Words by Oliver Hartner | Photos by Ian Mahathey
People who excel at their pursuit often begin their days before dawn. They understand that nothing worth having comes easy, and the extra winks of sleep they sacrifice become inconsequential in attaining their goals. Chris Torain rises before the sun on most mornings while training gun dogs professionally, or waterfowling for leisure. But before this season of his life, he would rub his eyes during those witching hours and wish for more sleep before finding work that was worthy of his gifts.
Chris punched a clock on a warehouse wall at 4:00 am most days of the week, toiling there twelve hours a day until 4:00 pm. “It was one of the worst jobs I’d ever had. I absolutely hated it,” Chris recalled. The job paid his bills, but it drained his soul. Then around 2019, one of his friends introduced him to waterfowling, and with those precious hours he wasn’t moving freight, Chris dedicated himself to learning more about waterfowling and gun dogs. “I just kept wanting to learn as much as possible. I wound up buying my own dog and started watching YouTube videos and reading a lot of books.”
While scrolling through Instagram, Chris stumbled across Wildrose Carolinas and learned they operated in Hillsborough, North Carolina close to his home. He contacted them and asked if he could work for free in exchange for knowledge and a place to train his pup. “Once I finished my groundskeeping duties, I was able to work dogs one-on-one with the head trainers. I couldn’t put a price on that kind of instruction.” Several months passed under this arrangement, and as Chris demonstrated an aptitude and infectious enthusiasm for dog training, Steven Lucius and Kirk Parker, co-owners of Wildrose Carolinas, altered the deal; they invited Chris to work full-time as their groundskeeper and apprentice dog trainer. He left the warehouse behind in September of 2021 and hasn’t looked back.
The opportunity to train dogs professionally means more to Chris than simply earning a living or being happy at his job—it’s a passion found, and a promise fulfilled. Hard work with a little luck got his foot in the door at Wildrose Carolinas, but it took encouragement apart from himself to steady his footing along this path. His mentors Steven, Kirk, and renowned trainer and Wildrose International founder Mike Stewart are numbered among his support group along with several close friends. But so too was his beloved grandmother who succumbed to breast cancer. “A year and a half before I started at Wildrose, I told people I wanted to train gun dogs, including my grandmother, and she never discouraged me. So, I focused hard on dog training, and now when I’m working, I feel like I’m showing her, ‘You knew I wanted to do this, and you never discouraged me. Now look how far I’ve come.’”
Chris puts a part of himself into every dog he trains, and anything less than the best won’t do. “I want you to have the option to hunt with one of my dogs anywhere. Flooded timber. A-frame blinds. Pit blinds. Goose fields. Upland hunting. Anywhere and anytime a retriever is required, I want dogs that I train to meet or exceed an owner’s expectations. Both before and after the hunt, they should be calm and obedient. An unruly dog is irritating, and when firearms come into play, they can be dangerous.”
Whenever waterfowl season arrives, Chris takes his dogs to swampy bottoms and farm fields where he has permission to hunt. These hunts offer him an opportunity to stay connected with the resource and recruit others into sporting life. “I try every season to take at least one person with me who has never hunted in their lives. And most times, it only takes once before they’re hooked. Watching cupped-winged mallards come down to a call is amazing even when you don’t shoot any of them. It’s something they just don’t normally see.” Chris acknowledges the hurdles faced by himself and newer waterfowl enthusiasts, often from experienced hunters who have forgotten they also had to start somewhere. “I’ve heard people complain about newer hunters saying things like, ‘They’re sky blasting,’ or, ‘They’re calling too much,’ or some other thing. But if they’re not helping those people into the sport, how can they expect them to know better?”
Chris acknowledges the hurdles faced by himself and newer waterfowl enthusiasts, often from experienced hunters who have forgotten they also had to start somewhere. “I’ve heard people complain about newer hunters saying things like, ‘They’re sky blasting,’ or, ‘They’re calling too much,’ or some other thing. But if they’re not helping those people into the sport, how can they expect them to know better?”
As a young Black man, Chris often finds himself being the only minority represented at sporting events or gun dog demonstrations, but he hasn’t felt his race was an obstacle to being involved in sporting life; and he encourages seasoned sporting life enthusiasts to introduce themselves to people falling outside the traditional idea of what hunters and anglers ought to look like. “I don’t ever mind being a minority at an event or at a hunt because I know everyone there shares a connection. As soon as we start talking, we find common ground just minutes into the conversation. We all love our dogs. We all love our sport. And we all love the resource.”
Chris continues setting loftier goals for himself within his profession and his sport. Getting there will take continued progress and dedication, but he draws strength from a fathomless well of enthusiasm. When he couples this passion with his support network, Chris meets the moment and achieves his objectives. He aims to train “an absolute monster” gun dog for a guide service, or perhaps train a dog for 24.7 Hunt—a group of guys with a YouTube channel that he loves. “If there’s a ‘Gun Dog Trainers Hall of Fame,’ I aim to be in it. I know that I’ve still got a lot to learn, but I’ll always be a student of my passion. Otherwise I’m no longer a professional.”
Oliver Hartner is a South Carolina-based writer covering sporting life interests. His work has appeared in Covey Rise Magazine, Shooting Sportsman, Quail Forever Journal, USA Today: Hunt and Fish Magazine, and Covers Magazine of the Ruffed Grouse Society and American Woodcock Society. He serves on the South Carolina State Committee of Ducks Unlimited as its Secretary, and he can be found on Instagram @oliverhartner, or on the web at oliverhartner.com.