Elaine Goodner works with Gem at the Kenneth Denman Wildlife Area on Tuesday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch

She's a Gem

Elaine Goodner stood nervously next to her aging Labrador retriever Gem in a Northern California field knowing the next few hours would determine their legacy.{br class="hardreturn" /}
In a similar field during last year's AKC Hunt Test finals in Kansas, the normally demanding Goodner let Gem try to execute a series of retrieves without her normal whistle blasts and arm-pointing to control Gem's movements and it proved their undoing.{br class="hardreturn" /}
With that fresh in her mind, Goodner and Gem watched Master National Retriever Club officials throw the first three fake birds for Gem to retrieve. Instantly Goodner realized Gem's plan for the sequential retrieves didn't jive with hers.{br class="hardreturn" /}
"If I really watch her ears, her face, her eyebrows, she'll tell me what she wants to do," Goodner says. "I decided that she can do what she wants to, and I'll just help her out when she needs it."{br class="hardreturn" /}
Gem needed precious little help in turning in a series of retrieves worthy of her namesake. In doing so, she became the first Rogue Valley retriever and second from Oregon to earn Hall of Fame credentials in the rarified air that is the Master National Retriever Club.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Working largely on her own during during the eight-day Master Nationals outside of Corning, Calif., Gem nailed the six series of three-bird retrieves to earn her third master nationals honor in five years.{br class="hardreturn" /}
It not only earned Hall of Fame status, but the win will see Goodner's and Gem's names engraved forever on the Women's Challenge trophy as three-time Masters champions.{br class="hardreturn" /}
It's a rare and fitting swansong for the most decorated amateur retriever Southern Oregon has ever seen.{br class="hardreturn" /}
"Heading into that competition, I already made up my mind that win, lose or draw, she was done," Goodner says. "She's retired."{br class="hardreturn" /}
The 23-year-old club represents the upper echelon of retrievers trained to do all that dogs do in the field to assist upland game-bird and waterfowl hunters.{br class="hardreturn" /}
The tests imitate the finding and retrieving of pheasants and ducks either shot live or thrown dead into fields and ponds as if they were taken in real hunting scenarios. They are graded based on their abilities to perform these tasks as close to perfectly as possible.{br class="hardreturn" /}
In most cases, the dog sees three birds drop in a series, then the animal must retrieve all three in succession. Handlers such as Goodner can assist their dogs only a handful of times throughout the event, and then with no more than a few whistle bursts and arm movements.{br class="hardreturn" /}
The dogs compete against the scorecard and not each other, but the work is nerve-wracking.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Gem could have knocked herself out of the event simply by getting momentarily confused by competing bird smells and following her nose instead of Goodner's commands.{br class="hardreturn" /}
That's what happened last year in Kansas, when Gem became confused during a water retrieve and ended up wandering the banks en route to failing the test. Goodner blames herself for not taking better control.{br class="hardreturn" /}
"It was my fault, and it made me sick," Goodner says. "I decided that this year I'm not making any mistakes. None."{br class="hardreturn" /}
This time while standing "on the line" and ready to retrieve, Gem showed she wanted to start with a far-away bird, while Goodner had her eyes on a closer one.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Goodner acquiesced.{br class="hardreturn" /}
"It's a hard lesson for us handlers to learn, 'Don't argue with your dog on the line,' " Goodner says.{br class="hardreturn" /}
It worked.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Of the 599 entries, about one-third reached the Masters threshold. That included 10 from the 30-dog Oregon contingent.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Goodner and Gem, along with a professional dog and handler from Warren, Ore., joined the ranks of 274 Hall of Fame teams on the club's rolls.{br class="hardreturn" /}
With a spry manner that belied her graying face, Gem accomplished all 18 retrieves with only minimal help from Goodner on two of them.{br class="hardreturn" /}
"When she finished, I was jumping up and down, which is silly," Goodner says. "But she deserves it. My goal is for her to get all the recognition she deserves."{br class="hardreturn" /}
Now Gem's future holds a lot of relaxation and some cameo appearances at other hunt tests, where she'll retrieve for fun and not for scores.{br class="hardreturn" /}
"She still gets to go, but no more pressure," Goodner says. "No collars, nothing. She can just do it on her own."{br class="hardreturn" /}
She'll also move into the role of coach for Goodner's other two dogs, especially Erin, an 8-month-old Lab with a better pedigree than Gem and a bright future in retrieving.{br class="hardreturn" /}
"Gem would be like a nice, fast Camaro," Goodner says. "The little one's like a Ferrari."{br class="hardreturn" /}
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or Follow him at{br class="hardreturn" /}

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