By James Elledge
July 16, 2019
What made you want to train dogs for a living?
There wasn’t a day that I didn’t enjoy dogs when I was a kid, my responsibility was to take care of the bird dogs – pointers and setters. I’ve always had a knack for them and taking them out to the fields. I had retrieving dogs when I was young that would hunt squirrels. So I’ve always loved dogs.
As far as professionally, it was a migration. I was able to retire at a younger age – I did police work. If you want to get into a second career, make sure it’s something you have a passion around. And the dogs were my passion and now my second career.
If you had to pick one, what breed of dogs is your favorite to train and work? Why that breed?
I settled on the British Labrador because of the versatility. You can do almost anything with these dogs. They're very intelligent. It’s a dog of duality. We can do ducks in the morning, quail in the afternoon, and then they sleep in the house that night. They are destination shooting dogs. The compatibility is as important as the game finding mentality.
Service Dogs: some of our British labs are cross-trained as service dogs. We've got a few diabetic service dogs that are also hunting dogs.
I love my pointers, German Shorthairs, setters, spaniels... but the versatility is not in those breeds. You can flush with a lab, you can quarter and flush, you can hunt antlers. So, we call them the dogs of duality because of the versatility
Our training methodology still works well with pointers as well. But the breed we chose to perfect is the British Labrador.
Do you train labs to point upland birds ever? Or mainly stick to retrieving/flushing?
Many of my dogs do point naturally. But I won’t train them to if they don’t naturally point. If they do, I will ‘whoah’ them, train them up.
Dogs have a pack mentality. With my German shorthairs, we don’t train them to retrieve - to pick it up. But a lot of times they will start doing that when they see the labs retrieving. When the labs see the pointers get on point, the ones with the natural inclination will start to mimic the pointers.
Our whole mission statement, the network, is set up to have a dog with a proper temperament and also owners who know how to handle them.
What are the most common mistakes you see in the handlers?
#1: Hunting them too early. Don’t rush the dog too quickly into the field. I don’t let mine go out on a duck hunt until they are 12-14 months old. There are a lot of bad habits he can learn in the field - more than good habits.
#2: Introducing gunfire the wrong way. You need to properly introduce it. Taking the dog to a shotgun range or clays course for the first introduction is the most common mistake. Sometimes it won't happen right away, but 3 months later the dog will shut down because of a traumatic first experience.
Train, don't test. *
What is the best way to introduce a young dog to gunfire?
When they’re young, play a lot of music around them. Weed eaters, lawn mowers also work. No surprises. Get them around loud sounds and make it predictable.
One really stupid thing to do is give them food and then shoot over their head. I’ve seen people do this. You don't shoot over a kid's head once you give them a bowl of CoCo Puffs.
Never let them see the gun to start with. I've seen dogs that have become gun shy and then I work with them and they eventually get over the sound of the shot, but they're still scared of the gun. Introduce it with nothing else but the bumper in the air.
Do your dogs ever wear vests when you hunt waterfowl?
Yes. If it’s cold and the water temperature is low, I use them. The one time I wouldn’t use them is in a lot of downed timber. It can be dangerous. If you’re standing in shallow water, no problem. But a lot of downed timber is not safe. We use water stands and vests. Keep them out of the water.
I hear clients say, “My dog had 6 or 7 great retrieves on a hunt, and then he just quit. Why?” The answer is he ran out of fuel. You need dog food with high-fat content. It’s not the protein; it’s the fat that converts to energy. When the dog has spent all his food, he starts using his own fat which is why your dog can get skinny during a cold season.
If you keep the dog warm, he’s using less energy. A vest, properly fit, keeps the dog warmer. Less energy needed to keep themselves warm equals more energy to keep going after birds.
Do you have any dogs that refuse to wear the vest?
The first time you put them on, they’ll walk around a little funny like a stork. When Deke sees the vest, he starts shaking because he knows he’s about to get cold. Side note: I’m opposed to dogs hunting with a collar. It can get snagged, especially in the timber.
What’s your stance on E-collars?
E-collars are a good training tool as a tool of last resort. It’s a lot like the use of force in a police department. If your dog is chasing cars or deer, that’s a good time to use it. If the dog takes the bumper and runs off and won’t come back, that’s a good time. I only use it to correct a problem that I can’t solve any other way. Do not use the collar as a crutch. Once you get the problem fixed, take it off. It’s a correction tool and not a training methodology.
When you’re tuning up for dove and early teal season, what are your strategies? Do you have a checklist?
Check on their weight. Get it moderate heading into the season. (If they are too big, get it down, and vice versa). If the dog is not as steady, fix that problem. Then work on advanced training. If you have a waterfowl dog but want to get into quail, start adding that skill set in the offseason. Do it early in the morning or late in the afternoon when temps are low. Keep them cool. Watch for snakes.
3 phase program: # 1 is getting the dog in shape, #2 is physical conditioning – lots of swimming to keep him tuned up. #3 is handling – work on the problems you as a trainer have. Then work on a new discipline you might want to add.
I like our Adventure Dog program for the off-season – hiking, biking, camping, fishing. They wear their own backpacks and take them on the trail. They get in kayaks and paddle with us. All of this will be beneficial in the next hunting season in the duck blind. They don’t just lay around – we get them out.
We won’t tell your dogs…but do you have a favorite?
Each one of them that I’m close to has different personalities that I enjoy. Indian – he passed away a couple of years ago. He was a trickster, the clown. He would always throw in a wrinkle in our live shows. Unbelievable upland dog. Deke is the most consistent dog I’ve ever seen. He’ll wear a hat, carry something, do something you tell him to… if I spend 15 minutes training him on something, he’s got it. Murphy is super loyal. It’s like your kids – you have favorite parts about them all. Drake, the first Ducks Unlimited dog in 2001, had a lot of the great traits that Deke has. All these dogs are like my kids and when they pass away, they are buried here in the woods.
If you could give an aspiring dog trainer one piece of advice, what would it be?
Be consistent. People in today’s world are not very consistent. It’s a very active world and there’s a lack of consistency. We don’t stick with anything very long these days. Don’t get in the trap of looking at Facebook pages and online articles about different training methods. Instead, have a plan, stick with that plan, and develop. It’s a continuum. Don’t jump from subject to subject. It’s about consistency in repetition. Do it the same way every time, but never to the point of boredom. I find the dog getting bored is a huge problem.
Consistency also gets into impatience and losing your temper. If you get frustrated in a situation, that’s not good. Not good to train a dog that way. Clear your head and get in a positive mindset and then get back to training.
For more information on Wildrose Kennels and their training programs visit: uklabs.com