Congratulations to Doreen Comrie-Bristol and Ptar on winning the 2021 National Amateur Retriever Championship. What an incredible honor to win the largest national in history. It has been a grueling 9-day event. The efforts of everyone involved in putting on such an event can’t be emphasized enough. Thank you and get some well-deserved rest.
I have some reflections and takeaways that I want to share with you. The theme of my perspective is one of perseverance and the depth of the bond between dog and handler.
I am going to take you back to the 1993 National Amateur Retriever Championship in Hugo, Minnesota. We were doing a water blind in what I think was the 6th or 7th Series. The pond was quite large, and the blind required that the dog stay off the shore for quite a ways at the end of the blind. Partway through the running order, the wind started to pick up. It was so strong that small whitecaps developed, and the dogs were being blown toward the shoreline. The handlers were working incredibly hard just to inch their dog through the end of the blind.
The next handler was Terri Veach with Rocky. Terri had Multiple Sclerosis and at this point in her disease progression, she needed assistance just to stand up. Her training partner Joe Pilar kneeled behind her, holding her by the belt and the back of her shirt in an effort to stabilize her and aid her in walking out a cast. Toward the end of the blind, the wind forced Rocky to fade into the shoreline. Like the rest of the handlers, this turned into a survival blind. Terri would blow a whistle and give a left cast. Rocky would take a few strokes and fade again. After several whistles and casts, Terri fell down. Joe picked her back up. The gallery became absolutely quiet - so quiet that you could hear Terri tell Joe that she wanted to quit. Her whistle blasts grew weaker, her posture poorer. She was exhausted. Joe urged her on. He wouldn’t let her quit.
Rocky needed several more whistles to finish that blind. Terri’s whistle blasts were so soft that the gallery could barely hear them. But Rocky heard. He turned on the whistle and took her cast. Every. Single. Time.
To this day, I don’t know how Rocky ever heard those whistles. Terri and Rocky completed that blind. Once they picked up the bird, I turned around and there was not a dry eye in the gallery. It was obvious to everyone there how hard Rocky had tried, even when Terri was at her weakest. It’s all I can do to tell this story without choking up.
I witnessed a similar scenario this week. Dog 47 is Scott Leonescu and Hawk. Two years ago, while preparing to run the National Amateur Championship in Ronan, Montana, Scott suffered a stroke. For a period of time, it was uncertain whether Scott would live, let alone ever run Hawk again. After unbelievable perseverance and effort, Scott regained enough skills to run Hawk. Not only did he relearn to run Hawk, he also won an amateur and qualified him for this national amateur. I never thought that Scott would ever be able to manage the challenges of an event like this. Boy was I wrong. Not only did he manage, but he also excelled. In both the third and the seventh series where dogs were handling left and right, Scott and Hawk rose to the occasion. Once again, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Bravo!
My first takeaway is how inspirational both Terri and Scott are to all of us. They both had every reason to give up and they didn’t.
This sport is hard - expect that there will be setbacks, frustrations and moments when you question your own ability. But remember, there are no shortcuts to success. Work hard. Be fair and patient with your dog. Be consistent. And never, ever give up.
My second thought revolves around the depth of the bond between dog and owner. I spoke with Andy Attar about his time working with Scott and Hawk. Andy told me about the obvious change in Hawk over the last year. At first, Hawk was uncomfortable running for Scott. But as they worked together more, Andy witnessed a transformation. The bond between them was growing stronger. Hawk was becoming more compliant for Scott than he had ever been for Andy. He felt that Hawk sensed the situation and increased his effort for the sake of the team. Everyone that was watching Scott and Hawk this week knew that they had each other’s back.
I can think of several instances where I have seen field trial dogs respond in incredible ways to handlers that were physically compromised. I know we all feel the responsibility to care for our dogs. However, I often wonder who is actually taking care of who?
Thanks for your time,