Long, tall David Sowers was pressed into service early at the James River Retriever Club's gun-dog trials near Richmond.
"Show this fella around," he was told , so Sowers pointed out the dogs and the pigeons and the ducks and the guns and the clubhouse, which is about all there was to see on a rainy Saturday morning on Curles Neck Farm, down there where the river bends.
It seemed as if every dog was a black Labrador.
"There's a few other breeds," said Sowers. "That's a golden retriever over there."
The dog's owner begged to differ. "It's a golden dog, all right," he grumbled. "But it ain't no retriever."
So it goes at the gun-dog trials, the bottom rung on the three-step ladder of retriever competition. AKC-sanctioned trials are the next, then licensed trials which lead to selection of a national retriever champion.
"It's amazing what some of those (licensed trial) dogs can do," said the laconic, bearded Sowers. "They're like robots. Give 'em a line and off they go. They think nothing of 300-blind retrieves."
Would there be dogs of that quality at the James River club's competition this cold day?
"I seriously doubt it," Sowers chuckled.
A hefty dog-handler leaned against the door of his truck. "I'm sitting here trying to figure out whether to invest a few dollars and try this dog or go over and watch the late-model sportsman race, where I know I'll get my money's worth."
Gun-dog trials aim to simulate hunting conditions to see how well retrievers do. Most of the entrants are duck hunters who want to keep their dogs in trim in the offseason or others who, in traditional Southern fashion, just like hanging around places where dogs and guns and vehicles and people get together with food and plenty to drink.
Since food and drink and sociability do not match up well with duck hunting, a cold, lonely sport, the union in trials is contrived, at best.
To wit, Test 1: Dog and handler stand atop a sloping field.Fifty yards below two men wait with shotguns while a third picks a live pigeon from a crate.
The handler raises his hand, the pigeon man releases the bird, the shooters shoot, the pigeon falls and the dog waits in agonized, excited ecstasty for his master's command.
"Back!" the handler finally says, at which signal the dog bounds downhill, hindquarters rippling, scarfs up the dead pigeon, turns and races back uphill. It heels and deposits the pigeon in its master's hand.
But somethimes, as in the case of Ray Fiddler's Lab Drake, enjoying its first trial, the dog races straight to the live pigeon pen and tries to bring the crate back.
Sometimes the dog races past the downed pigeon and disappears over a distant rise while its handler whistles frantically. Wally Edens had a pup once that ran straight to the pigeon pen and sat on it barking, until Edens fetched him, which is called retreiving the retriever.
None of the 35 entries was cut after the first James River test, no matter how badly they performed. "We figure give everyone a field and water trial for their $15 entry," said a club official. "You have to give 'em something." f
Test 2: Three dozen barnyard mallards are bound, feet and wings, and are tossed one at a time into the far end of a pond of flooded timber. A shotgun blank called a "popper" simulates the shot that downed the duck. At the other end of the pond dog and handler wait. The dog hits the water on command. Some dogs are so wired they get halfway across the pond before their bellies are wet.
Some dogs are so wired they get all the way across the pond, up the bank and halfway to the pigeon field before the frenetic whistles of their handlers halt them. Then it's an arduous haul back down to the water to where the duck sits, flapping helplessly.
Four dogs are ousted after test two.
Test 3: At a bigger stand of flooded timber, a popper is fired and a duck tossed from the left-hand bank. While the dog watches that duck two more shots go off 75 yards straight out and another duck hits the water.
The dog has to get the far duck first. While he's swimming out, the first duck, which is tied to a string, is pulled back ashore and dragged 30 yards up the bank. The dog is supposed to go back out and find that one by scent after delivering duck No. 1. Unbelievably, the first five dogs do it. But it's taking some 15 minutes per dog. Someone figures that at that rate, the trials will be over sometime in June.
"Forget the first duck," say the judges.
The long day drags on. "Exciting, huh?" say Buddy Dix of Hopewell, Va., a budding trainer and breeder. "It's sort of boring if you don't have a dog entered. Kinda like watching a bingo game."
The third test eliminates 11 more dogs, leaving 20 for Test 4, back at the pigeon grounds: Each dog must retrieve three pigeons, one at a time. So few live pigeons remain that two of each three are dead ones, retossed.
It's still raining. The sun is waning. The dogs blast from the hilltop on command as if someone just woke them up. They are tireless. "This is when your gut starts churning," says Dix.
For Dix it churns in vain. The winner is Annie, a 2-year-old black Lab owned and trained by Jack and Diana Jagoda of Fredericksbug. Annie, a small dog with infinate energy and fine manners, gets a perfect 10 from both judges on every retrieve made all day. It's the Jagoda's second straight victory; they took the James 1980 trials with Jake, who fared less well this year.
In the clubhouse women are warming two huge pots of navy beans and there are caseloads of beer. The dog trials are done. The people trials begin.