BUTTE VALLEY, Calif. - A Butte County black Lab has racked up a serious resume over his career, and recently earned the Purina Outstanding Amateur Retriever Award, recognizing him as one of the best field trial retrievers in the country.
9-year-old Saber has been competing in field trials for years now along with his owner and handler, Chris Hatch, a local insurance agent who hails from Butte Valley.
The sport stems from hunting, and dogs who compete must retrieve birds and targets, or marks, from courses using mostly memory.
Hatch demonstrated what they do Thursday at the Hightest Training Grounds in south Oroville.
"Dogs are like a Polaroid camera on these marks. They take a mental picture, and then as they go out there they keep that mental picture in mind so they go directly to that spot," said Hatch.
If the dogs err in their lines to targets, having been thrown off by watery and uneven terrain or an errant scent, their handlers use whistles and arm motions to direct their next move.
Hatch said Saber has trained in the sport since he was a puppy, and quickly picked it up.
"He's a smart guy. He figured out the game real quick, and he wants to please so he's always looking at trying to determine what do you want and how to please you," he said.
Saber isn't the only field trial dog Hatch owns, he also owns Saber's mother and son, and two more dogs.
And while the sport is hard work, Hatch said Saber and the others live for it, as does he.
"He jumps on the truck every day to basically go to work," he said. "Every day is a fun day for them. And it's a fun day for me too, because as you saw it's a team effort."
And that teamwork has payed off in a big way, with Saber having a spectacular streak of competitions.
The sport is on a point system, and while the Purina award was an accomplishment, it doesn't necessarily paint the whole picture.
"It was a bigger year than just the Purina, he ended up winning 12 times."
Those wins came against amateurs and professionals, earning him 74-and-a-half points last year.
"He won the amateur award, but he ended up being number five in the nation on the pro side too, the open side. And then he was number one with combined points."
With those accolades and 174 and-a-half career points under his belt, Hatch hopes if they can reach the 200 career point mark that Saber will make it into the Retriever Hall of Fame.
Either way, to Hatch, Saber is a breed above the rest.
"He's a dog that I would just dream about. In fact, most likely I'd still be dreaming about it if I didn't have him. He's just one of those dogs that comes around once in a lifetime."
In November the pair will head to Mississippi to compete against the pros in the national championships.