Dog competition

Gladwin County resident travels to Idaho to judge National Dog Show

Gladwin County resident John Cottenham recently traveled more than 2,000 miles for one reason only: to judge hunting dogs.

Specifically, he traveled to Valley County, Idaho to be a judge at the 2021 American Kennel Club (AKC) Master National Club event. An event Cottenham has taken part in before, this will be his first time as a judge at this competition.

Once the event begins on Thursday, September 30, Cottenham will help judge over 1,100 dogs in their ability to retrieve fallen game. That’s above the typical number of dogs since last year’s show was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.


Cottenham’s love of the sport goes back many years, however. He has been a waterfowl hunter all his life and always had dogs to hunt before he started competing with them 12 years ago.

In the mid-2000s, he met Freeland resident and former professional dog trainer Darrin Morman, who hooked Cottenham on the sporting aspect of dog retrieval. Morman soon became his tutor for training dogs for hunting tests.

“He (Morman) encouraged me and pushed me,” Cottenham said. “In fact, he is the one who made me where I am.”

Training dogs for this sport is all about keeping them focused and teaching them to collect multiple birds. He said trainers would have dogs repeat actions over and over before teaching dogs new concepts. The goal of these hunting tests is to see how well these dogs can perform tasks such as retrieving downed birds.

However, trainers have long roads to reach the National Masters Stadium even once the dogs are trained. Cottenham said competitors start with local hunt tests, including five a year in Michigan. Typically, dogs first compete in junior tests, then senior tests, and finally master tests. After these levels is the annual Master National Club event, which Cottenham has achieved with two dogs.

With retriever testing, dogs are not competing against each other, Cottenham said. Instead, they compete to see if they can complete the course. These classes are made up of “series,” where dogs retrieve birds on land, water, or a mix of the two, he said.

Although this is Cottenham’s first time judging the domestic competition, it has judged around 50 local competitions. The judges look at the performance of the dogs, not the skill of the shooters. Dogs should be able to sit quietly until given the cue to fetch the bird, their ability to find the bird, and if the dog appears happy to retrieve the bird, a- he declared.

Even after all these years, Cottenham said he was impressed with the athletic abilities of these dogs.

“I see these dog and handler teams as being better than any other sporting business I’ve ever seen,” Cottenham said. “They beat someone with a basketball because of the diversity of their skills.”

He expects the contest to last about eight days, depending on the performance of the dogs.

For Morman, who also took part in the national masters, he said he was happy to see Cottenham make it this far.

“He judged a lot, but that’s game over,” Morman said. “To reach (the) national master, he must be selected by a committee and by each retriever club in the region. They have to nominate him and vote for him, so that’s a big deal.