Elaine Goodner watched Gem swim into a stiff Alabama wind, worried that her black Labrador would drift off her course and end her quest at becoming a hunting dog champion.
"Dogs hate wind," Goodner says.
Sure enough, the 20 mph gusts started pushing Gem far off her path toward the downed duck. But a quick burst of Goodner's whistle sent Gem spinning backward, treading water while awaiting for her master's order.
Goodner thrust her left arm at a 45-degree angle, and Gem responded by getting back on course, just like she's done thousands of times.
"She took (the command), picked up the bird, came back and we were good," Goodner says.
Good enough to become top dog among Southern Oregon's retrievers in hunting trial competitions.
That little correction helped the Medford duo earn a rare feat, their second AKC Hunt Test qualifier from the Master National Retriever Club during the club's qualifying Master National Event held Oct. 18-28 in Demopolis, Ala.
The pair earned their first such national distinction two years ago in an identical competition in California. They were the only local combo among the 268 retrievers and trainers to pass muster this year. In all, 690 dogs took part in the five series of retriever tests stretched across 10 days of the hot and humid Alabama fall.
The pair plan to try for a trifecta next fall in Kansas. If they earn their third Master Nationals qualification, it would ensure the 9-year-old Gem lives up to her name among retrieving's elite animal-athletes.
"One more time and she goes into (the club's) Hall of Fame, and she'll probably get retired," says Goodner, 60.
The 21-year-old club represents the upper echelon of retrievers trained to do all that dogs do in the field to assist upland game-bird and waterfowl hunters.
The tests imitate the finding and retrieving of pheasants and ducks either shot live or thrown dead into fields and ponds as if they were taken in real hunting scenarios. They are graded based on their abilities to perform these tasks as close to perfect as possible.
In most cases, the dog sees three birds drop in a series, then the animal must retrieve all three in succession. Handlers such as Goodner can assist their dogs only a handful of times throughout the event, and then only with no more than a few whistle bursts and arm movements.
Goodner and Gem are unique in their field. They are amateurs at a venue dominated by professional trainers, and they're in rarified air as two-time qualifiers.
"I tell them that just being here means they're running with the big dogs," says Janet Wood, a club board member from Port Costa, Calif., and head marshal at this year's event. "Just to be qualified to go multiple years is an accomplishment. To pass is even well above that."
The dogs compete against the scorecard and not each other, but the work is nerve-wracking.
Gem could have knocked herself out of the event simply by getting momentarily confused by competing bird smells and following her nose instead of Goodner's commands.
"Dogs will argue with you if they don't trust you," Goodner says. "They get out there and they can think they know more than you."
But Gem trusts Goodner, who has trained retrievers for field tests since the 1980s.
In fact, Gem trusts Goodner more at times than she trusts herself.
"I was nervous, extremely nervous," Goodner says of their test days in Alabama. "I was afraid I was going to be the one to make a mistake and get her dropped."
Their road to American Kennel Club mastery is much like the path violinists take to Carnegie Hall.
The pair practice and practice their craft regularly during Goodner's lunch breaks from her work managing a physicians laboratory in Medford and on weekends at the Denman Wildlife Area in White City.
They work intensely on what Goodner calls a five-point drill. She tosses five retriever decoys in a field at Medford's Howard Park, with Gem watching intently were they land. On Goodner's command, she takes off, then stops abruptly at Goodner's whistle blast.
The dog turns and sits, waiting for instructions. Goodner lifts her right arm skyward and Gem pivots and bolts straight behind her toward the dummy bird.
"She knows what I'm talking about," Goodner says.
It paid off in spades that day on the Alabama pond, when the wind pushed Gem off her path toward the last bird in that fateful three-bird series and toward the location where she retrieved an earlier bird.
"To go back to an old fall, you're done," Goodner says.
That whistle blast and single arm point resonated just as well that day as any on the grass of Howard Park or the ponds at Denman.
"Dogs really have a hard time in the wind, but I knew what I wanted her to do and she knew what I wanted her to do," Goodner says.
Gem — whose AKC registered name is "Good Time Ruby Tuesday" but goes by Gem because it's a good name to bark in the field — will take a few months off from serious training before she goes back on the local field-test circuit next spring. Then it's back at work for one more shot at retriever stardom and a Hall of Fame induction as a three-time qualifier.
And Gem doesn't know how close she came to losing her path to retrieving mastery had she not listened to that single whistle blast in the Alabama wind on that last day of the test.
"This was kind of a do-or-die," Goodner says. "Either we made it this time or I was going to retire her. She's 9 years old. If she failed, asking her to go back two more times and do this would have been too much.
"She's very important to me."