Staying on course of the last cast given, the black Labrador retriever plows ahead on an angle slightly to the left.
He goes briefly out of sight while running through a depression in the ground. Emerging on the other side, he hears the sharp blast of a whistle in the distance. Countless hours of training take over and the dog twirls and sits, waiting for his handler to show him the way. He drives back and to the right this time on command from the cast and soon locates the prize.
Another successful blind retrieve is completed in the Super Retriever Series.
As a young girl growing up in Little Rock, Shannon Nardi never thought there was anything unusual about having reels of film hanging on the shelves of the house she shared with her brothers and parents.
Her father, Jerry McKinnis, appeared on television every week on the show he began in 1963 that was called simply The Fishin’ Hole and had an unprecedented run of 44 years. He became a national fixture after making a deal in 1980 with a fledgling network called ESPN. McKinnis counted among his guests legendary basketball coach Bobby Knight and Baseball Hall of Fame legend Ted Williams.
Her father’s career and passion were huge influences on Nardi’s eventual career path. Although her journey would lead to broadcast production, it was not her initial choice.
“I worked at a hospital for 18 years,” Nardi said. “I was around film and television production but I went in a different direction. It wasn’t until 1996 that I went to work for JM Associates, my dad’s firm in Little Rock.
“I worked on the Spanish Fly saltwater fishing series that appeared on ESPN for several years, learning the ropes of what it takes to make raw footage into a cohesive show. I became totally immersed in all the aspects of what makes a program work.”
Then an opportunity arose in the form of a new show on ESPN. The network created an Olympic-style competition complete with medals for winners. The difference was that this was for sports rooted in the outdoors. Fishing, timber skills, target shooting and sporting dog events would make up the lineup of The Great Outdoor Games.
Nardi was chosen to produce the sporting dog segments.
“At first I was angry,” she said with a smile. “I didn’t have any experience with dogs and I was a nervous wreck. I wasn’t present at the initial filming but I had to review the footage. I started watching and when that first dog stopped on a whistle and took hand signals I was hooked. I spent the entire day viewing video of the dogs and was fascinated by what I saw.”
Shannon Nardi was born in St. Louis but has always called Little Rock home. Her roots in broadcast production run deep, as does her love for dogs and the feats they are capable of performing.
Before The Great Outdoor Games, few people outside of professional trainers and retriever handlers had seen what a talented and highly trained dog was capable of.
“The ratings were good for The Great Outdoor Games but the retrievers rated especially high,” Nardi said. “In the second year the dogs in the competitions were there by invitation only and there were some great ones involved. People got to see some of the best retrievers in the nation in action.”
But after a six-year run from 2000-2006, the games were cancelled. Shannon had become invested in the sport and the format by then and wanted to see it continue. Thus the Super Retriever Series (SRS) was born.
Consisting of both Retriever Trials and Super Dock divisions, The Super Retriever Series holds qualifying events around the country, culminating in a Crown Championship every fall.
The field events are a hybrid of both AKC and HRC style hunting tests and licensed field trials. Super Dock competitions are divided into two divisions, Super Fly and Super V. Super Fly winners are evaluated on length of jumps from a platform into a large tank of water. Super V is the vertical version where height of jumps is rewarded.
“We hold six to eight qualifying field trials and normally a dozen dock events per year,” Nardi said. “The Super Dock is popular at outdoor festivals and retail expos because it is fun for spectators and can be contained in a small area compared to the field events.”
Scoring methods in the trials are unique to SRS. Dogs are scored as they run a given test, and a fault system is used with different points added to the score based on the severity of the infraction. There are two-point, five-point, and 10-point faults. For every mistake more faults are added to the total score of a run. So in this game the dog with the lowest score on a test is the winner of that section. The dog with the lowest total score wins and the top three places are awarded qualifying spots in the Crown Championship.
There are amateur and professional divisions at each event with limits on the numbers of dogs entered for each. Although the SRS is not sanctioned by one of the kennel clubs, Crown Champion titles carry a lot of weight. “Crown Champions are among the top dogs in the country,” Nardi said. “If a handler wins that event the dog will definitely achieve notoriety and the title will be proudly displayed with the dog’s other achievements.”
Nardi produces DVDs of the events under her Dancin Dog Productions company label and televises the Crown Championship on Livestream.com. She has worked with several top trainers including Chris Akin of Web Footed Kennels in Bono, Arkansas. Nardi worked with Akin to develop his DVD series called “Duck Dog Basics” which is distributed through and available from Avery Outdoors as well as at outdoor product dealers. It is a three DVD set demonstrating how to turn your pup into a finished hunting companion.
Akin has been an active participant since the inception of the Super Retriever Series, qualifying many dogs and claiming the Crown Championship in 2008 with a Labrador male named Slide. His standout dog Boomer claimed the gold medal at the 2003 Great Outdoor Games.
“She really has an eye for what the public wants to see and needs to see in dog training,” Akin said, explaining why Nardi was his only choice to produce the DVD series. “Her extensive experience filming high performance retrievers is second to none. She has a passion for the dogs that is overflowing and it comes through in her productions. Shannon knows what appeals to an audience and the end result is a quality product that everyone from experienced trainers to novices can use to mold their dog into a finished retriever.”
Akin explained in detail how the Super Retriever Series differs from other retriever games.
“The dog that excels at an SRS field event is methodical, laid back, and mentally sound,” he said. “Dogs that are too ‘hot’ or excitable have a hard time scoring well. Retrievers that are older and have seen it all on many levels are what you need to win. You and the dog have to be a team. A dog that relies on its wits alone will fail. They have to trust their handler to guide them through the complex tests to come out the other side a champion.”
What It Takes
In order to enter an SRS field event, the dog must have an advanced title. These include American Kennel Club Master Hunter, Hunting Retriever Club Hunting Retriever Champion and AKC Field Champion.
The best dogs for the SRS are more than familiar with all of the different testing methods. Tellus Calhoun is a professional retriever trainer and a former Crown Champion handler who has been involved with the SRS since its inception in 2006. He started training dogs in the 1990s and has competed with them in every facet of the sport.
Calhoun is also a licensed AKC field trial and hunt test judge. Bundle all of his experiences together and he is well qualified to judge and develop tests for the SRS. This is exactly what he did at the Arkansas Retriever Challenge held in June at Pepper’s Pond in Mayflower.
Calhoun explained how the lack of formal rules in setting up tests in the SRS field events creates a unique challenge for dog and handler.
“As judges we want the winners in each division to be complete dogs,” he said. “Since we are free to set up any combination we want, a dog must be cross-trained and prepared for anything. They must be trained in the field trial style with throwers and handlers in white jackets with very long marks and blinds. They can be run out of boats with shotguns firing blanks over their heads in the HRC style. You need a dog that will do anything required of it. A dog that is easily frustrated, overly excited, and not in sync with the handler will rack up points in a hurry and be out of the competition quickly.”
The Super Retriever Series is going strong thanks to the determination of a woman with a love for what people and dogs can achieve together. Nardi hopes to return to producing the events for television in the future, but in the meantime she works tirelessly to keep the series going and entertaining folks around the country.
For more information about SRS competitions and schedules, visit Nardi’s website at SuperRetrieverSeries.com.