Dennis Anderson
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Decades before retrievers were the most popular canines in America, they were Minnesota’s top dogs. Labradors have long been No. 1 in this state, rated by American Kennel Club registrations, with golden retrievers, Chesapeake Bay retrievers and flat-coated retrievers commonplace here, as well.

A stroll through Game Fair, which runs Sunday and continues three days next weekend, Aug. 18-20, confirms statistics compiled by the AKC that Minnesota is retriever country.

On a given day at the fair, hundreds and sometimes a thousand or more Labs and other retrievers stroll through the festival’s 80 acres. Along with their owners, the dogs are eager to join a game or competition.

The popularity of these dogs in Minnesota didn’t occur by happenstance.

Beginning in the middle part of the last century, and even before, Minnesota hunters bred, trained and competed with retrievers not just because they made great family pets. Retrievers also performed valuable functions in autumn while retrieving their owners’ downed ducks, and while flushing pheasants and grouse ahead of the gun.

This was in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, and Minnesota had wild fowl aplenty, especially ducks.

Thus retrievers grew popular here not by quirk of fate but in large part out of necessity. As they did, some of Minnesota’s first trainers, handlers, owners and breeders developed and refined skills that gained them national acclaim. Among these were Dr. Leslie Evans, Louis Fritz, Tony Berger and “Lorney” Martens.

Minnesota retrieving dogs also would gain national fame at this time, including 1944 NFC (National Field Champion) Shelter Cove Beauty, the first female retriever of any breed to win this title. Additionally, NFC FC-AFC (Field Champion-Amateur Field Champion) CFC (Canadian Field Champion) Cork of Oakwood Lane was trained and handled by Berger to the 1955 National Retriever Championship. (“Cork” won his first blue ribbon at an informal trial at Armstrong Ranch, site of Game Fair, in 1953.) And Martens bred NFC Marten’s Little Smoky, winner of the 1965 National Field Championship.

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Ten Minnesota retriever trainers and handlers have been enshrined in the National Retriever Field Trial Hall of Fame in Grand Junction, Tenn.

The most recent inductee, Rick Van Bergen of Hugo, was honored last year. His many decades as a retriever trainer, breeder and trial judge provide a case study of the lifetime of dedication required to compete with retrievers at the highest level. (Note: “Field trials” are different from retriever “hunt tests,” which are intended more for amateur and recreational trainers. In hunt tests, dogs are judged against performance standards. They don’t compete against one another, as they do in field trials.)

“I grew up in south Minneapolis,” said Van Bergen, 74. “When I was in high school, I played hockey in winter and worked with dogs in the summer.”

Van Bergen’s first dog was a golden retriever, but by the mid-1960s, after moving to North Dakota, he owned Labradors. Crisscrossing that state as a salesman, Van Bergen often took his dogs with him to train or to hunt while on the road.

“I lived in Bismarck for two years and in Fargo for 14 years,” he said. “I like to compete, and in part because of that, I was field trial-oriented from the start. I ran my first licensed trials in Minot, Winnipeg and Fargo.”

Other Minnesotans running trials at the time included Bob Wolfe, Wels Wilbur and Charlie and Yvonne Hays, each of whom also is in the Retriever Field Trial Hall of Fame.

“The first time I met Rick was at a trial in Fargo,” Charlie Hays, 81, said last week while taking a break from training. “Rick is like Yvonne and me, a ‘lifer’ in this game. We don’t want to get out of it, and if we did want to get out, we wouldn’t know how.”

Retriever training for competition, most trainers agree, is equal parts lifestyle, addiction and a never-ending quest for the perfect dog.

“If you get caught up training dogs,” Van Bergen said, “you pretty much end up with only dog-people friends. Even if you’re not from the same town or state, you see each other at trials, where you compete against one another and socialize with one another.”

In addition to owning and training several titled dogs over the years, Van Bergen has judged more than 80 major trials and has served as president of the National Amateur Retriever Club. Unusually for an amateur, he forgoes the assistance of professionals while preparing his dogs. “I’m not against pros,” he said. “Some of my best friends are pro trainers. But I’m retired now and I have time to train my own dogs.”

Van Bergen and his wife, Mary, travel to Alabama in winter with their dogs, where Van Bergen trains his charges daily in ice-free water.

“Field trials today are much different than they were when I started; they’re harder and require almost daily training, year-round,” he said. “When I started, marked [thrown] retrieves were less than 100 yards long. Today they’re 400 yards and more.”

Trainers and handlers also must use hand and whistle signals to guide their retrievers at great distances to “blinds,” or birds they didn’t see fall. En route, the dogs often encounter small lakes, hills, marshes or other obstacles, through which they must travel on straight lines, or as straight as possible.

Van Bergen likens the best field-trial retrievers to professional athletes.

“I would compare them to NFL players or athletes that excel in any other major league sport,” he said.

The cost of training and campaigning retrievers has risen as field trials have grown more challenging — factors, Van Bergen believes, that can discourage participation.

“You’ve got to have time and money to train and travel to trials,” he said. “And if you have your dog with a pro, he’s going to get $1,000 or so a month.”

As Van Bergen spoke, he stood in a northern Minnesota field, where he slapped mosquitoes while waiting his turn to throw a bird for a member of his retriever training group.

He had competed in a field trial in nearby Virginia, Minn., the previous weekend. Now he was staying in the area to train for a trial at the same site the following weekend.

Up early, outside all day, rain or shine, training dogs.

“It keeps you young,” he said.

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com