• Pat

What makes a great handler?

Thirty-five years ago in Wisconsin, I attended my first National Retriever Championship. After I arrived, my attention was riveted on a handler, whose outline was framed by the trees, Even though I was new to the sport and did not understand its subtleties or nuances, I knew that this handler was different from the rest. Her presence, composure, and intensity marked her. I couldn’t see her dog, but I didn’t need to. I could feel her control over the moment; I knew the dog could, too. There was something special about the handler. That handler was Judy Aycock. Her dog was NAFC Trumarc’s Zip Code.

Since that November afternoon, when I attended my first National, I have devoted considerable thought to the question: “What makes a great handler?” In attempting to answer this question, I have spoken to Judy, Danny Farmer, Jerry Patopea, and countless other professional and amateur handlers.

This article, which comes in two parts, is my effort to distill my thoughts and to offer you the thoughts of Judy, Danny, and Jerry on the subject. Broadly speaking, I think that the answer can be broken into two categories: a) Mental Toughness; and b) Technical Competence.

By Mental Toughness, I mean:

  • The ability to ignore all distractions and focus on the task at hand;

  • The determination to succeed when everything seems stacked against you;

  • The ability to immediately overcome adversity;

  • The ability to think creatively under extreme pressure;

  • Knowing when you must be conservative and limit your damage on a test; and

  • Knowing when you must be aggressive and take a risk when running a test.

By Technical Competence, I mean:

  • The ability to interpret a test and determine how best to approach it with the dog you have – at that particular moment in time;

  • The ability to line a dog quickly and effortlessly; and

  • The ability to read a dog (e.g. interpret its posture, breathing, eye movement, and. hundreds of other minute details) instantaneously, and then use the information you have gathered to influence the dog to do what you believe it must do – both when the dog is at your side and when it is moving in the field.

We begin the focus on the mental characteristics of the great handler. And in that discussion,

I begin with Judy Aycock.

It is my pleasure to share with you a dialogue between myself and my good friend Judy Aycock. Danny Farmer and Jerry Patopea will join in later as well. We started this discussion during a workshop we did together in Anderson, Texas.

Pat Burns:

Judy, if you remember I started that discussion drawing attention to Danny who had just won his fourth National in four decades. He is without a doubt one of the greatest handlers this game will ever see. When talking with Danny he always credits your mentoring with his success.

What separates Danny and the other great handlers from the rest? Let’s take this opportunity to talk about some of the most important traits. I once heard that great coaches can take their team and beat your team. And then turn around and take your team and beat their team. I would venture to guess what can be said about great handlers as well. What makes them different?

Judy would you like to weigh in on this?

Judy Aycock:

The first thing I think about when I watch great handlers is how they seem to be a team with their dog. The communication between the two seems effortless. The great handler seems able to read their dog and know the dog. By this I mean they know if the dog saw the birds, they know if the dog is thinking about cheating or staying in the water, they know if that dry shot or poison bird has really influenced their dog. The great teams usually require a wonderful dog as well as a wonderful handler. The great handler will have confidence in his dog, but will know when his leadership is required, and when to keep out of the dog’s way. He will have a game plan based on not only his knowledge of dogs but on his careful observation of the test. He will know when to abandon his game plan and go to plan B if things aren’t going as anticipated. He will recognize when things are really falling apart and know that is when his dog needs his help the most. He will bear down, not collapse when things are not going well.

Pat Burns:

Judy can we try and get a bit more specific. I would like to talk about mechanical techniques and mental techniques. Here are a few mechanical things that I believe are most important.

  1. The ability to tell where your dog is looking.

  2. The ability to read what your dog is thinking.

  3. Red Zone Handling.

  4. Dictating the pace.

  5. Managing your dog’s first look.

  6. Reaction Time.

Here are some very important mental items that separate the great handlers. You might categorize them as the Intangibles.

  1. Damage Control. … don’t let one mistake turn into 3.

  2. Taking up the Slack.

  3. The Refusal to be denied … NEVER GIVING UP!

Judy these are just a few items that come to mind.

I am looking over the outline from our evening discussion on this topic from last January.

Here are a few items you mentioned.

  • A good dog helps. Very funny

  • The ability to read a dog’s attitude right away. If not typical being on top of your game.

  • Reading a test. Especially if you run early.

  • Being decisive. Amateurs pray too much.

  • Knowing when to take a risk.

  • Bearing down in adversity…You better grit your teeth, dig in and try harder. Practice this! Learn to fight harder when the s*@t hits the fan. This is when your dog needs you the most!

  • The ability to see what is happening, not what you hope is happening.

Can you expand on your thoughts?

What types of things did you personally focus on when competing at Nationals? And I also know that you engaged in a lengthy discussion with Danny on this subject. Would you mind sharing with me the gist of your dialogue?

Danny Farmer:

You should be able to recognize areas where you don’t want them to look, where the danger is, and to be able to maneuver them with real subtle movement.

Example: To not look at the deep bird when you have to go get a short bird, to not even glance out there. That is your job. To get his focus in the right direction when he comes in. If he comes in and you let him look where you don’t want him to go and then start maneuvering him you're done, I think you’re done.

People should recognize where the dangers are and put no influence in that direction.

Things I try to think of when the dog comes in:

I try to let him tell me where the birds at and then make sure he’s positioned properly, then I try to read where his focus is, try and let him settle, pay attention to his breathing. Sometimes it will get shallow but not always. In Dottie’s case, it stops.

Then I try and pay attention to myself and as to what tone I send that dog with, soft, loud, people get excited and send too loud and they can’t get a short bird.

Also know when to use your hand and not use your hand. I tend not to use my hand especially on short birds and when I do use it it’s more of a discipline mark to bear down.

These are things I pay attention to when I run.

I really like for them to come in and indicate where the bird is to me and then I’ll either ease up or ease back, get him looking. First look before he sits down. Read them, let them tell you where they think it is, don’t get so involved that they don’t do their job.

Judy Aycock:

I like to make sure that I have them pointed right where they should be.

Vital that their first look be at the bird.

Danny Farmer:


Judy Aycock:

Make sure I’ve got him directly on the bird but I don’t want to do this by fiddling with him. Want them trained to sit down exactly where I want them for that bird.

  • Get the dog's focus in the right direction when he comes in before the dog sits down.

  • Let the dog settle.

  • Pay attention to his breathing.

  • When and when not to use my hand.

  • The short difficult bird is all on the dog.

  • Recognize where the danger is and put no influence in that direction.

  • Try not to get so involved in the marks, that's the dog's job.

Pat Burns:

Thank you, guys. That is some great stuff!

I would like to introduce a close friend and colleague and one of the other great handlers and competitors of our time. Jerry Patopea has handled some of the true legends of our sport. I watched Jerry accomplish one of the most amazing feats I have witnessed at our November Classic. At the 1992 National Championship in Ardmore, Oklahoma Jerry had four of the eleven finalists.