Titled retriever: GJ Lab becomes international grand hunt champion

Lizzy became a grand hunting retriever champion at the 2011 fall Hunting Retriever Club International Grand Hunt in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. Lizzy is trained by her owner Jim McLaughlin, a Grand Junction occupational medicine physician.

There are dogs, and there are retrievers, and then there are Labrador retrievers.

And then there are the people who love and train Labrador retrievers, wanting to bring out the best in themselves and their dogs.

In this last group, we find Jim McLaughlin and Lizzy, his 7-year-old black Lab, who, at the moment we encounter them, is splashing purposefully through a pond at Canyon View Park.

She grabs a floating training dummy and heads back to her owner, her head high, her eyes shining.

McLaughlin, an occupational medicine physician at St. Mary’s Hospital, spends hours every week honing the duo’s skills, his in communication and hers in obedience.

“I’ve been training her for seven years minus six weeks,” McLaughlin said, his voice showing vestiges of his native New Jersey. “She’s really a special dog. At a year old she was doing 400- to 600-yard retrieves.”

But lots of good hunting dogs can bring back a distant duck or goose. It’s the ability to do that in the heat of competition that sets off the real champions.

“My first dog was a great hunter but did not perform well at tests,” McLaughlin said. “Lizzy is great at both, and that’s not just me saying that.”

The proof came earlier this month, when McLaughlin and Lizzy competed at the 2011 fall Hunting Retriever Club International Grand Hunt in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada.

Lizzy held, ran and retrieved her way to the coveted title of grand hunting retriever champion. Only a small percentage of the dogs at the Grand Hunt went home with the title and McLaughlin thinks Lizzy might be only the fifth retriever in Colorado to be so designated.

This relationship almost didn’t happen.

When McLaughlin was looking for a new dog, he spent six months researching various breeders, dogs and pedigrees. But the breeder he chose already had sold five of the six puppies in the litter, and when McLauglin called to reserve the final puppy, the breeder failed to return McLaughlin’s call.

“So I went elk hunting and while I was gone, the breeder called and talked to my wife,” McLaughlin said. “I think she misunderstood the price of the dog and said, ‘Sure, we’ll take it,’ and when I got home I found we had a new dog.”

Pam McLaughlin is a profession a watercolor artist (http://www.watercolordogs.com) in Fruita. Thursdays are the only days Jim isn’t working Lizzy and she spends those with Pam.

It was from Pam’s inspiration that Lizzy’s full name is Watercolor Alizarin Crimson.

The $500 quoted over the phone was the cost of transporting the dog, which cost another $1,000.

“So I had $1,500 into the dog and hadn’t even seen her,” McLaughlin said. “Plus, I was supposed to get a male but at the last minute the stud’s owner changed his mind and wanted a male, so all the breeder had left was a female.”

But what a female.

“She could do so much at so young,” McLaughlin said. “I’ve been talking to pro trainers all the time and they have been really helpful because they know I’m serious about this.”

Plus, McLaughlin knew training Lizzy wasn’t a one-person job, so he went looking for a hunting retriever club to join.

When he couldn’t find one locally, he founded the Western Colorado Hunting Retriever Club, which now has more than 30 members.

“It takes so much energy to train her; working with others and sharing knowledge and training tips gives you an advantage you’d never have otherwise,” McLaughlin said. “Without the club, I’d just be hunting all the while and she’d be a good dog but not a phenomenal dog.”

McLaughlin said he and Lizzy hunt waterfowl around 40 days each year, mostly on public land.

“Plus, he shares all he knows with everyone who asks,” said Ben Dorenkamp, a hunting and training pal of McLaughlin’s and owner of a chocolate Labrador retriever. “He’s really generous with his knowledge, whether you’re a long-time dog owner or just starting out.”

Great words, but McLaughlin only shrugged and gazed down at the black shadow following his every movement.

“A good dog makes you a better trainer,” he said, and Lizzy thumped her black tail as if agreeing.


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