WHITE CITY, Ore. — Nike bolts out of his dog box and instantly bounces around like a 4-year-old on a sugar high of diabetic proportions.
The large and powerful black Labrador retriever spins and twirls while his trainer, Paul Foster, tries unsuccessfully to get a red collar around the dog’s neck.
“Sometimes the hardest part of training him is getting his collar on,” says Foster, of Medford.
Foster clips the collar together, and with one word — “heel” — Nike becomes nothing but business.
Minutes later, three ducks thrown into the Denman Wildlife Area brush for Nike to fetch lay at Foster’s feet, all perfectly marked and retrieved over more than 200 yards in near perfection.
“See that intensity?” Foster says. “It’s all part of our routine.”
This same work ethic that gets violinists to Carnegie Hall has Nike and Foster at the pinnacle of the retrieving world.
The pair won Top Amateur Retriever for 2012, winning an astounding seven American Kennel Club-sanctioned field trials as a 3-year-old en route to the third-highest seasonal finish in the history of national amateur retriever competitions.
For his accomplishments, Nike will be honored by Purina during the company’s annual awards banquet today in Medford in conjunction with the Rogue Valley Retriever Club’s annual field trials.
“I’ve had dogs before with seven wins, but it took a lifetime,” says Foster, a retired physician. “He did it in one year.
“He has intensity, drive, but his strong point is he sees where the birds go down and knows exactly where they are,” Foster says. “I trust him better than I trust myself.”
The pair trust each other enough to best a field of hundreds of Labradors trained and handled by nonprofessionals like Foster, despite Nike being a relative newcomer to the field-trial world.
“This is a very big deal in the retriever world,” says Dean Reinke, Purina’s area manager for breeder enthusiast groups who oversees the competition and awards. “At 3 years old to be that consistent is amazing.
“Dogs don’t usually come into their own until they’re ages 5 to 7,” Reinke says. “It’ll be interesting to see where he goes from here.”
Nike could become a fixture in the amateur category for years to come because he’ll retain amateur status as long as Foster and his wife, Sally, handle him. Nike slips out of amateur status only when a professional handles him in the field, and Foster has no intention of doing that.
Foster says he believes he and Nike have another five or six years together, “if he stays healthy.”
Which is a problem, because Nike has a penchant for more than winning field trials. He eats rocks — one of which had to be surgically removed this winter.
“The only thing that seems to hold him back is injury, eating those rocks,” Reinke says.
Nike had a different sort of rocky start in 1999 when the Fosters bought a puppy from a litter bred from two prestigious retrievers. They registered him as “Rockliffs Justdoit” in homage to The Swoosh’s famous slogan and dubbed him Nike for short.
He was an underachiever as a pup, with apparently little innate ability to find or “mark” downed birds and follow direct trajectories to retrieve them.
From 6 months on, however, his intensity, drive and desire kicked in during training sessions with Foster. On his first birthday, he won a derby contest. By the time he was 2 years old he had racked up enough top finishes to garner 32 points in the derby world.
Field trials entail handlers getting their labs to see three birds thrown into the air for them to fetch from as far as 400 yards away over marsh, fields and ponds. The birds must be picked up in succession, with the dog losing points for everything from lackadaisical runs or lack of direct runs from the handler to the bird and back.
Nike’s well-honed skill of finding and remembering where the birds land led to last year’s break-out year, putting him within 8 points of the all-time amateur record for a single year on the circuit.
Foster decided to hit the last few trials intent upon setting a record.
“The minute I stopped letting it happen and got intense about it, he stunk it up,” Foster says.
Nike failed to garner any more points, then stalled his defense of his title after his latest and most expensive rock-eating escapade to date landed him in surgery between stints as a now-famous sire who fetches fetching stud fees.
“He hasn’t earned a point yet,” Foster says. “The only thing he’s done this spring is make puppies.
“If he keeps eating rocks, we might come out even,” he says.