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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.

Jerry would you share with me a few thoughts on the subject “What Makes a Great Handler”?

Jerry Patopea:

Well sure, Pat.

Adding to what Danny and Judy have been talking about, there is usually a sweet spot to stand on the mat so the dog will be in the best spot to take off from. An inch or two to the right or left can mean success or failure. Oftentimes the best jobs come from the dog who goes to the right or left of a seemingly insignificant object or taking one trail over another, or even starting down the same trail from one angle or another, or running from the right side of the handler or the left side of the handler. I want to get the dog positioned so it effortlessly takes off in the right direction and doesn’t have to correct itself to get to the bird. I like to think of lining a dog like shooting a high-precision rifle, aiming directly at the bird, not like shooting a scattergun trying to hit some bird out of a flock. I break the test up into individual birds and I break each bird up into segments along the route. I rehearse, on the line, the send for each bird, where I will stand, if the dog will be a little behind me or in front, on which side of me, which trail I want them to go down. I have a complete game plan, and then sometimes I make one up as I go along.

I watched my wife Jane this weekend walk up to the line with a very wild derby dog who focused intently on the long high bird and would not look down the hill at the shorter bird, which was thrown first. In a very solid move she had the dog switch sides and stepped up on him, and he then looked down at the short gun. He saw both birds and smacked the test. By switching sides she changed his focus, and then they could work together.

I made a similar type of move two weeks ago with a young open dog in the last series water marks. The shooting order was middle, right, left. The right bird was the longest bird, and the left bird was a very obvious flyer down by the water. I had her sitting on my right so I could step up on her and she would watch the right bird thrown after the middle bird. Watching the first bird fine, when I stepped up for her to see the right bird she jumped ahead and looked at the flyer. I took another step up and she took two steps toward the flyer. Now she was well ahead of the line, so I stepped behind her to her right side (a very unorthodox move) and brought her attention to me just as the right bird went off. She watched it, and smacked the test, getting her first open ribbon, fourth place.

I don’t think I’ve ever made a move like that before, but I watched Jack Volstedt, one of the great Amateur handlers make similar moves on more than one occasion, and in this situation, I really needed a special move.

I love watching handlers and dogs perform as a team. Sometimes I see very special things. Reflecting on the National in Carson City, Nevada in the mid-’70s, I watched Jay Sweezey give a cross-body cast so his dog would get onto the point after several attempts with conventional casts to no avail. That was the first cross-body cast I had ever seen and I was dumbstruck. I could hardly wait to get to Jay and talk to him about that cast. He said sometimes you need to think out of the box.

Again at the National in Socorro, NM in the mid-70s I was watching Judy Aycock run San Joaquin Honcho on the water blind in the seventh series I think. Honcho didn’t want to get on the point either, and in a last-ditch effort, Judy dropped her left hand down by her knee, almost straight down, took a step left, and said “Back” all at the same time. Honcho got on and off the point. She and Honcho together won that National, and no doubt needed that cast to do it. That was almost 40 years ago. I have used that cast occasionally but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone else use it. You talk about out of the the red zone, when nothing else works, that’s when greatness comes out.

I was doing a land blind this spring and my dog got in a ditch and instead of crossing the ditch, she ran down the ditch a ways and when she came out she was in a critical position, like one step to a pick-up. I needed a giant over. But I didn’t give an over. I stepped out a diagonal back and added just enough come in whistle to bring her back into the corridor and finish the blind well. I was approached by Steve Komph on my way off the line and we talked about that cast, and how it will work when no other cast will, and I’m hoping to see him use it someday soon.

One more story: I was watching an open water blind last summer and Ellen McNeil had her dog Ally in a tough spot. She needed a really straight back or she’d be lost in heavy cover. Ellen gave a straight-up left and stepped right at the same time. She got the cast, got out of the red zone and to the bird...what a great cast. I rarely get to see a cast like that, at the moment it’s needed, and watch it work. I complimented her on that cast and told her what a great cast it was, but I don’t think she believed me. Maybe it was an accident. Maybe it was an everyday cast for her. But to me it was a great cast, in a critical spot, where one wrong move by either dog or handler would have been a pick up.

When I handle on blinds, I always try to do the blind on line, taking every hazard along the way. I analyze the route in this manner, segmenting the blind into thirds or quarters, identifying obstacles in each section so I can approach each obstacle from the best angle to manage that obstacle and set up for the rest of the blind. I always handle all the way to the bird. I learned this long ago, watching a really great female lose a National by lining the 7th series land blind only to keep going over the hill and trash the end I think she would have won but for that one failure to stop her on the bird. I still see people do a good job of handling almost to the bird, then let down at the end, only to end up failing. The final part of the blind is always to pick up the bird, and bring it home. All the way home.

One thing all three of my coauthors have in common is a fierce competitive nature. That intensity is contagious. Their dogs feel their drive and determination. I have witnessed it. It is one of those intangibles that makes a great handler. I am honored to have watched and competed with all three of you.

Thank you, Judy, Danny, and Jerry for taking the time to share your thoughts on this subject. I know our audience appreciates your generosity. Till next time,


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