ELK COUNTY — From Alaska to Florida, and 40 other states or provinces, about 700 of North America’s best retrievers are gathered in southeast Kansas.
Through Sept. 29 they’ll make towering splashes as they crash through water and streak across the prairie toward birds that have fallen up to about 150 yards away.
Mid-swim or stride, the sound of a whistle may slam them to the halt, and then they’ll follow hand signals and whistle commands with military-like precision in search of a bird.
The event is the prestigious 2013 Master National hunt test at Flint Oak, a 5,500-acre sporting facility.
“It’s the pinnacle of a yearlong run of hunt tests,” said Kathy Folsom, a dog owner and handler from Thomasville, Ga. “If you pass the Master National, it’s a big achievement. Just qualifying a dog for the Master National is an accomplishment.”
Larry Kimble, Master National director, said dogs at the event have risen through the ranks at dozens of American Kennel Club sanctioned hunt tests held across America. Through the time they have passed through the ranks of junior, senior and master hunter testing. Every dog at the event had to pass at least four master hunter tests within about the past year.
“By the time they’re here, we’re looking at what would be considered the ultimate finished hunting retriever,” said Kimble, of Independence. “They’re judged on about every aspect of what it takes to be a great, not good, hunting retriever.”
Kimble is also a member of the Kansas-based Sunflower Retriever Club, which has been planning the event for about two years.
Unlike dog-against-dog field trials, said Mia DiBenedetto, Master National communications director, hunt tests have the dogs on a pass/fail system against a standard administered by judges.
Dogs sit by their handler’s side as up to three pen-reared ducks or pheasants are tossed by unseen throwers. The handler knows where another bird has been hidden from the retriever’s sight.
The multiple test fields at Flint Oak replicate hunting situations, including ponds, creeks, timber, ditches and often tall and thick prairie grasses.
Handlers usually send the dog for the marked retrieves, then work the dog on the blind retrieve with hand and whistle signals.
“The dogs are judged on memory and marking and perseverance,” Kimble said. “They want them going directly through cover, like brush or water, rather than what might be easier, like along the shore instead of through the water.”
Judges may further test the dogs with a bird tossed nearby while the retriever is working another. Handlers may have to direct the dog past a “diversion bird” toward one a judge wants fetched farther out.
Dogs can’t break for a retrieve until sent by their handler at the appropriate time. To test steadiness, judges may request a dog sit and watch as another dog dashes about on retrieves.
Kimble estimated half of the dogs or less will pass the event, though there is no target figure. One failure amid the five or six tests each dog is given through the week, and it’s “better luck next year.”
“It can be pretty devastating because you work all year to get here and you fail,” said Kimble.
DiBenedetto predicted the Kansas landscape could be challenging to dogs. Many aren’t used to the wide-open spaces, which could make marking birds difficult for dogs used to watching them fall near this tree or that bush. Several dog owners/handlers commented that the height and denseness of prairie grasses are unlike many dogs are used to encountering.
Most retrieving breeds are represented. DiBenedetto said Labrador retrievers represent the majority, with about 600 dogs. About 45 of the dogs are golden retrievers and 14 are Chesapeake Bay retrievers. Other breeds include flat-coated and curly-coated retrievers and Nova Scotia duck tolling retrievers. There are also two Boykin spaniels and a standard poodle.
Texas leads the total with about 109 dogs. Kansas has 12.
Jeff Oakes, Flint Oak manager, said the Master National hunt test is a big event for southeast Kansas and beyond.
“This is the biggest thing Flint Oak has ever taken on,” said Oakes, of the 30-plus-year-old facility that’s often rated as one of the top sporting lodges in America. “We have people staying as far away as Wichita. We fed 680 people (Thursday) night for the opening ceremony.” He’s expecting up to 1,000 people a day, including spectators.
Most of the motel rooms in Independence and Chanute were booked for the event. Wednesday afternoon, three days before the event, a restaurant parking lot near Fredonia was nearly filled with trucks carrying or towing rows of dog kennels.
Sitting in a makeshift hunt test command center at Flint Oak on Wednesday afternoon, Kimble said one of his biggest challenges was lining up private properties where dogs could be worked before the event began. All Flint Oak’s grounds were off-limits to be fair to all dogs and handlers.
On Wednesday assorted groups of dog handlers were spread on private lands from near El Dorado to southeast of Independence.
Folsom, and others from several states, were working their dogs in a pond and surrounding tall pasture near Independence that afternoon. She admitted that Master National passes for her dogs were not her only reasons for coming to Kansas.
“You get to see a lot of Lab people you don’t otherwise get to see,” she said. “Everyone is friendly and supportive, but you have to figure everyone that does this much with dogs are good people … it’s the people that don’t like dogs that you can’t trust.”