Something About Mary

There’s a place near Portage, Wis., where all retriever lovers should go. It’s a place where you can hold a 16 day-old chocolate Labrador in your hand, and savor that new puppy smell. It’s a place where you can watch professional field trial trainers work with some of the best dogs in the nation.

If you care to reminisce about some truly great dogs — perhaps some of the greatest dogs ever to play the game — don’t miss this opportunity. This is where some of the great ones were born or bred. Or, if you simply long to see that look on a little girl’s face when she meets her new puppy for the first time, then this is your lucky day. All this can be yours — just go to Portage, Wis., and a place called Candlewood to meet Mary Howley.

This morning, like most mornings at Candlewood, dogs are everywhere. In the basement, Hazel, a chocolate Labrador, nurses her five16-day-old pups. In the driveway, FC-AFC Candlewood’s Rita Reynolds, co-owned by Mary and Sue Reynolds, wags her tail. Rita, the 2001 High Point Open Retriever, is due to whelp a litter from the current National Field Champion, NFC-AFC Five Star General Patton. In the garage, little Agnes, a Boston Terrier and full-time admirer of Mary, woofs at the visitor. In Mary’s clover field behind the house, a dozen field trial Labradors are airing in the distance while Andy Attar, a local professional retriever trainer, sets up for a series of tests. Mary Howley emerges from her outside kennel with two 3-month-old yellow Labradors of show stock — Dottie Dimple and Willow — at her heels.

“Girls, girls, girls,” Mary says to the delight of Rita, Agnes, Dimple and Willow. “What are we going to do with YOU?” By now, all tails are wagging and puppy butts are wiggling and Mary just laughs. “Come on girls, let’s go watch the guys train.”

Mary loads Rita, the yellow puppies, and Agnes into her van — the one with Wisconsin license plates “3X NFC” — and begins the short drive through her back yard. In retriever lingo, those tags mean “Three Times National Field Champion” and honor’90, ’91, ’93 NFC-AFC Candlewoods Tanks-A-Lot, a legendary Labrador known simply as “Lottie” throughout the field trial world. Lottie, who died in 1997, was co-owned by Mary and Randy Kuehl of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

“Oh, she was pretty special,” Mary says of “Lottie.”

That’s like saying Wisconsin produces pretty much cheese, or Vince Lombardi was a pretty good football coach. Lottie, the daughter of NFC-NAFC Candlewood’s Super Tanker (“Tank”), is the youngest retriever and the only bitch to win three National Open Championship Stakes. Lottie is the all-time High-Point Derby Dog, amassing an amazing 108 Derby points. Lottie was the 1993 Purina Outstanding Open All-Age Field Trial Retriever, earning more points in Open competition than any other retriever. Lottie did all this while whelping five litters, and producing 22 field champions!

Lottie was pretty special. But then, she’s just one of many special dogs to come from Candlewood. You want National Champions? There’s FC2XNAFC Candlewoods Bit O’ Bunny, FC-2XNAFC Candlewood’s Ramblin Man, and NFC Candlewoods Raisa Ruckus. Add the three National Championships from Lottie and two from Tank. Plus, so many Candlewood Field Champions, scores of Candlewood Amateur Field Champions, and countless pedigrees dotted with the Candlewood name.

And Mary knows them all. Just ask Andy Attar, as he takes a break from training.

A Breeding Legend
“Mary’s a handler and she’s a judge, but she’s really made her mark on this game as a breeder,” Andy says. “She knows the dogs that are running. She knows the dogs they came out of. And she knows the grandsires and granddams. She’s seen them run and knows what they produced. Or she’s handled them herself.”

Andy credits Mary for helping bring two important components to the retriever field trial game: “She put a lot of stock into the quality of the bitches being bred. Years ago the sire was always mentioned, whereas Mary also focused attention on well-bred, hard-going, talented bitches. There’s no question the sire is important, but momma’s got a lot to do with what happens with the litter.”

“Second, Mary has a reputation for producing talented dogs that will be good to deal with, and good with kids. Years ago, many field trial dogs were intense, hyper dogs that a lot of people couldn’t really deal with. Mary’s dogs — like FC-AFC Wilderness Harley-To-Go (co-owned with Jack van den Boogaard) and Nifty Nick were intelligent, good-looking and great producers. Those dogs really put Mary on the map. They showed how important it is to have an intelligent, compliant dog with a lot of desire. That’s a powerful factor that’s changed the game in a very positive way, and I think Mary’s had a lot to do with that.”

Andy adds that the roots of Candlewood go back to FC-AFC Candlewoods Nellie-Be-Good, a puppy out of the famous NFCNAFC Super Chief that Mary acquired at 7 weeks of age.

“Oh gosh yes,” Mary says. “I wanted a puppy out of Super Chief. Nellie was a sister to Cup A Soup and NFC Euroclydon. Just take a look at the books and see what they produced. They’re in a ton of pedigrees. And Harley. What a dog. He produced 50 Field Champions.”

As Mary reels off the names of Candlewood sires and dams, Andy returns to training, and sends his talented retrievers on triple marks of 400 yards or more. Mary pays particular attention to some of the dogs from her breeding, including FC-AFC Candlewood Court Jester, a handsome Labrador owned by Mike Fullerton of Minnesota, and Candlewoods Whisper, a promising young Labrador out of FC-AFC Candlewood’s Rita Reynolds and the famous 2X NAFC-FC-2X CNAFC Ebonstar Lean Mac, owned by Fred Kampo of Wisconsin.

“I love to watch the dogs,” Mary says. “You can learn a lot by watching them work, and of course, I know where they came from.”

How It All Started
Mary started watching, and working, retrievers in 1958, when she inquired about an ad for Labradors in the local newspaper. “My dad was a great hunter,” Mary says. “He wondered if I could train a Labrador. So when I went to check out the puppies advertised in the paper, the breeder said he would sell me two pups for the price of one if I joined the Madison Retriever Club. That’s how it all started.”

Mary adopted the Candlewood name after visiting a friend near St. Louis who owned a dog named Wendy of Candlewood. “Candlewood was the name of a bush or shrub that lined his driveway,” she says. “I named my first dog Matches of Candlewood, and he was a good one. I sold Matches for $3,000, which was a lot of money back in those days. After that, I stuck with Candlewood.”

Back at the house, Mary pages through a scrapbook with yellowed newspaper clippings and photos. “You’ll get a kick out of this,” she says, and points to a headline that reads “Mary Howley’s Lab wins Puppy Stake.”

“Candlewood Little Lou, a 91/2-month-old black Labrador owned and handled by Mary Howley, Sunday won the puppy stake of the Madison Retriever Club field trial. Mike Lardy, only 9, directed his Tipper of Handjem to second place.”

The mention of Mike Lardy, a local boy who made good, is humorous because he’s gone on to train and handle a record seven National Champions, including Lottie and Tank, since turning professional in 1981. It’s also a bit prophetic, because Mike and his family still live in nearby Montello, and he’s due to visit Mary this afternoon.

“Mike is so smart and so good with dogs,” Mary says and points to a large National Championship photo of Mike and Lottie on her wall. “I remember he had just graduated from college and he wanted to be a professional retriever trainer. His mom said to me, ‘Do you think Mike will really stick with this dog thing?’ He stuck with it all right.”

In 2003, Mike established the all-time record by running his 33rd National Finalist, including the 2003 National Champion, NFC-AFC Five Star General Patton.

Mike arrives at Mary’s house later that afternoon, and like AndyAttar, he credits Mary’s exceptional success as a breeder. “I’ve always thought that Mary has an effective and relatively simple philosophy when it comes to breeding,” Mike says. “Get two nice dogs. Know the pedigree. Know the dogs. She breeds dogs that look good, move well and have enough pedigree that they have a good chance of throwing a good dog.”

The Art of Raising “Easy” Puppies
Mike also stresses the importance of the environment in which Mary’s puppies are raised. “Puppies from Mary are so easy because they’re so well socialized,” Mike says. “All of her bitches are with families. They tend to be good to live with and easy to train. That comes from the family environment and the way Mary raises them.”
Mary has bred as many as 25 litters in a year, but now averages around 15. Many are born and raised in the whelping box and kennels in her basement; however, she also has bitches that live with a network ofarea friends and families. “They whelp the puppies, raise the litters, and the bitches live permanently with these families,” Mary says. “They do a super job.”

A professional pet groomer for more than 20 years, Mary believes in a hands-on approach with puppies. “You pet them every day, stimulate them with music and light. I always play the radio. You clip their front toenails, play with them, take them outside, let them explore. They need plenty of house time. It makes a difference.”

Mary buys rolls of coated paper to line wooden boxes that fit her pens. The puppies sleep on sheepskin while the back half of the kennel contains shredded newspaper. “It teaches them to go to the back and go potty,” she says. “You can housebreak a puppy in two days if you watch them like a hawk. They have a routine, and they’ll let you know when they have to go. If you pay attention it’s easy.”

Candlewood puppies eat Purina Pro Plan brand Large-Breed Puppy Food. Adults eat Pro Plan Performance brand. “I’ve always fed Purina, never fed anything else,” she says.

On the Lookout
An accomplished handler, Mary is always on the lookout for another highly competitive retriever. Rita fit the bill, but two cruciate injuries sidelined her from active duty. “Rita was really nice in the field, now we’ll see if she can make her mark in the brood box.”

Like Lottie did.

“Lottie was pretty sharp even as a puppy,” Mary says. “She climbed right out of her pen and went up a whole flight of stairs that were open. She had courage.”

Mike Lardy remembers Lottie as a dog that never once broke. “She was intelligent, thoughtful and motivated. She always tried to figure out what was the right thing to do. She was a very easy dog.”

“She just wanted to be with people,” Mary says. “She was pretty special all right.”

As the sun sets on Candlewood, it has been a perfect day in Wisconsin. Talented retrievers. Great trainers and handlers. Memories of the great dogs. And the promise of puppies yet to be born.

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