Former principal now trains dogs

Spong's retrievers work and compete in national dog trials

Spong's retrievers work and compete in national dog trials

October 15, 2004|by JANET HEIM

No doubt about it, Vincent "Woody" Spong's life has gone to the dogs.

Spong, who worked 32 years in education in Washington County and four years at the helm of Leadership Hagerstown, now focuses his time and talents on raising, training and showing working retrievers.

"I've loved and raised dogs all my life but I didn't get involved in competition until 13 years ago," said Spong, 61.

A major milestone came last November when Spong's black Labrador retriever, Blue, qualified in Middleburg, Va., in the Super Retriever series, an event sponsored and televised on ESPN2 from January through March.


Unfortunately, Blue died in June, a month before he would have competed in the Fifth Annual Great Outdoor Games in Madison, Wisc. "It was disappointing because Blue was only one of 12 dogs to qualify for those games," Spong said.

Blue was the son of Spong's first show dog, Josie. Just 10 years old when he died in June, Blue had qualified as a master hunter. Retrievers aren't judged on beauty or conformation but on their work in the field with a handler.

"They run and they swim, acting on hand commands and a whistle," Spong said. All this effort is directed toward finding and retrieving birds for hunters.

Now Spong is working with Miss Effie Hess, a 2 1/2-year-old female black Labrador retriever. "I named her after a second-grade teacher I knew in Virginia," he said.

Effie is teamed up with Chug, a 10 1/2-year-old male black Labrador retriever, whom Spong calls the younger dog's "adviser."

"Chug has great expectations for Effie," Spong said, alluding to their unique relationship. A veteran hunter, Chug serves to settle Effie down and keep her on point. In his younger days, Chug was loaned out as a working dog at Woodmont Rod and Gun Club north of Hancock.

When starting out as a dog handler, one gets a pup and has it in the house as a member of the family. Work starts early on training and that is ongoing throughout the dog's career.

"Pat Nolan at Ponderosa Kennels near Smithsburg is a nationally-known trainer and my mentor," Spong said. "He has taught me how to train and handle my dogs."

With retrievers, the handler's job is to stand in one place and give the dog commands. "Black labs are very smart dogs, eager to work ... they love to work," Spong said.

Plans are now to keep working with Effie and, hopefully, by the fall of 2005, she will be ready to compete and to win.

Evidence of Spong's "loves" are all over his living room. There are portraits of black Labrador retrievers, numerous duck decoys and a multitude of pictures of his wife, Connie, daughter Sally, and his newest love, granddaughter Katie Mae.

"I do the dog training and spend time with Katie Mae and I'm fulfilled," Spong said.

Born in Hagerstown, Spong spent his early years in Virginia but returned to Washington County where he attended Williamsport High School and Hagerstown Community College before heading off to the University of Maryland for his undergraduate degree and Western Maryland College for his master's.

A teacher for 10 years, Spong was then principal at Keedysville, Pleasant Valley and Salem Avenue elementary schools from which he retired in 2000. "I was there when Salem was named a Blue Ribbon School in 1999," Spong said.

Then he served as the second director of Leadership Hagers-town for four years, leaving that post just a few months ago.

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