BUTLER COUNTY — For hours on end, crowds will watch the majesty as experienced handlers bring out the best in 700 retrievers at this week’s Master National hunt test at Flint Oak in Elk County.
Tommy Landers and his dog, Dash, will be there, but theirs is a partnership where the dog is bringing out the best in the 32-year-old man.
Tommy has Down syndrome. His father, Bennie Landers, said because of the dog, his son has never been happier.
“It’s been amazing,” Bennie Landers said. “It’s like he’s a different person.”
From Arkansas City, Ark., Bennie Landers has hunted with Labs most of his life, and got into hunt tests about 10 years ago. Tommy has been his sidekick through it all.
In 2008, professional trainer Alan Sandifer asked Bennie Landers if he thought Tommy might enjoy working with the dogs.
Bennie Landers said it was instantly magic.
“The Labs know something is special about Tommy,” he said. “They react differently to him. They know.”
Sandifer agrees, and talks about his personal dog Hank, a “fire-breather that’s hard for most people to handle.” When with Tommy, Sandifer said, Hank is calm and listens well.
The trainer still plays an integral part in the process. As well as other challenges, Tommy is nearly blind and can’t see past a few yards.
Sandifer leads Tommy, who is leading a dog on a leash, to where they work. He stands behind Tommy and tells him when to blow his whistle to stop the dog, and which direction to point his arm to give the dog directions to unseen birds.
Tommy’s exposure to Labs has brought him excitement.
“Before Tommy started running dogs he was basically non-verbal,” said Bennie Landers. “Now, it’s like he never meets a stranger. He’s responding to people and to dogs.”
John Poirrier, a Dumas, Ark., veterinarian, heard of Tommy’s progress and volunteered to let him work with one of his Labs about three years ago. It was a little female named Dash.
Tommy seemed to especially enjoy Dash. On the day Bennie Landers returned Dash to Poirrier, Tommy had tears in his eyes. Poirrier gave the dog to Tommy, even though Dash is far from an average Lab.
The small-framed female had earned about every hunting test title possible by then and was an outstanding duck hunting dog. She probably could have fetched a five-figure price in her prime. Poirrier said there was never any doubt where Dash belonged.
“She’s super easy to train and so smart. I knew she’d be perfect for Tommy,” he said. “It was unbelievable. Tommy kind of has his own language, and after only a week Dash was responding to everything he said. I don’t think I’ll ever own another like her.”
Dash is 11 1/2, which is normally geriatric for most Labs, but she still writhes on the ground like an excited puppy and bounces like a pogo stick until Tommy mutters a command. Then she’s calm and all business.
And there is no doubt Dash is Tommy’s dog, in the field and out. The Lab spends her nights wherever Tommy is sleeping.
Not long after Tommy started working with Labs, Bennie Landers got the urge to have him work in competitions. The first organization he contacted turned him down because of Sandifer’s assistance. The American Kennel Club’s hunt test program welcomed their participation, both in club events and, when they qualified, national-level tests, too.
Tommy and Dash are usually the most popular pair at hunt tests according to Larry Kimble, Master National chairman. They often draw applause and enthusiastic congratulations, whether they pass a test or not.
Poirrier said it’s obvious Tommy thrives on the support.
“He’s shaking everybody’s hand, and hugging and kissing and thanking the judges,” he said. “(The support) has made a world of difference.”
Dash is judged the same as any dog and had to pass four top-level tests to qualify for the Master National.
Wednesday morning, Sandifer and Tommy put Dash through her paces as they practiced.
“Now she gets to do a lot of hunt tests, plus all that personal time with Tommy,” Poirrier said of Dash. “She’s eating this up as much as he is ... she knows she ended up with a better life with Tommy.”