Remembering Bill LaMar and Usher

Remembering Bill LaMar and Usher

by Julie Reardon

In any sport involving animals, there are certain people, and certain animals, that leave an indelible impression on us. Some of these because they’re so freakishly outstanding, they dominate competition and are remembered for years to come. Others are people who mentor, and encourage, and some are the actual animals we own and compete with. Of these latter, often the difficult among them have a profound influence because of the lessons we learn from them. In January, we lost a man and a dog that were hugely influential on my participation and love of field trial retrievers. Bill LaMar of Culpeper, 95, and my old male Chesapeake Bay Retriever Usher (aka HR Hope Springs Hush Hush MH WDQ), 14, died within days of each other.

Adult Usher

William F. “Bill” LaMar (Feb. 21, 1925 – Jan. 5, 2021) began competing in field trials in Long Island NY with Golden retrievers. He and his wife Martha moved to Culpeper from Long Island not long after he retired some 35 years ago. He trained and ran his own dogs, and on their small farm southwest of Culpeper, they developed and maintained a first class training facility. In a tough sport dominated by professionals, LaMar did very well with his Goldens, including putting an Amateur Field Champion title on one and getting good placements with several others. Upon his move to Virginia, LaMar also competed with Labradors and Chesapeakes and until development closed in, hosted several trials at his and adjacent properties. He and Martha were very active in the local retriever club. He competed actively in field trials and later, retriever hunting tests into his 90s, and was very generous with mentoring those new to trials and tests and letting them train on his property.

Bill and Ceilie

Although not many knew it, LaMar was a World War II Army veteran. Like so many of that generation, he never spoke of his service during that conflict. He was far happier talking about his dogs and the many people he’d met through his travels to trials up and down the East Coast. Outside of his dogs, he and Martha maintained their tidy 30-acre farm, besides the dogs including a lake set up for retriever training, a large garden and a pen full of ducks. He was a man not afraid of hard work nor to speak his mind, especially when it came to dog training.

7 week old Usher

Usher (HR Hope Springs Hush Hush MH WDQ), Apr. 4, 2006 – Jan. 14, 2021) was a homebred Chesapeake Bay retriever, and my first try at owning a male competition dog. Prior to his birth in 2006, I’d only owned females. Although it likely had nothing to do with his sex, he was a timid, late-maturing puppy. I waited a few extra months before sending him off for formal retriever training and even so, he seemed very immature for his age and size. The professional trainer and I both agreed after two months of training, he was not going to be a likely field trial candidate because he could not handle the pressure of advanced training. If he was confused or feeling pressured, he’d shut down, not just mentally but physically. In words I’ve never forgotten, he suggested I finish his training myself. “It’s just going to be a grind if I do it,” he explained. “But he—and most dogs like him—will take more pressure and try harder for the owner than for a pro.” He was right and Usher did try harder and became more confident, but I sold him shortly after he got out and sired an accidental litter out of his half-sister. He was 16 months; most retriever owners wait until a dog is 2 before breeding as they cannot get their hip and elbow evaluations done until they’re 24 months and both hip and elbow dysplasia are fairly common in retrievers. Nor was Usher anyone’s idea of a desirable stud dog. So he went off to what would end up being the first of four different homes, a few of which were downright abusive. A few weeks after he left, the half-sister whelped 9 puppies, one of which became my best working dog.

When he was almost five, I ended up buying him back from the fourth of the homes after getting word via the Chesapeake community that he was with a particularly heavy-handed abusive trainer, and back to Virginia he came. However, this was not the timid quitter that I’d sold 3 years earlier. Usher was older, smarter and willing to put up with practically anything if it meant he’d get a bird. But he resented what he considered unfair corrections and had a take no prisoners attitude.

I’d like to say Usher’s superior early training was so good that he retained it all, and to an extent that was true, but he was no longer a submissive puppy—he was a dominant, challenging dog and he would test you. I enlisted the help of local pro trainer Neil Selby of Shady Grove Kennels and Hunting Preserve in Fauquier County and Usher earned first his AKC Senior Hunter then his Master Hunter titles. He also learned to be a team player and gradually, to become as accepting of strangers as he’d been when a young dog. “Slow down,” LaMar would admonish in our training group: “Fast on the whistle, slow on the cast.” I learned that if I was rushed and in a hurry, the dog, especially Usher, would pick up on that nervous energy. Later, when he was almost 10, we switched from the non-competitive hunt test venue and tackled the more competitive AKC field trial qualifying stake, where Usher held his own despite his late start. He competed actively until almost 12, when deafness prevented him from hearing the whistle well enough to take hand signals on blind retrieves. In retirement, his good disposition and kind nature made him a perfect puppy nanny and he retrieved sticks as enthusiastically as he’d once retrieved ducks and geese.

Bill and Timber

Shortly after LaMar’s passing at age 95 in January, Usher, who’d never had a sick day in his life, began to have trouble walking. He let us know he was tired. A week after his old friend LaMar died, we laid him to rest at age 14 and 10 months. Rest in peace guys and thanks for the memories.

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