Unsung Heroes


Unsung Heroes By Armin Winkler

The 2002 USA National SchH 3 Championship in Gadsden, Alabama set a record as the largest Schutzhund event ever held on American soil. With an entry number of 142, it set a record that may stand for a long time to come. An event such as this takes an incredible amount of organization and work to put together. And this year despite the numbers and despite the record it was a smoothly run event that simply left no room for complaint. All people involved in making this the greatest Schutzhund event ever to take place in the US did a phenomenal job and deserve thanks and praise. In the midst of all this a few men performed an athletic feat that this country had never before witnessed. This is the story of the helpers of the record setting 2002 SchH 3 National Championship.

For the helpers, the 2002 Nationals began on Wednesday morning during the annual national helper seminar. The seminar was held in one of the smaller baseball diamonds of the Gadsden Sports complex. Heavy rains had made the field waterlogged and soggy. But that didn’t keep people away. A good-sized group of helpers and spectators assembled to participate in the seminar. After some introductions, the seminar was started with a discussion of the questionnaire all the helpers were asked to fill out. It dealt with procedures and rules and gave the members of the national helper committee a chance to clarify the finer points of trial procedure as well as some rules important for the protection portion of a Schutzhund trial.

All members of the national helper committee were present and took turns talking some new helpers through the basics. On occasion some of the more experienced helpers were asked to demonstrate the mechanics of certain exercises which helped a great deal to illustrate how it is done. After a lunch break, the more experienced helpers got a chance to run through some drills to get help with their techniques and get some pointers from committee members. For the helpers who had planned to participate in the try outs there was an opportunity for them to loosen up and fine-tune some mechanics.  The beginning helpers had a great opportunity to watch some fine individuals run through trial techniques in expert fashion. Special thanks go to the handlers who took part in the helper seminar. Handlers who volunteer their dogs so others can learn are doing the national helper program a huge service. There will never be enough or too many of you. Thank you and keep up the good work.

As the helper seminar wound down a tension began to build in the air. The try out time was approaching and a crowd gathered to watch. The tryouts always attract eager and anxious onlookers, spectators, but also competitors. This was no different in Gadsden. The helpers for the nationals are chosen by vote. There are three votes, the regional director, a member of the helper committee, and the protection judge of the trial each cast one vote. There was a lot of commotion, helpers warming up, handlers preparing try out dogs, spectators trying to get a good spot to watch. All very exciting. The helpers then drew the starting order for the tryouts and it was time for the games to begin. In all, twelve helpers tried out. All showing their actions in the blind, demonstrating a trial escape, a re-attack with drive and stick hits, and then one long bite. All helpers performed well and demonstrated good skills. It seemed the decision was difficult for the people who had to choose, and two helpers each performed an additional long bite catch with a very impressive dog. And that was it, the try outs were over and four men had been chosen from the field to perform the daunting task of working a field of 142 entries. The individuals entrusted with this task were: James Laney for the front half and his alternate Lewis Lundy Romeo Ingreso for the back half and his alternate Doug Wendling Congratulations guys!!!

Thursday began with anticipation and preparations for the trial, which was scheduled to start in the afternoon. The set up was different this year than at previous USA Nationals as obedience and protection were for the first time split into two separate stadiums. As the early afternoon arrived, and the crowd began to gather, the protection judge Mr. Kurt Falkenstern wanted to give his explicit instructions to his helpers. He took them on the field and walked them through the routine giving specific instructions as to how the exercises were to be performed by the helpers. He was very specific in his instructions. No help for the dogs, strong drives which were to be extended in length and duration if a dog showed problems. He clarified that the helpers were to test the dogs, if that meant the drive would lead away from the judge, then so be it. He explained he would ask for details from the helpers if that were to occur. He was also very specific in his instructions on the long bite. The sleeve was to be carried neutral and at the side until the dog was showing commitment then at the last moment the sleeve was to be presented under a massive stick threat. The purpose he said was to test the dogs.  He took into consideration the field conditions, which by Thursday were still quite wet, and muddy and set up the pattern. He accepted input from the helpers as well as Gary Parks the chairman of the helper committee as to how things would work out optimally for dogs, helpers, and the spectators. The field was marked to give the participants guidelines to keep the pattern consistent and then a trial run was done with a warm up dog. Everything was falling into place for the start of the trial.

And just like that, the trial was on and the first dog of the first flight stepped on the field. There were three flights scheduled on Thursday. James Laney on the front half began the trial with the precision and consistency we had come to expect from him at last year’s Nationals. Every dog saw the same picture and every dog was tested the same. The work was simply outstanding. The back half was performed with a slight deviation from the trial rules. In competition handlers are no longer supposed to take their dogs into a blind after the front half and before the long bite. Instead, they go straight to the starting spot in the center of the field and await the helper for the back half. The first afternoon showed that this caused some confusion for the dogs. Since they were able to keep their eye on the front half helper, some did not focus immediately on the back half helper. The reason I mention this is because Romeo Ingreso on the back half had to on more than one occasion not only concentrate on performing safe catches and drives. He had to get the dogs’ attention who were either charging after James or heading for the judge and his translator. On several occasion he had to run clear across the field and intercept the dogs. And with all this going on, he caught every dog safely, performed to the instructions of the judge and put a good test on them. What can we say? The good ones they say rise to the occasion, and Romeo certainly did that. A super job.

Friday morning started with a shock. As the helpers, arrived at the stadium, Gary Parks was looking for Doug Wendling. Nobody knew exactly why, until he actually met up with him. The bad news he had was that Romeo had fallen ill. He had been up more than half the night throwing up and feeling very very sick. Romeo felt that his condition didn’t allow him to work dogs safely or effectively, so he did what he felt he needed to do. He called Gary and pulled himself out of the trial out of fairness to the dogs and handlers. A class act and a sportsman to the core. Hats off Romeo!

This meant of course that the back half alternate helper Doug Wendling had to fulfill his role and step in to work the back half for the rest of the competition. What a way to get woken up at 6:00am. Doug of course had acted responsibly and got the necessary sleep and showed up before the first flight of the morning with his gear. He started stretching and loosening up to be ready for the first flight of a very busy weekend. As the judge arrived, he was informed of the substitution and went over a few details with Doug to refresh him on the instructions he had delivered before the trial started. And with that, the competition resumed without interruption. Now with James Laney continuing on the front half, and Doug Wendling working the back. The trial continued as it had started on Thursday with a strong test for the dogs. Taking the confusion of some of the dogs in consideration on the long bite, the judge instructed handlers to keep their dogs facing away until James had left their sight and before facing the field again for the courage test. This proved to be very effective. As the day progressed, it became apparent, that Doug added a presence to the courage test bite that few dogs had seen before. Some dogs showed concern as this man came bearing down on them the length of the field. It looked to spectators like a version of the game of chicken. Who would “flinch” first? Of course Doug always followed the rules and presented the sleeve as he had been instructed to do. But it was apparent that some dogs weren’t so sure about that.

The judge, a well respected Bundessieger competitor in his own right commented many times what a fine tandem these two helpers made and what a pleasure it was to work a trial with them. He felt they made his job of assessing the dogs very easy. He then made a statement that these helpers and USA should feel very proud of. He said that these were the kind of helpers that should be working the German Bundessiegerpruefung. Because the kind of test they were showing the dogs was just not common anymore. He went as far as saying that if the Bundessiegerpruefung had trial helper work like what he saw of James and Doug for ten years, the genepool of the German Shepherd would improve considerably. High praise from a man who himself owned, trained, and handled one of the most influential working dog studs of recent memory, Fero v Zeutener Himmelreich.

Friday had 48 dogs entered in protection. And the last dog of the day saw the same consistent work from the helpers as the first dog did. A performance that was nothing short of amazing. But in this mega trial, Friday evening, and more than 70 dogs later meant that the competition was only half over. Romeo managed to make it to the field about mid day. He was visibly sick. He was not quite sure what had made him so ill. The best guess he had was a case of the flu. I am not even sure how he made it out of bed that day, he looked in bad shape. But he felt he belonged on the sidelines, in the helpers’ corner. Supporting them with his presence. And Friday was also the beginning of what hopefully will become a timeless tradition. Gene England had the brilliant idea to start a helper fund. A donation can for people to show their appreciation for all the hard and unpaid work these men do. Great idea Gene!

Saturday morning started with the highlight of protection. The high scoring protection dog was the first dog of the first flight of Saturday morning. A cool morning with some frost still on the field. Many spectators will probably kick themselves for missing this early morning treat. A tall Malinois entered the field. He had a virtually flawless routine. Incredible speed, fasts, hard grips, and super control. A routine that ended with a spectacular courage test. No matter how tired the helpers may have felt after the previous days, Xorro provided a wake up call that couldn’t be missed. A performance that earned 99 points. Certainly a highlight of the weekend. As dog after dog marched on the field, people started to wonder what kept these helpers standing up. And at the end of Saturday more dogs had come and gone than at any previous Schutzhund trial in this country. Did the performance of the helpers let up? Not one bit. There were footprints appearing in the soft ground of the field where James and Doug had pounded the dirt over and over exactly the same. Almost like they were following the painted footprints in a dance studio. Consistent and precise, and still every dog had to earn every point that was awarded. No gifts, no slack, the judge and his helpers made sure of that. The only significant break oft the day was when the WPO protection trial was held. Beyond that it was dogs from morning to evening for these helpers. And all people could really ask was what is keeping these guys on their feet?

Sunday morning arrived, and everybody knew that every single dog on the field was one more dog for the record books. We all felt that we should be seeing signs that the helpers were beginning to get tired. But if they were, it surely was not apparent to the dogs or the spectators. Still after all these dogs, the work was strong, consistent and accurate. And the dogs were tested to see if they belong at a national championship. There were fewer dogs on Sunday compared to the previous days, and longer breaks. And many people, spectators, handlers, judges, and fellow helpers took these breaks to congratulate the helpers on what an incredible job they did throughout the competition. It truly became apparent to everybody that the work we all witnessed at this year’s Nationals was extraordinary. Many people said that the judging together with this kind of helperwork was what we should expect at a national championship. In a conversation, the well-known seminar instructor as well as successful Bundessieger and IDM and WPO competitor Bernhard Flinks said. “People should take notice of what Mr. Falkenstern wants to see and what he values in dogs and helpers. He is well known as a hard core working dog enthusiast and truly knows what he is talking about”.

The Protection portion of the competition wrapped up after a delay before the last dog showed. Rain, which had held off throughout the trial, had started to fall. But even with the last dog, James and Doug performed with the same enthusiasm and correctness, which they had shown for all previous dogs. We may never see a competition of this magnitude again, but one can only hope that helperwork like this is a sign of things to come. No matter whether there are 20 dogs or 120. This is the kind of work we need to applaud. The fact that these helpers managed to work at the level they did with the number of dogs they had to face is doubly amazing. I am not sure how many dogs out of the possible 142 entries actually entered the protection field. But in the end that matters less than the fact that the performance these guys put on was incredible and amazing.

And so after every dog was finished, it was hard to believe that it was actually over. For a while when there seemed to be no end in sight to how many dogs would come on the field, this point was hard to imagine. I am sure there will be a lot written about who won and the scores and all the other people behind the scenes. And every single one of all these people deserves a mention. But this article is not for all those people. It is for the unsung heroes of our great sport and past time it is for the helpers who so often get a handshake and a pat on the back and not much more. This is for them. To show them our appreciation and our thanks. So here is to you James Laney, Doug Wendling, Romeo Ingreso, and Lewis Lundy (who got to the field at the crack of dawn and stayed until every last dog was done every day just in case he needed to jump in and perform) we owe you our thanks and respect. We hope you enjoyed the experience as much as we enjoyed watching you. We hope you have recuperated so we will see you again. Until then let this be the song for you unsung heroes.

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