EASTON — While spectators bundled up to watch the retriever demonstrations, the pups splashed happily into the Bay Street ponds, oblivious to the chilly temperatures on the last day of the 51st Waterfowl Festival, Sunday, Nov. 13, in Easton.
The well-trained dogs and their handlers delighted about 70 people, who perched on bleachers or stood to watch the talented canines.
First up was Moe, a black lab listening intently for the sounds of the hunt, but quietly waiting for the command of William “Auggie” Argabright of Queenstown.
Despite the duck call and the sound of a gunshot, Moe stayed by Argabright’s side, waiting for his command for a “single retrieve.”
“Run!” he said. Moe dashed to the bank, splashed into the pond and swam quickly to retrieve a bumper launched from a holding blind on the far side.
“You kind of eat and sleep this stuff,” Argabright said later.
Sportsmen and their dogs compete in the sport of retrieving, but are avid hunters, as well. They sign up immediately for competitions when they are announced because slots fill up so quickly, Argabright said.
“For a hunt test there are usually 66 dogs in the master class, which is the top class and that will fill up in three minutes,” he said.
“On any given weekend, there’s a field trial or hunt test up north, the Mid-Atlantic, maybe down one down in Georgia, and I mean they’re all over the country, going on every weekend,” Argabright said. “There’s a lot of hunt tests that are held locally.”
“Most people hunt their dogs, as well as compete them in field trials and hunt tests. In field trials the distances are much longer; You can get up to marks at 500 yards. (For) hunt tests, it’s usually just over 100 yards and it’s more simulated hunting conditions,” he said.
“Usually at this event, we’ll do two dogs crossing; we’ll have two dogs sitting out there, and we’ll put out the one bumper, put out the other bumper, and one dog goes for the one that way and their dog crosses over and goes to the other. They’re taught to honor another dog’s retrieve; they don’t get to retrieve every bird that goes down,” Argabright said.
In competition, junior hunters perform single retrieves in the water and on land. At the next level, senior hunters that are still learning perform double retrieves on land and water, as well as a blind retrieve. “But you don’t expect your blinds to be as good and precise as the master hunter,” Argabright said.
Tom Judge of Annapolis wears a white coat to stand out against the typical field background as he trains his two-year-old black Labrador retriever River, who was born in Centreville.
As River sprang into action, the audience was impressed. “Wow, look how fast she is,” a spectator said. He’s a fast swimmer, too, announcer Michael Galante said. Someone else said, “He almost won Dock Dogs last year,” jumping “19 feet.”
River returned to Judge with the bumper, ready for her blind retrieve. His command the next time was, “Dead bird.” She swam at a sprint across the pond, listening for Judge’s whistle and watching for hand signals. She located the bumper on the opposite bank and returned to applause from the audience.
“It’s called a blind because she doesn’t know anything’s out there,” Judge said later.
“Even in the water she’ll turn around and tread water and look at you,” he said. “You can give her a right, a straight back, a left straight back. If I give her a right straight back, she’s got to turn to the right. If I give her a left straight back, she’s got to turn to the left. I give her an angle back she’ll actually angle over. If I give her a straight over, she’ll go straight over.”
“They actually know three different languages; they know verbal, they know hand signals, and they also know whistle signals,” Judge said.
“Yesterday morning, she retrieved nine wood ducks,” he said. “Here’s a great example: We’re hunting on a pond not much bigger than this. Most of the ducks fall in close proximity, and they’re easy. There was one crippled duck that actually got away, went through the woods (and was several hundred yards away). She didn’t know where it was, so I sent her on a blind. She disappeared for five or six minutes – that’s a long time not knowing where your dog is. And all of a sudden she comes back with a duck — a live duck.”