FAIRBANKS — Cruise couldn’t help it. The big, bouncy, black Labrador retriever may have just come within sniffing distance of winning the national amateur retriever championship in Wisconsin last month, but that was then and this is now and someone had just thrown a retrieving bumper into a pond he was sitting next to at the Chena Flood Control Project in North Pole.
What was he supposed to do, just sit there and watch?
Well, technically, yes.
But that’s not what Cruise did. Instead, he bolted toward the pond at a full sprint and hit the water faster than his owner, Paula Elmes, of Fairbanks, could get her training whistle in her mouth and start blowing.
“Get back here!” demanded Elmes, blowing the whistle and repeating the order again a few more times to call Cruise back.
The big black Lab did indeed return and he was holding the white training bumper, which had been meant for a young pup fellow trainer Bill Barstow, of Anchorage, was working, in his mouth.
“Well-trained dog, huh?” a slightly embarrassed Elmes said as Cruise dropped the bumper at her feet.
A moment later, though, Elmes was apologizing for the dog’s behavior.
“Well, he’d been sitting here watching them throw those bumpers,” she reasoned. “He’s loose and relaxed and doesn’t have a training collar on.
“He’s not working at the moment,” Elmes said.
When he is working, Cruise doesn’t mess around, evidenced by his impressive showing at the American Kennel Club’s National Amateur Retriever Championships in Mondovi, Wis., on June 16-22.
The 5-year-old black Lab, whose pedigreed name is AFC Tru’s Little Cruiser, was one of 15 dogs out of 121 starters to make it to the ninth round, falling one round short of making it to the final.
“Every time we made it to the next round, I thought, ‘We made it to another one,’ and the next thing I knew I was in the ninth round, and I said, ‘Holy cow, I’m in the ninth round,’” Elmes said, back in Fairbanks after driving up from the Lower 48 with her husband, Corrie.
Alas, a “handle” on a four-bird retrieve in the ninth round, combined with a “ding” in the fourth round when he skirted some water he was supposed to go through picking up the third bird, knocked Cruise and Elmes out of contention for a national championship.
Even so, Elmes couldn’t have been happier. It was the first time she handled Cruise in a national field trial and to make it as far as they did was a major accomplishment that qualified Cruise for the National Open Retriever Championships in November in South Carolina.
“He performed wonderfully,” Elmes said of Cruise.
It was the farthest anyone from Alaska has made it in the National Amateur Retriever Championships since the late Roy McFall of Anchorage, the most accomplished dog trainer in Alaska history, won the event back in 1982.
“You don’t want to go out in first or second series; you want to be able to play a little bit,” Elmes said. “So few dogs make it to the end that it’s almost a game of how far you can get.”
In a field trial, dogs are tested on their ability to mark and retrieve birds in different scenarios. They are judged by how straight a line they take to a bird, some of which can be as many as 400 or 500 yards away, and how quickly they locate birds. Each round includes different challenges for the dog that incorporate varying topographical features, such as water, hills and valleys.
Dogs are typically allowed one handle or ding, the equivalent of a mulligan in golf. A handle is when the trainer has to use a whistle or hand signal to direct a dog to a downed bird while a ding may be something as trivial as veering slightly off line while retrieving a bird, avoiding water to reach a bird, or having to spend extra time searching for it.
“Any input from you on the line once they’re out there hunting is considered a handle,” explained Elmes. “Otherwise you just stand there and keep your mouth shut and let them work.”
In the case of Cruise, avoiding the water he was supposed to go through in the fourth round was his ding.
“Normally judges would drop a dog at that point but his marking was so good they kept him in,” Elmes said, referring to his ability to memorize where different birds were shot down or placed.
But when Elmes had to use her whistle to direct him to a bird he had lost track of during a four-bird retrieve in the ninth round, it was enough to keep him from advancing to the final round.
“Had he not had the problem in the fourth round we would have made it to the final,” Elmes said. “I really thought I was going to the tenth (round).”
Only nine of the 121 dogs entered in the competition made it to the 10th and final round.
“Every dog that finished this year had a handle at one point, nobody did it clean,” Elmes said. “That’s how tough it was.”
Elmes bought Cruise as a 3-year-old and sent him to professional trainers John Henninger and Amy Dukes in Oregon to be trained. The dog spends the summers with Elmes in Fairbanks and winters with Henninger and Dukes in Oregon.
“When I bought him he wasn’t titled yet,” Elmes said. “Since I’ve had him we’ve put his champion on and field champion on.”
Henninger ran Cruise in his first national open trial in November and Elmes decided to run the dog in the amateur after he qualified.
Barstow, who made it to the seventh round at the amateur with his black Lab, Genet, said getting as far as they did was an impressive feat for both Elmes and Cruise.
“These are the best of the best and she had one of the top dogs in the country,” he said, noting that Cruise currently ranks fourth in the nation in combined points for dogs competing in amateur and open field trials. “That’s quite an achievement.”
Elmes, a 55-year-old graphics designer, started training dogs 20 years ago, but Cruise is the first Labrador she has ever owned. She had always been partial to Chesapeake Bay retrievers, though that may be changing. Elmes has already bought her second black Lab, a 2-year-old named Max, who Henninger told her is going to be better than Cruise.
In the two years she’s had Cruise, Elmes said the dog has taught her more than she’s taught him. At 5, Cruise is just now coming into his prime as a field trial dog, she said.
“He’s trained me,” Elmes said of Cruise. “He knows what he’s doing. My trainer told me I can’t teach him much more. My job now is just to keep him focused.
Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com