THOMASVILLE -- The Master National Hunt Test, conducted at Bellclaire and Borderline plantations, pressed on Wednesday with the field narrowing to include only the very best retrieving dogs.

The third series dog trial, the water triple, was a marking test in water and on dry land. Two birds are thrown in and near a pond, upon which the dogs are lined up for retrieval. As the dog is set loose, a live bird is shot, serving as a distraction for the retriever. The dog must fetch each of the three birds and bring them back to its master to advance in the tournament.

This test utilizes the retriever's marking skills, as the dog must remember where each bird is as it goes through the course. One of the dogs that passed the water triple was Iron Mountain Lucky, a black lab owned by Bill and Molly Moxley of Camden, S.C.

Bill Moxley said it was a tremendous honor to be competing in the hunt tests, which are steeped in tradition. Retriever trials go back more than 100 years, beginning in England, then spreading to the United States in the 20th century. In the early 1930s, hunt tests started in Long Island, N.Y., and parts of New England.

The Master National, sanctioned by the American Kennel Club, originated approximately 15 years ago, featuring sporting dogs, which make up the largest percentage of canines in the U.S. To make it to the Master National, Lucky had to make it through five other AKC trials along with 300-plus other dogs that qualified Sunday.

"A lot of training goes into getting a dog to this level," Bill Moxley said. "Most of the dogs at this hunt test are five to six years old and have been trained since birth. This is a relationship sport between the dog and the handler. That relationship is just time. It's just like golf or any other sport. You have to put in a lot of time and effort."

However, there is one difference Moxley pointed out.

"What makes these dogs outstanding is their natural instinct to please you," he said. "You get them lined up, and when they hear that duck call, they know something's going on. Sometimes you have to whistle to him a little, but sometimes the dog just takes over. Making you happy is his biggest reward."

Something can be said about the way the dogs are treated as well -- humanely, in this case, is an understatement. The dogs rest in air-conditioned kennels and receive similar accommodations all around. Handlers assume the role of proud parents when watching their retrievers negotiate each course.

"Owning a dog is good cross-training for having children," Master National Marshal Lanier Fogg said. "If more people had trained dogs, the world would be a better place."

Moxley met his wife at an AKC event four years ago. She is the daughter of Paul Genthner, owner of Tealbrook Kennels in Monticello. Genthner, now 81, has trained dogs at his kennel since 1950 and had the first title dog at the hunt test, and the first five Master Hunters in Florida. Bill Moxley said that level of sportsmanship and love of hunting dogs was passed on to his wife.

"We actually met here at the Master National," Bill said.

"He was shooting, and I was handling one of the dogs," Molly Moxley said. "It was love at first sight."

"Yeah," Bill said. "We're the Romeo and Juliet of the dog world."

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