Duluth, Minn. All Jeff Wiklund wanted was a better-trained hunting dog. Now he has a gem of a field-trial dog, too.
His 5-year-old black Lab, Annie, took second place in the recent American Kennel Club registered field trial sponsored by the Duluth Retriever Club. And she was handled in the trial by Duluth's Wiklund, not by a professional trainer.
That's the highest placing by an amateur-handled local dog in that trial in at least 20 years, perhaps longer.
"It goes back past anyone's clear memory," said John Nichols, a longtime Duluth Retriever Club member.
A total of 55 dogs competed in the special open class of the trial, held Aug. 13 and 14 at the Duluth Retriever Club.
Wiklund, 48, has trained Annie by himself with the help of other club members. It is a challenge for a dog just to finish the series of retrieving tests in a field trial. The Duluth trial consisted of four tests, each with three different retrieving challenges. One series of land retrieves took dogs about seven to 10 minutes to complete, Wiklund said, and a single series of water retrieves required 15 minutes per dog. Some retrieves were at least 400 yards long.
"I joined the Retriever Club in 1999, the year I got Annie, to learn more about training," Wiklund said.
He credits Nichols as being an important mentor in training Annie.
"He's been a student of all the literature the pros (professional trainers) put out and he puts it into practice with the people he trains with."
Wiklund and Nichols train regularly at the Retriever Club with other dog owners. Club members were happy for Wiklund, a modest person who has worked hard to support the club's programs.
"I can't think of anybody who deserves it more," said Dale Johnson, owner of DeLoia Kennels. "For a guy doing everything himself, he's got a pretty good dog."
Annie has been a high achiever since her puppy days. She earned her AKC Junior Hunter title at 6 months, the earliest she could be tested. She became a Master Hunter at 3 years. She qualified for her first all-age stake in a field trial at age 4 and earned her first Judge's Award of Merit the same year. But she had never finished all the tests in a field trial until last weekend.
Competing in a field trial requires both the handler and the dog to make good decisions at the right time. Professional trainers might enter 30 to 35 field trials per year, running multiple dogs at each trial. Wiklund and Annie enter about seven to eight field trials or AKC hunt tests per summer.
When fall comes, many field-trial dogs keep competing. Annie goes hunting. Wiklund hunts ducks, geese, pheasants, grouse and woodcock.
"One of the biggest thrills in my life ever was to have eight goose hunters give my dog a standing ovation after a 400- or 500-yard blind retrieve," Wiklund said. "That's what it all comes down to is the hunting."
A blind retrieve is one in which the dog does not see the bird fall, instead taking hand signals from its handler.
At home, Annie's a family dog.
"She's a wonderful house dog. That's the biggest deal," Wiklund said. "She's our pet. She's so good with people and other dogs."
Annie may not know it, but Wiklund is thinking even bigger.
"My goal would be -- and this is a dream -- to run the National Amateur (Retriever Championship), which will be in Virginia next year," he said.
But first, there's hunting season.