HRC Grand Sets The Standard
Story and photos by Keith Schopp
In hunting dog and hunt test circles, it is known simply as “The Grand.”
Officially, it is the Hunting Retriever Club (HRC) International Grand, and twice each year enthusiasts who share a passion for hunting dogs, and more specifically, duck hunting dogs, travel hundreds or thousands of miles to participate and earn a coveted “Grand” pass.
Pass two Grands and earn 300 championship points and a talented hunting dog becomes a legendary Grand Hunting Retriever Champion (GRHRCH). Pass four Grands and earn 1,000 championship points and your legendary hunting dog attains Hall of Fame (HOF) status.
“Mason,” formally known as GRHRCH (12) Oak Point’s Traveling Man HOF, is going for Grand pass No. 13. Whelped Jan. 19, 2012, the gray-muzzled 9 ½-year-old Labrador has passed every Grand he’s entered and accumulated 1,360 championship points. He’s a Hall of Famer, in a class by himself, and has the potential to surpass the all-time record of 15 Grand passes.
The 2021 Fall Grand, held Sept. 18 to 21 near St. Louis, will be different for Mason. His handler for those 12 Grand passes, professional trainer Stephen Durrence of Taylor Farm Kennels in Sylvania, Georgia, is at home on oxygen battling COVID-19. With 20 dogs entered at the Fall 2021 Grand, Durrence scrambled to place dogs with other professional handlers to make the journey to St. Louis. He tapped his good friend and fellow professional trainer Marcus Bice to run Mason.
It’s a tough assignment. Marcus and Mason have less than a week to get acquainted and train together. The veteran trainer and handler and the talented retriever will give it their best.
It’s hot, humid and dusty at the August A. Busch Memorial Conservation Area in Weldon Springs, Missouri, and the 7,000-acre property is teeming with lakes and fields to test the most talented hunting dogs and their handlers. Besides Labrador Retrievers, there are Golden Retrievers, Boykin Spaniels, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, and Flat-Coated Retrievers.
HRC Grand Hunt Committee Chairman Tracy Stubbs couldn’t be happier.
“It’s the biggest Grand ever,” Stubbs says. “We have 884 entries and 795 dogs to start counting scratches. These are dogs, owners and handlers from 140 HRC clubs around the country. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you do in life, when you have a Grand Hunting Retriever Champion you have the ultimate hunting dog.”
Ten sites — five land and five water — have been selected at Busch. Handlers are grouped into 10 flights of about 75 dogs each. To earn a Grand pass, dogs must complete five series including two land, two water and the upland test. Dogs are judged at each series and earn a “2” for meeting the standard, “1” for a marginal performance, and “O” for failing the test. Only one marginal score is allowed through the first four series. Dogs are dropped along the way. The upland test is pass or fail.
The HRC is sanctioned by the United Kennel Club, which carries the registry and offers titles for the HRC program. Stubbs explains that the Grand Hunt test was created for dogs that have attained their Hunting Retriever Championship (HRCH) title.
“Before the Grand, you’d get your HRCH title and you were done,” he says. “The Grand was a way to keep those dogs active and in the game — ultimately to improve our purebred hunting dogs. We’ve come a long way since that first Grand in 1986. It was hosted by the North Louisiana HRC in Monroe, Louisiana, and there were 13 entries.”
The journey from 13 entries in 1986 to nearly 900 entries in fall 2021 is a testament to the HRC philosophy: “Conceived by Hunters, for Hunters.” Tests are set up that simulate hunting situations. Participants must dress in camouflage clothing. It’s a family friendly atmosphere, a hunting and dog-loving fraternity, and a game that continues to grow.
“Our founders wanted something for duck hunters where you compete against a standard, not each other,” Stubbs says. “And still, it’s challenging. We have 500-point clubs and 1,000-point clubs, and then we have our Hall of Fame class. That is the pinnacle hunting dog.”
Hunting Retriever Club President Jack Gravely of Foley, Oklahoma, says adding the Hall of Fame class four years ago has been a huge catalyst for growth at the Grand. “At the 2017 Grand there were four flights of dogs,” he says. “Here at the Fall 2021 Grand there are 10 flights. Hall of Fame status has been huge for breeding rights as well as bragging rights.”
Each test site at Busch is designated as a water or land location and named after an HRC sponsor. Appropriately, Purina Area Manager Ray Voigt and consultant Kelsi Toth are visiting with handlers at Purina Land and will visit professionals and amateurs at every site before the Grand is over.
“This is a huge event for Purina,” Voigt says. “It’s challenging and geared to the hunter. It’s a family friendly atmosphere and very inclusive, and they root for each other. We’re proud to be a part of this event.”
Stubbs notes that Purina Pro Plan is one of two HRC Legacy sponsors. “We’ve received unwavering support from Purina through the years,” he says.
Dogs Are What It’s All About
After two series, Mason has a good Grand going. “He’s making me look pretty good,” Bice jokes. The third series is a triple water mark with a blind retrieve, meaning Bice must handle Mason to retrieve a bird the dog did not see. The test site is appropriately named “Lucky Duck.”
Bice brings Mason to the line and the judges are chatty. “Looks like Mason is going after No. 13,” one judge says. “No pressure Marcus,” another says.
Bice smiles and replies, “The last thing Stephen told me was ‘Mason has passed every Grand he’s entered. And he’s going to pass this one, too.’”
With that, Bice blew his duck call and the test began. Mason picked up his three marked retrieves, no problem. Bice lined up Mason for the blind retrieve and sent him with a forceful “BACK” command. Mason veered left, offline. Bice blew his whistle, attempting to cast Mason right. Mason continued left: a cast refusal. Another toot on the whistle. Another cast refusal. Toot. Still no luck.
The judges had no choice. “Call him back Marcus. I’m sorry,” one judge says.
Mason was out. No Lucky Duck No. 13 at this Grand.
“It’s not what I wanted,” Bice says after the long walk back to the truck. “He’s a really nice dog. We just weren’t working well together on that blind today.”
Stephen Durrence appreciated the effort. “It’s not Marcus’ fault, and it’s not Mason’s fault,” Durrence said later. “They had a very short time to get acquainted. I’ve had Mason since he’s been 6 months old. He’s still in great shape, and he’ll get to play again at the Grand.”
Those who participate in the HRC Grand are drawn to the sport for many reasons. The main attraction common with all is getting to work with their dogs.
Rhett Riddle is a professional trainer and handler from Hartsville, South Carolina. He’s parked in the shade at one of 10 test sites with 10 dogs entered in the Grand.
“I love dogs. That’s why I'm here,” Riddle says. Formerly a veterinary technician, Riddle trained bomb detection dogs for five years and settled into the hunt test and dog training game.
“Over the years I began to learn dog psychology, what they’re thinking and what they’re trying to tell you,” he says. “The best part is getting to work with dogs every day. It’s a bonus when they pass.”
Meanwhile, Sue Liemohn of St. Francis, Minnesota, and her retired Labrador, GRHRCH Taylor Farm’s Midnight Georgia MH (“Georgia”), are under the merchandise tent at HRC Grand headquarters. Liemohn is taking orders for HRC Grand apparel, including camouflage shirts, and embroiders the Fall 2021 HRC logo for customers each afternoon and evening. It’s part of her Sue’s Embroidery and Designs business, but she and Georgia have many more Grand connections.
“Georgia has four Grand passes and four Master National passes, and she won the 2019 SRS (Super Retriever Series) Crown Championship in the Open division,” Liemohn says matter-of-factly. “Stephen Durrence ran her and won with her in the Open division. I qualified her two years in a row in the Amateur division.”
Liemohn, who started competing with Georgia in 2008, says, “The best part is meeting new people and seeing the dogs work. I just love the dog work.”
Amber Everett is an emergency room nurse from Bridgeport, Texas, who is hooked on the hunt test game. She has four dogs entered: “Linda,” “Rylee,” “Jessie,” and “Bodie.”
“How did I get here?” Amber says. “I’m the only child of a dad who loves to hunt and fish who married a guy who loves to hunt and fish. My first Valentine’s Day present from my husband, Taylor, was a cute little Labrador we named Bodie. I bought a book on retriever training and watched every video I could get my hands on and went to seminars. I said, ‘I can do this. I can run a dog.’ Next thing you know I have four HRCH retrievers and a dog trailer, and I’m driving to the Grand.”
Everett’s goal at the Fall 2021 Grand is to get a Grand pass for 6-year-old Bodie and earn second Grand passes for Rylee and Jessie.
“We want all the initials in front of their names,” she says.
Bodie came through, earning his first Grand pass. He’ll be back at the Spring 2022 Grand going for his second pass and Grand Champion Retriever status.
Good news just in. Stephen Durrence has kicked COVID-19 and is back running dogs. He enjoys the challenge and agrees passing the Grand is the pinnacle for a hunting dog. He also values the family atmosphere and camaraderie of his HRC colleagues.
“My wife, Kendra, will load up our children and bring them along,” he says. “You can ask anybody, they’re all as much a part of the event as I am. Bottom line, our dog family is part of our family.”