Training for Top Dog

Hoping and training for a national championship

By Dianna Troyer

Fred Aragon hopes he and his dog, Newbie, perform well at the AKC Master National Hunt Test Championship in Cascade, Idaho, in September. Photos by Carollee Jayne Portraits

The mutual adoration is obvious between Fred Aragon and his 5-year-old black Labrador retriever, Aragon Nuevo, as they train for a national competition this fall.

In his backyard in Carlin, Fred guides Nuevo—nicknamed Newbie—through a drill to prepare him.

“He’s one of the most talented dogs I’ve ever had and wants to please me,” Fred says. “He’s coming along and did really well this past winter and spring, passing tests and winning ribbons.”

During winter, Fred and his wife, Susie, travel to Arizona and California, where Newbie competes in American Kennel Club Retriever Hunt Tests.

Hunting dogs and their owners are judged on how well they work as a team to find and retrieve downed game birds on land and in water. Each team runs three 15- to 20-minute tests during two days. Owners communicate with their dogs using hand gestures, verbal commands, and whistle blasts.

“In March, we were proud Newbie was among only 12 dogs out of 66 to pass a master hunt test,” Fred says.

Newbie accumulated enough ribbons and points to compete in the AKC Master National Hunt Test Championship in Cascade, Idaho, in mid-September.

To keep Newbie at his prime, Fred plans to take him to events in Nevada, Idaho, and Wyoming this summer.

Fred is a veteran of national competitions, having trained nationally renowned retrievers for 32 years. He has taken a black Labrador to nationals 18 times. Three of the Aragons’ dogs have been inducted into the AKC Retriever Master National Hall of Fame.

“Our training program focuses on repetition and a lot of praise,” Fred says. “Some people give food treats, and others are strict disciplinarians. We don’t use either method. If a dog does something wrong, we show how to do it right and then give a lot of praise.”

Fred Aragon and his dog, Nuevo, will compete at the AKC Master National Hunt Test Championship in Idaho this fall. Fred has trained several champions over the years.

The Aragons’ program has earned them and their dogs accolades. A room in their house is filled with framed certificates, ribbons, trophies, and photos of their beloved retrievers. They also have been featured in the book, “Just Labs.”

“It’s gratifying to come home and be reminded of our dogs’ successes,” Fred says. “We put a lot of time and work into training them.”

To demonstrate Newbie’s skills, Fred has him perform a drill called the wagon wheel. Newbie has completed the task countless times. He is still as enthusiastic as when he first learned it.

Fred places bumpers—cylindrical tubes used as substitutes for game birds— about 100 feet away from the center of an invisible wheel. He stands in the middle and uses hand gestures to send Newbie in a straight line along the wheel’s imaginary spokes to retrieve a dummy.

“He knows hand gestures of right hand back, left hand back, right hand over, left hand over,” Fred says.

Newbie also relies on verbal commands: sit, stay, come, over, back, down, heel, here and drop.

“We like Labs because they’re intelligent, easygoing, and want to please their owner,” Fred says. “Newbie’s our 90-pound lap dog. He tries to curl up in your lap when you sit down.”

Fred and Susie Aragon started training dogs and competing after watching a field trial near Fallon in 1988.

To share their enthusiasm for the breed, the Aragons bred and raised puppies. For several years, they donated puppies for the annual fundraising banquet of the Nevada Waterfowl Association—to help raise money for wildlife conservation projects.

The Aragons stopped breeding several years ago to focus on the training, Fred says.

“The tests are hard,” he notes.

He flips through a manual, pointing out a few master hunt test requirements. A dog must retrieve birds it did not see fall, relying on commands from the owner. A dog must watch where up to three birds fall, remember their locations, run or swim directly to each bird, retrieve it and deliver it to the hunter.

Intrigued with retrievers’ intelligence and hunting abilities, the Aragons started competing after watching a field trial near Fallon in 1988.

“A friend told me about it, and I was curious to see what it was all about,” Fred says. “I’d always taken our dogs duck hunting along the Humboldt River and worked well with them. When I saw how the dogs were performing to such a high standard, it was impressive. I wondered if I could train a dog to do those things.”

In 1989, he bought a female Labrador with field trial bloodlines from a breeder in Idaho and named her Reba. He watched videos, read books, and developed a successful training program with Reba and her descendants.

Newbie—a 5-year-old black Labrador retrieve —has accumulated enough ribbons and points to compete in the AKC Master National Hunt Test Championship later this year.

Susie has trained their dogs, too.

“I let Fred run the dogs at nationals,” she says, laughing. “I didn’t like the pressure of having to do everything perfectly. No matter how they perform, we love working with them.”

For years, the Aragons trained and competed their dogs after work. Fred was a section foreman for Union Pacific Railroad. Susie worked at a casino. After retiring in 2004, they devoted their newfound spare time to AKC hunt tests.

“As we’ve aged, we decided to downsize our program and only have Newbie,” says Fred, 76.

While he is confident Newbie will do well at nationals this fall, Fred also looks forward to taking a break from competition to just hunt ducks.

“It’s nice to not have the pressure of a competition, to just be out there,” Fred says. “Whatever we do—whether hunting or competing—we enjoy spending time with our dogs.”