Many dogs can fetch, sure. But only a relative few can fetch a duck that's 300 yards away and they didn't see where it landed. They don't need their owner to chase or yell at them, either - just a point, a whistle and there the dog goes.
This skill, called a "blind retrieve," is a standard part of field dog trials, the sort of sporting event that was once a staple of ABC's old "Wide World of Sports." You can occasionally catch such events on TV these days, but usually at off-peak viewing hours between infomercials and kids' cartoons.
But that changes tonight on ESPN. The cable sports network that created a television monster when it fashioned the "X Games" out of a variety of kids' skating and biking tricks now gives you the "Great Outdoor Games," tonight through Aug. 4.
The games, held at Lake Placid last weekend, bring together a number of off-the-beaten-path sports that the network regularly broadcasts individually: fishing, marksmanship, timber trials and canine competitions. That they ordinarily end up in less than prime viewing hours - weekend mornings - belies their popularity, says Amy Cacciola, ESPN's marketing and communications manager. Passions such as hunting rake in billions more than even the popular music industry, she says.
And while not everyone can cut through a 14-inch aspen log with an ax in 18.33 seconds - the world record for the Standing Block Chop, one of the timber sports - many people hunt, and even more own dogs.
"A lot of people can identify with these sports," Cacciola says.
Baltimore resident Timothy Carrion certainly does. And now he and his yellow Labrador retriever, Beaver, will be identfiable to viewers of the "Great Outdoor Games." Beaver won the bronze medal and $2,000 in the games' retriever trials, one of four events for sporting dogs in the competition.
"It's relaxation and a sense of accomplishment all at one time," says Carrion, 47, an oral surgeon from Owings Mills. "Events are fun because they're a confirmation of your efforts and training."
Karen Gaydos is another Marylander taking part in the "Outdoor Games." She and her Shetland sheepdogs, Casey and Celia, took part in the agility competition (Casey placed sixth). Gaydos says training for the event helps forge a stronger bond between her and her dogs than an ordinary housebound relationship.
"I had Shelties before I started agility training and we were close, but when you train with a dog every day, you get so close it's just incredible," says Gaydos, 35, a pharmacist from Havre de Grace.
The "Great Outdoor Games" offered four competitions for dogs: "Big Air," a contest that measures the distance dogs jump from a dock into a lake; fly ball, a relay race judged on time and accuracy; agility; and retrieving.
The retrieving event simulates a real hunt in that dogs must retrieve three ducks and a goose. But the similarity ends there: Most hunters don't expect as much from their dogs as trainers do, Carrion says.
"So long as dog goes out there and eventually brings the duck back, it's probably good enough," Carrion says. "Even if they have to throw a whole pocketful of rocks to get the dog to do it. I look for more."
Trainers blow whistles and use hand signals to direct dogs to their quarry. Judges follow American Kennel Club standards on criteria such as how quickly the dog returns with the birds and how much direction it requires from its handler.
Dogs competing in the agility category must tackle an obstacle course that includes weaving between poles, jumping over bars 16 inches high and squeezing through tunnels - guided by owners' voice and hand signals. Dogs are judged on how quickly they travel and the number of "faults" they acquire by knocking down bars or missing a "contact zone" they were supposed to touch.
The task grows even more difficult when cameras follow dogs' every move and the crowd is more energetic than usual. But the 105 dogs invited to compete in the ESPN games had already shown their mettle in earlier contests, and seemed unfazed by their fellow canines. Even the camera crew warranted only a few confused glances from the savvy competitors.
Retrievers don't work for treats - they're born and bred for helping hunters, Carrion says.
"These dogs do this because they want to," says Carrion, who takes his dogs hunting about eight times a year. "The only thing we're doing is refining and developing their own natural instinct. You could take their food bowls out then throw something for them, and they'd leave their food and go get it."
For reinforcement, Gaydos uses a "clicker," a device that makes a clicking noise that owners "click" each time they give a treat, leading dogs to associate the sound with the idea of a job well done.
Like retrievers, sheepdogs were once bred for a skill similar to those used in competition: herding sheep. Unfortunately for the sporting world, dog breeders today tend to favor good-looking dogs rather than skilled ones, Gaydos says. A timid Sheltie might have a thick, glossy coat, but it won't have the outgoing personality needed to compete, she says. Or to herd sheep, as her dog Celia can.
Finding a well-bred dog is only the beginning. Training takes open spaces such as the several acres Carrion owns in Owings Mills. It takes fellow trainers with good walking shoes: Carrion's father and other local trainers team up so one person can drop the ducks 300 yards away while the owner directs the dog. And it takes time. Carrion spends at least a half-hour a day training Beaver and two other dogs.
Retriever training can start when puppies are as young as 4 months. It starts small, with obedience skills such as heeling and sitting, and eventually covers the retrieval of objects at greater distances and in water and obeying the owner's signals.
By the time a dog is 3 years old, it's learned all the skills it needs to compete, says Carrion, who began training retrievers when he was 11, with a dog also named Beaver. His father, Walter Carrion, is a founding member of the Maryland Retriever Club and has trained dogs since the late 1940s.
Today's Beaver is now as old as Carrion was when he began training dogs. That's about 77 in dog years. But regular training keeps him in shape, and Carrion says when he's ready to retire, his dog Wolfgang, age 1 1/2 , will rise to the role of competing retriever.
Gaydos' dog Casey is 8, which is also old for a dog. While the older dogs don't learn new tricks, they can still perform them: Casey will take on one-foot jumps at the AKC national competition in November.
But after the ESPN games, ordinary competition without cameras and excited crowds will seem, well, ordinary.
"It was almost like being at Olympics," Gaydos says. "The announcer would say, 'Here they go, everyone cheer on Casey and Karen.' There was a lot more hoopla. When I go back to normal trials, it will be like being in my backyard."
'Great Outdoor Games'
When: Beginning tonight at 8:30; continuing coverage through Sunday
Where: ESPN and ESPN2 (check local listings for channel)