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Practice makes perfect

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

NOREEN HYSLOP-nhyslop@dailystatesman.com Sherm Smith, Jr. of Dexter is shown with his six-year-old Labrador retriever, Roxy, just before she is summoned to retrieve a training bird during a recent field trial practice southwest of Dexter.
Local trainer will be featured at Saturday's Duck Creek and DU celebration

Visitors to the 75th anniversary celebration of both the wetlands of Duck Creek Conservation Area and Ducks Unlimited (DU) will be treated to a host of demonstrations and presentations this Saturday, Oct. 13, as the two entities come together to mark the special occasion.

"Seventy-five years of success for both organizations is a great accomplishment for conservation in Missouri and we're pleased to celebrate it with Ducks Unlimited," said Wildlife Management Biologist Matt Bowyer. "This is more than an anniversary celebration; it's a celebration of wildlife and wetlands that we've packed full of activities for both children and adults to enjoy and hopefully learn from."

Roxy returns from the waters of a nearby pond with the bird in tow. Smith will be one of several presenters at Saturday's Duck Creek and Ducks Unlimited 75th anniversary celebration at the Duck Creek Conservation Area.
Among the many scheduled activities, which will take place from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. on Saturday, will be a demonstration of working retriever black labs, presented by Sherm Smith of Dexter. An avid duck hunter and DU member, Smith has worked on the side training Labrador retrievers for several years. He currently has two labs that call the rural Dexter Smith property "home."

Roxy is a sleek, anxious, attentive registered lab. At six years old, she's a veteran in the field. Smith's other black lab is a nine-month old pup named Chief who is just beginning to learn the serious ropes of retrieving. Both dogs were purchased from the Kansas City area.

"I work with the dogs at least twice a week," Smith says, "and more as the duck hunting season draws closer. It's like a workout after the regular workday is done."

That "workout" might translate into a few hours after the regular workday, which is spent in the world of real estate.

"If someone calls and suggests to go spend some time in the field with the dogs," Smith notes, "that's always a little extra incentive, and I'm ready to load up the dogs and get to it."

In his younger days, Smith could often be found on the heels of two local veteran trainers, Mo Moriarty and Ed Henry.

"Those two taught me a lot," he confirms. "Both have now retired from the sport, but they were a lot of inspiration for me when I started in this."

These days, Smith has some followers of his own.

"There are a few high school students who are showing some interest, and I enjoy them coming out and helping whenever they can."

As in any sport, the key is repetition when dealing with animals, Smith contests. He starts his dogs in training from the time they are weeks old, teaching simple commands. A dog is typically not ready to hunt, however, until about a year old.

"I had a dog I hunted with at six months early on," he recalls. "But that's really too young. He was a very special dog."

A crucial factor in obtaining success with a retriever is attitude, he says.

"It takes a lot of repetition, and a lot of positive and negative reinforcement," Smith says. "It's a process -- a long process that involves tremendous repetition and a lot of patience."

That patience must also be coupled with temperament when dealing with the animals, as the same command is often repeated literally hundreds of times in the early stages of training.

Roxy, a polished pro in the field, follows her master's command almost always without hesitation. Something as simple as a shift in Smith's posture, placing one foot slightly in front of the other, or tapping on his leg, serves as a cue to the dog at his side. Roxy illustrated some of her more advanced training on a recent sunny afternoon in an open field with a farm pond located southwest of Dexter.

Using bird launchers that are equipped with remote control capability, the simulated sound of a shot is fired, and Roxy races to the spot where a fallen training bird awaits. She is attentive, focused and eager to please, and quickly retrieves the duck. She seemingly cannot get it back to her master quickly enough, and when she reaches her destination, the bird is held in her mouth until she is given the command to "drop it."

Perhaps the most impressive exercise of the day comes when Roxy is redirected utilizing a whistle around Smith's neck. The dog is required to refocus her attention from a fallen bird she watched hit the ground directly in front of her to an area 75 yards across the field to pick up a bird she did not see hit the ground. Smith calls out, "Leave it," to cue Roxy to dismiss the bird she watched hit the ground in front of her. Roxy is then realigned and sent across the field in the direction of the bird she did not see. A blow of the whistle signals her to stop and watch for Smith's hand signal. As he raises his left hand arm level with his shoulder and points south, Roxy takes off in that direction. When it's time for her to dive into the water to retrieve the injured bird, Smith again blows his whistle and points west. Following the gestures, the dog goes directly to the downed bird, rescues it and brings it to Smith's feet.

The same process as used when a bird is injured is implemented to retrieve a "blind bird," or one that the dog has not seen fall. The dog is first positioned in the direction of the bird and then, utilizing the same hand signals from afar, the trainer illustrates to the dog where to find the fallen bird.

"When a duck is shot, but not killed, it should be the hunter's first priority to rescue the injured bird before all others. It's good sportsmanship, and a difficult lesson to teach a dog," Smith explains.

To witness Roxy in the field grants a true appreciation for the work of Smith when Chief, the pup, is turned loose to go through some elementary routines. It quickly becomes evident that Chief is still in the puppy stage, darting in and out between the fallen birds, not always sure which one to pick up, and romping around in the open field with the bird before deciding it's time to deliver it to his master. Just a few months, it seems, separate the men from the boys on the training field.

There is significant attention to detail in the training process, and patience is key. And as with every art form, practice makes perfect.

When Roxy and Chief aren't in training, they are romping in the yard or inside the Smith home, where Sherm and Cherie Smith don't hesitate to let their three-year-old son, Jack, romp and play with either of them.

"They're good-natured animals," he says. "It's all about trust with labs. They'd go to the ends of the earth for you if they thought it would please you."

Smith attends Field Trials and Hunt Tests all over the Midwest and South. His efforts on the field are well respected in the world of retrievers. On Saturday, he will be on hand to illustrate some of the techniques he uses in his training.

Visitors will be greeted at the Duck Creek CA headquarters Saturday morning and directed to the Pool 3 campground for the day's events. The program will begin at 9 a.m. with a short ceremony. Including Smith's presentation, there will be a series of stations and activities hosted by MDC, DU and USFWS staff and volunteers.

There will be hayrides through the newly renovated Unit A and through the timber at Pool 3; presentations about wetland management and the history of the Mingo Basin; cork duck decoy construction, rocket netting, electrofishing; and kids' activities such as wetland critter safari. It is recommended that children wear boots and prepare to have fun in the mud and wet areas.

Bowyer said these events are intended to help people discover nature and further conservation efforts in Missouri as well.

"As families explore the outdoors with us, they'll make memories together of these experiences. Those memories are the foundation that grows future conservationists, and that's what will project success for both MDC and DU for another 75 years," Bowyer said.

The Puxico Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapter will be in the area to provide food. The FFA will accept donations. Duck Creek CA is located nine miles north of Puxico on Highway 51. For more information about this event, call the MDC's Southeast Regional Office at (573) 290-5730.

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