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SCARBOROUGH — Wes Reed grips a dripping-wet black-and-white rubber dog toy in his hand and prepares to throw it into the duck pond in front of Cabela’s. His 2-year-old yellow Lab, Lucy, twitches at his side, yipping in anticipation.
He throws the toy, called a bumper, hard and it splashes down three-quarters of the way across the pond. Lucy’s yips grow louder and faster, her tail wagging uncontrollably.
But she doesn’t leave her spot until she hears Reed say, “Lucy.”
Then she’s in the water, swimming fast and hard until she reaches the bumper, grabbing it and hurrying back to Reed. She releases the bumper into his hand and shakes, sending muddy water flying into a gathered crowd of onlookers.
Reed and his two dogs, Lucy and Cookie, are members of the Saco River Hunter Retriever Club and on July 24 the group showed off their dogs’ talents outside Cabela’s.
Eric Bartlett and his dog, Blue, were also there to show off.
Blue is a 4-year-old black Lab who has already achieved the highest level of Hunter Retriever Champion. Bartlett, who is president of the club, said he works with Blue every morning for 20 minutes and at least that long every evening. Then, on weekends, they train full days. It all leads up to the fall, when they hunt ducks together.
“Once I started working with dogs, I got hooked on it,” said Bartlett, who grew up on a duck-filled river.
To demonstrate Blue’s skills, he put out a blind – a bumper placed in the pond without the dog seeing it go in – then threw two more bumpers into the water. On his command, Blue leaped into the water, fetching the first bumper quickly and efficiently, and dropping it into Bartlett’s hand.
Then the dog rushed right back into the water, remembered the general area where the second bumper had fallen, and, with a few whistles of guidance from Bartlett, brought that back, too.
Then he went after the bumper he didn’t see fall. Each time Bartlett whistled, Blue would turn around mid-doggy-paddle and look for a hand motion. Bartlett would motion him to the right and he would swim to the right, or motion him to the left and he would move to the left, until he could smell the bumper and collect it to bring back to shore.
“These are really high-octane dogs,” Bartlett said. “They don’t really make good household dogs, unless you have a really active household.”
The Saco River Hunter Retriever Club provides an outlet for these highly trained dogs and their owners to get together, practice new skills, discuss training practices and exercise. Bartlett said there are approximately 25 people in the club and the majority are women.
“I know it seems surprising, but it’s about 60/40 women to men,” he said.
While the training is extensive, Bartlett said the club is mostly made up of people who work full-time jobs and do this as a hobby. Even then, a dog can achieve the Hunter Retriever Champion level by the time it is 3 years old.
The club hosts a test day every September, where people from all over the East Coast show up to put their dogs to the test. There, the dogs can achieve titles that determine how much that dog’s puppies would be worth.
It’s also an opportunity for those, like Reed and Bartlett, who are passionate about retrievers, to get together, share stories and show off their dogs.
“If you give them crisp, clear, consistent commands, you can teach them to do just about anything,” Bartlett said.
Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Eric Bartlett lines up Blue, his 4-year-old black Lab, to retrieve a fallen rubber decoy duck during a demonstration outside Cabela’s in Scarborough on Saturday, July 24. Bartlett is president of the Saco River Hunter Retriever Club, which helps owners train their dogs to retrieve waterfowl during a hunt.