Life has gone to the dogs for Todd and Benita Otterness of Lowry. When their kids, Amanda, Jacob and Levi, were grown and out of the house, the Otternesses decided to take their love of golden retrievers (goldens) to a new level by competing in field trials, events in which hunting dogs compete against one another.
“We decided we were going to fill our empty nest with dogs,” Benita said with a smile.
With Benita teaching English fulltime at Jefferson High School in Alexandria and both Benita and Todd operating T and B Lawn Care out of Lowry, they had a lot to learn.
Luckily, Todd had trained dogs and run in a few field trials in his high school days, so he had a basic knowledge to kick-start their endeavor.
In 2009, the Otternesses started purchasing retrievers to work toward their goal of competing.
Thus, Thunderstruck Retrievers was born.
LEARNING THE ROPES
The Otternesses searched for a pedigree they thought would be competitive so that they could run field trials and have a good hunting dog. So they purchased Bailey.
“Then we started training,” Benita said. “[Todd] always got to handle, so I said, ‘I need a dog…so I’m not always throwing dead ducks. Then we got Forman.”
So to learn how to become trainers, the Otternesses spent hours poring over literature, watching videos, browsing online resources, attending seminars with pro-trainers and being spectators at live field trials.
They were also trained by pro-trainers Tim Springer of Dynamic Retrievers and Dave Rorem of Rorem Retrievers, both in Texas.
Because field trials usually range from $60 to $95 to enter just one dog in each trial, the Otternesses began breeding their retrievers to try to help with the expenses.
Then they built a kennel, completed in the spring of 2013. It now houses two labs, Sandy and Lisa, and six goldens, Otter, Lowry, Dreya, Forman, Bailey and Misty.
To haul the large canine family to field trials, the Otternesses secure their camper on the cab of their truck and pull the dogs behind in a trailer. They spent 65 nights in their camper throughout the 2013 trials.
“We’re on the road every weekend going to different field trial events [from the end of April to October],” Todd said. “It’s kind of like NASCAR. Every weekend it’s in a different place.”
TIME FOR TRAINING
Much of the training includes teaching the dogs to run through water, jump over obstacles, fight against the wind and more.
However, basic training begins early on. When puppies are 1 to 2 weeks old, the Otternesses give them neurological stimulation to strengthen their central nervous system, Todd said.
“You might hold them upside down just until they react, and then you quickly bring them up,” Benita explained. “You put them on their back, and then when they struggle, you release them.”
Then they move on to brain development exercises, such as tunnels, boxes, dirt piles, tall grass and water, until the puppies are 7 weeks and ready to go to a new home.
“Every day, you’re trying to introduce them to something new,” Benita said. “That way, when they go to people’s homes, they just fit right in and they do anything.”
Out in field training, the Otternesses will have the dog sit either to their left or right depending on which side of the field the bird was placed. Then they line up the dog’s spine with the bird.
A dog will always run in the direction its spine is facing, according to Benita.
A vocal command tells the dog when to run. The volume of the command tells the dog how far away the bird is.
If the dog starts to go off track, the handler whistles and uses hand signals to correct the dog’s direction. The angle of the signal tells the dog how far to go in a certain direction.
THE RUSH OF COMPETITION
The Otternesses have had dogs compete in all levels of competition: open (professional, all age), amateur (all age), qualifying (all age) and derby (age 2 or younger).
“When you’re in a field trial and you’re in it at the end, it gets extremely intense,” Todd said. “It’s like watching a golf match where a man or a woman has to make a 10-foot putt to win. And as handlers, like golf, you have to learn to control your emotions and your heart rate.”
“The dogs can read all that,” Benita added. “So if you get too excited, the dogs will get amped up, and then they don’t do well.”
The Otternesses took five dogs to the 2013 Golden Retriever Club of America National Specialty in Texas, a competition for the top goldens in the country.
Otter and Forman made it to the final round of the open, which is the highest they could get, and Otter was qualified all age for earning second in the qualifying level.
The goal is to eventually have some of their dogs earn enough points to receive a field champion or amateur field champion title, which would rank them among the best of the best.
But according to the Otternesses, the growth of the dogs is what makes it all worthwhile.
“Seeing the daily improvement when you really start turning a dog, when you really start coming together with a dog, that’s awesome,” Todd said.
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For more information about Thunderstruck Retrievers, visit www.thunderstruckretrievers.com.