they show handlers like myself and other club members and their dogs working as a team. The dogs generally will be brought out there at heal and sit. And you’ll tell them to watch, and then there will be marked dummies thrown and gunshots emitted and you’re going to see dogs do a single retrieve or a single marked retrieve. You’ll see a dog do a double mark retrieve where there’s two birds down. You’ll see a dog that will retrieve two birds that are shot down in the water—these are just dummies—and then the dog will be handled on a blind retrieve. A blind retrieve is when a duck or a bird comes down that the dog did not see and through training and teamwork and trust, the dog will be handled to that bird that is probably at a far greater distance than the mark. So it’s kind of like controlling a remote-control car, if you can imagine. And we do that with whistles and hand signals. One whistle you stop the dog. The dog is trained to look at you, the handle. And then you tack right, left, come in, back, you know, the control to get the dog in the vicinity of the bird that he didn’t see. So, that’s the basic type thing. But it’s generally a demonstration of teamwork between the retriever and the retriever.
Is it general a pretty popular exhibit? Oh yes, I mean, we have all ages of people there. We have a big crowd.
Would you say that retrievers are really part of the culture of the Eastern Shore? Absolutely. Most of my friends have Labradors. I’d say most of the guys in this office have Labradors retrievers. And they range anywhere from they go hunting a few times a year to a house dog to a dog that’s like mine where I pretty much train year round because I enjoy the training and trying to improve my dog and making my dog the best it can be. So, yeah, I think retrievers here on the Eastern Shore are part of the tradition of waterfowling and daily life over here. Lot of retrievers in the area. Like the Talbot Retriever Club, there are a few retriever clubs.
What does the organization do? Pretty much promote the use of a trained retriever in waterfowl hunting as a conservation tool. We kind of promote the care of the dogs. Not only do we usually do this demonstration (Easton Waterfowl Festival) but we generally, in late winter/early spring, we’ll conduct training days to help people who have a young dog they don’t really know how to get started. We have set ups, if you will, for different levels of dog in their training and handlers. A lot of times it’s more training the handler on what to do than training the dog. Most of these dogs have the genetics to do the retrieving. With retrievers, it’s a matter of instilling a good standard of obedience. They’re generally under control until you send them for a bird. But the training days are real popular. They’re usually held on Saturday and we get people from a pretty good distance to come. Then we hold a spring field trial, which is a competition, usually in April. And then in October, in a few weeks, we’ll hold a fall hunt fest near Wye Island just off the Bridge. There will have 60 master dogs running and probably 25 junior dogs running, and then probably a similar number of senior dogs. So, that’s the types of things we do. And then, of course, we have little groups of people that train pretty much year round except during the hunting season.
Sounds like you keep yourselves busy. For me it’s a hobby. My kids are close by but they’re pretty much grown now. I’m teaching my two-year-old granddaughter, she likes going training a little bit. She’s still a little young yet, but she likes throwing the dummy. But it’s pretty much a hobby for me and I enjoy trying to develop my dog into the best retriever it can be.
What is the most common handler mistake you see? Well, it’s obedience, you know. I mean, it all comes down to obedience. You want a dog to be a good citizen and a good family member, you know. So you want the dog to be responsive to the command heal, the command sit, and the command come. Those are the three basic commands, but most people are lax on obedience. Since we’re running hunt tests, or going hunting with other people, we try to make sure under control. Like in the duck line, you don’t want a dog jumping around with shotguns leaning up against the blind, so you want a dog that will sit there calmly and not create an unsafe situation. And all that is carried over in our home. We maintain those standards in our home to make sure that the dogs are always good citizens and they have a strong background in obedience. And that’s mostly what people . . . you know, it’s like kids. You kinda want to set a bar for the dog or child and they are always challenging it.
But you have to be consistent. Yeah, exactly. You gotta be fair, consistent, and not lose your temper. Be patient. And they’re smart animals and they learn through repetition. They’re incredible animals.
So your dogs don’t beg at the table or anything? No, they get a fairly high-quality dog food. They don’t get the scraps or table food. No, they lead a pretty cool life, a lot of attention and activity, and good quality food and health care.
So, go ahead and brag a little about your dogs. We got Teal, we got her from Oklahoma. She was just out here, I guess she was about 12 weeks old. Anyway, I generally don’t take them hunting the first year because they’re just not mature enough. But we did take her to a duck blind one day up Fishing Creek and she’s in the blinds—big blinds—and she couldn’t see the decoys and uh, we shot a duck. So I brought her out to let her retrieve the duck in the decoy, no problem. Then we had two diving ducks shots, and one was dead in the decoys. Now, if you can imagine, we have 100 decoys out. The duck is there floating on the water. The other one was just hit and not killed and it dove immediately and popped up kind of out of range of the shotgun and it’s swimming. So I brought Teal out of the blind and I sent her on what I thought she was going to get the dead duck. She didn’t see that. She saw the swimming duck. Well, off she goes and she finally, about 250 yards out in the river, she caught up with it and it dove. It dove nine times and she finally caught it. And she was six months old. I mean, she was half grown. And one of the guys, we had never had a dog retrieve like that, he actually went to go get the boat to get the duck, you know. But Teal caught up with it after it dove nine times, and I have to say, that’s been her greatest retrieve. So I was on the cell phone immediately bragging. She has incredible drive.
Well, what about a story about River, so she doesn’t feel left out? Well, she’s only two years old and we’ve only hunted her one year. I think she retrieved maybe 60 or 70 birds last year, all ducks, although she has retrieved a goose in training. I mean, they’re all spectacular retrieves to me, but nothing like what Teal has done you know, where you have a bird dive that much.
Do they have personalities? Teal is a little bit more high-strung than River. Although that’s Teal when she’s hunting. In the house, she just easygoing, she sleeps in the bedroom. She’s calm. River, of course, is younger and is a little more jacked up in the house. But that will come with age. She’ll mellow out a little bit. They’re daughter-mother, so they’re pretty much the same. They have some unusual quirks, but uh. . .
Well, like what? I feed them both at the same time in the kennel. I make ‘em sit there and, oddly enough—mostly to show my granddaughter how to say grace— I say grace and put the food down. And they sit there salivating. And of course they run, when I say “Amen” at the end of the grace. They both charge to the dog food. River, her head is always going back and forth. You can see her thinking, “Which one has the most food?” It’s invariable. She’ll go to the one she thinks has the most food. You can almost read her mind. That’s what she’s doing. She’s sizing up the bowls.