In the week ahead, the Roseburg area should see an influx of world-class athletes.
The city is set to join the ranks of Lillehammer in Norway, St. Moritz in Switzerland and Sochi in Russia as a small city hosting a major sports competition. It all happens as properties outside town host the 2014 National Amateur Retriever Championship from June 15 to 21.
The sport of retriever field trials — its adherents insist it is a sport — is obscure. But Roseburg already is a big part of it. Numerous practitioners live around Douglas County; two former national champions even live on the same road east of town.
“Most people have never heard of this sport, but it’s a huge deal to those people involved,” said Andy Kahn, who lives halfway between Glide and Wilbur and is the owner of NARC’s defending champ — his black Labrador retriever, Ivy.
An estimated 800 to 1,000 people should have already started arriving in Roseburg by this time, according to Al Wilson, president of the 2014 competition.
“We’ll probably have your hotels full for a week,” he said.
With several weeks remaining until her hometown hosts the championship, local Labrador retriever breeder Elaine Brock was scrambling to pick up points.
The finals are just that — the final stage of a year-long race for points. As many as 5,000 dog owners compete nationwide for a spot among the final 130.
To earn points, owners compete in the 250 weekend trials held each year. As the season winds to its mid-summer close, competitors like Brock rarely take a weekend off, traveling far and wide for points.
“We’ll see how it goes,” said Brock, whose property on Lookingglass Road is serving as one of the competition’s approved training sites.
The American Kennel Club-sanctioned sport of retriever field trials emerged in the late 1920s with bird hunters testing the skills of their dogs. And though amateur and professional championships have been held for eight decades, the sport has remained largely out of the public eye, said Tina Styan, managing editor of The Retriever News, the sport’s publication of record.
That’s fine with bird dog lovers, she said. For one thing, field trials are a little uninteresting to watch if you don’t know what’s going on.
The sport is also somewhat controversial, she said. Most retriever field trials use living birds, hundreds of them, to make the experience as real for the dogs as possible. The pen-raised pheasants and ducks are either shot during the competition or just before.
“It’s controversial to the same extent that hunting is controversial,” said Wilson, president of the 2014 competition.
The competition is restricted to the American Kennel Club’s “bird dog” breeds. But over time, it’s been the black Labradors that have come to dominate, with a formidable sense of smell that allows them to home in on almost any scent and track its path.
Field trials are physically demanding tests of memory and discipline. Over land and water, dogs retrieve birds from distances up to 400 yards.
In some trials, dogs remain at heel watching as birds — or marks — are deposited around a vast open area. The canines then run off to retrieve them. In other stages, dogs are directed toward unseen targets via their owners’ signals and whistle calls. Watching a handler control one’s movements from 200 yards away, it seems like he must be using some kind of remote control.
All this, and the dogs are also judged on style.
During the upcoming weeklong competition, dogs will be eliminated every day until one remains. The prize for being the last canine standing: a blue ribbon, and maybe a cup with its owner’s name on it.
“This is all about the dog,” said Andy Kahn.
Putting it all together
The planning for this year’s event began four years ago. Organizers have since lined up veterinarians, training sites in Douglas County and throughout Oregon. Committees dealing with traffic were organized years early.
The Windmill Inn in Roseburg will serve as event headquarters, with the Douglas County Fairgrounds hosting several meetings and Saturday’s welcome party. Splitz Bar & Grill, also in Roseburg, will host the worker’s party Wednesday night.
After the field trial locations were set, Andy Kahn hand-delivered letters to each of his neighbors. Some event traffic will be directed through his ranch. He said he’s not thrilled with the idea of 300 to 400 people tromping around his property, but said he wants to limit congestion on nearby county roads.
“Really, it’s Roseburg hosting this event,” he said. ”We’re doing this because it’s going to be good for the community.”
The hosting duties for the National Amateur Retriever Championships rotates between the continental U.S.’s four time zones, coming to the West Coast once every four years. The temperate middle latitudes are better suited for the competition. Klamath Falls has hosted on the West Coast the last three times. The honor has also recently gone to Alabama, New York and Cheboygan, Michigan (not to be confused with the more populous Sheboygan, Wisconsin).
The discipline has loyal followers and an avid fan subculture. It’s not uncommon at a field trial to find those in the audience gallery sitting in lawn chairs while clutching smartphones, keeping up scores posted on The Retriever News’ well-tended blog.
In the end, Brock didn’t qualify for the finals next weekend. But Lindbloom and Kahn will be competing. Ivy will be defending her 2013 blue ribbon and along with Dottie, another dog owned by Kahn. And Lindbloom only recently qualified for nationals with his dog, Aggie.
It’s fair to say the National Amateur Retriever Championship wouldn’t be coming to Roseburg if it weren’t for Andy Kahn. The onetime CEO of one of the country’s largest manufacturers of inexpensive eyewear — think grocery store sunglasses — has earned a lot of clout in the world of retriever field trials, taking home the 2013 title in Wisconsin and heaps of ribbons over last few years. And it’s fair to say Andy Kahn wouldn’t have entered the sport if it weren’t for his neighbor, T.J. Lindbloom.
Kahn and Lindbloom met when Kahn moved to Roseburg in 1979. Lindbloom was 29 and had just won the National Field Championship in a huge upset. Kahn remembers thinking little of the small blue ribbon Lindbloom showed him.
As the owners of adjoining ranches, the two became good friends over the next three decades. Lindblom said he always thought Kahn would be perfect for the sport, with his love of dogs and hunting and deep pockets.
“Andy is a different kind of guy,” Lindbloom said. “Everything he does, he does very well.”
But for most of their friendship, Kahn was busy with other things. Once he retired, however, Lindbloom and another friend talked him into buying his first retriever, Cutter. That did it.
Kahn has since worked with the best breeders and trainers, and put 10,000 miles a year on his specially-outfitted rig traveling to competitions. He’s converted pastures at his 500-acre Sunshine Road ranch to pro-grade training areas.
“In eight years, he went from knowing nothing about the sport to being the best at in North America,” Lindbloom said. “It’s almost surreal how this has worked out.”
• You can reach reporter Garrett Andrews at 541-957-4218 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.