DULUTH — Joe Tieberg says he had just about given up on handling dogs, competing in field trials and believing that his latest dog, Hammer, would ever be a top-notch field trial dog.
“After 20 years of running dogs, I wanted to spend more time fishing and goofing around," said Tieberg, an Iron Range native who has lived in the Duluth area since 1997.
Then Hammer had to go and win last weekend’s Amateur All-Age class at the Duluth Retriever Club field trial. That first-place finish instantly gave the black Lab five points toward the seven points needed to qualify for the national amateur field trial championship next June.
What a difference a win can make.
‘“Now I suppose I have to spend a lot of time and a lot of money running in more trials to try and get those two points," said Tieberg, a longtime and active member in the Duluth Retriever Club.
Their first chance at those points will come next weekend (Aug. 30-Sept. 1), again in Duluth, at the second of two summer field trials the retriever club holds each year. The event is open to the public and free to watch.
What spectators will see are some incredible athletes who take pinpoint direction from their handlers — high level communications between species, with few words spoken, before the dog is ever sent on a retrieve. Of some 175 dogs entered in the event, fewer than a dozen of the amateur dogs will likely even finish the course, with a few more of the professionally trained dogs finishing. But only the top four get any points toward national status. A panel of judges makes the call.
The Duluth event's timing comes just before many southern U.S. professional trainers, who have been up north to escape the heat for the summer, head back south for the fall and winter. Dogs will compete in four categories, including the “Derby” for dogs under 2 years old; “Qualifying" for older dogs looking to move up; “Amatuer All-Age” for dogs run by amateur trainers; and an “Open All-Age” open category for both professionals and amateurs.
“There are some really big-name trainers and dogs that come to this event. Some of these dogs are worth $200,000. … I mean, one straw of their semen goes for $5,000," Tieberg said.
Those big-name dogs include the 2018 national amateur champion, Steadfast’s Bachelors Special (a.k.a. Croc), trained and handled by Dave Rorem of Littlefork. The dog is now competing in the Open category.
Hammer (officially known as Strykerbays Square on the Head) is 7, nearing the peak age for competition. He’s the first Duluth-based dog to win a Duluth field trail in 13 years — since Jeff Wiklund’s Annie took first place on her way to competing in the national championship. Annie was Hammer’s grandmother, Tieberg said, noting Hammer comes from local Labrador retriever stock.
Duluth’s Tom Fait and his black Lab, Reba, competed in the national amateur championship in 2015 after winning a field trial at Iron Range Retriever Club, another field trial in Georgia and yet another in Missouri, an incredible three wins in one season. Fait and his current dog “Hope” received a ‘“judge’s award of merit," a sort of consolation prize, but no points, at last weekend's Duluth event in both the Open and Amateur classes. He said the competition was strong and that Tieberg's dog excelled.
“To win any field trial is a pretty big deal for a local dog," Fait said of Tieberg and Hammer’s accomplishment. "We’re all really happy for Joe.”
Last weekend’s win was Hammer’s highest finish ever after a fourth-place in 2017 in Duluth and a third-place in 2018 in Princeton, Minn. Since then, Tieberg said he scaled-back training and was gradually losing interest in field trials.
“I thought Duluth would be the last one for a while, maybe ever," he said. “Now, I guess we’ll keep going.”
That will entail Tieberg training and handling the dog this autumn in a few remaining Minnesota field trials and then sending the dog south to a professional trainer for winter work. Hammer can be run in field trials by a professional, in the Open category, and still come back to the Amateur category when handled by Tieberg.
Hammer needs his seven points before the June 2020 national amateur championship before the clock resets for 2021 and he'd have to start from zero. A first-place finish in a field trail nets five points, with two points for second and one point for third, while fourth-place gets only a half-point. After that, no points are awarded.
“It’s so hard to get a win. Some really good trainers go their whole lives and never get a win," Tieberg said. "So when you get one, and you’re that close to qualifying, it’s hard not to go out and try to get it. We’ll see how he does. You never know.”