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Friday, October 17, 2003
Updated: April 4, 5:41 PM ET
Swimming: Now that's the ticket

By Steve Wright
Great Outdoor Games staff

It's appropriate that water is featured in hunting retriever trials, like those at the Super Retriever Series. Without water, the 2003 ESPN Great Outdoor Games silver medalist would have retired a long time ago.

Ticket, an 11-year-old female black Labrador, has three fused discs in her spine. Luckily, Ticket's owner, Alexandra "Alex" Washburn, spends every summer in The Bahamas, where she is a dive instructor.

When Ticket first began having back problems, Washburn noticed her dog got better after time in The Bahamas, where Ticket often swims behind the boat. Washburn also enjoys spear fishing. When the lobsters start piling up, Washburn employs Ticket to swim them back to the boat.

That goes back to the heritage of the Labrador retriever, which was used by Newfoundland fisherman to retrieve the buoyed lines on lobster traps and nets before the time of motor driven boats.

But swimming remains a relatively unknown technique for rehabilitating dogs suffering from back problems.

"Why not?" said Washburn, noting that swimming is prescribed for both people and horses with back troubles.

"Her back still bothers her," said Washburn. "I don't train her on land for fear I'll have no dog left in competition. When we qualified for (the 2002 Great Outdoor Games) in North Carolina, I didn't train her at all. I had a friend swim Ticket at a horse training facility to keep her in shape."

Ticket has been with Washburn since day one, having been born in the bedroom of her home in The Plains, Va., as the runt of a litter. Washburn still owns Ticket's mother, who is now 15 1/2 years old.

It's seldom that Ticket and her master are far apart. Hank Skokowski of West Palm Beach, Fla., is one of Washburn's diving buddies.

"I'm used to seeing Ticket with a lobster in her mouth," said Skokowski. "Alex has a lot of skills as a diver and she is incredibly determined. Ticket behaves better than any other dog I've ever seen in The Bahamas. We'll often pile up in a small plane to dive at Walker Cay."

Washburn says Ticket has carried lobsters as large as four to five pounds back to the boat. She didn't attempt to let Ticket carry the 10-pound lobster that Washburn speared in 2001.

"But I've got an awesome picture of us on the beach with that lobster," said Washburn. "The lobster looks bigger than Ticket."

Today there are several photos of Ticket with a gold medal around her neck. Washburn has retired Ticket from competition, but Ticket keeps letting Washburn know that she is still game when it comes to retrieving marks.

And when real retirement actually comes, there will be no more retrieving training dummies over dry land for Washburn's dog. For Ticket, retirement will consist of simply back-saving swimming in the warm sun of The Bahamas, with the occasional lobster for dinner.