Ronnie introducing a Wonder Lead to a young GSP at a seminar
“If I had just two minutes to listen to a dog speak their thoughts, it would be glorious, mind blowing,” remarked Ronnie and we watched 15 male pointers of every size and persuasion, pee, poop and play in his Stanford Montana play yard. “I would have to be prepared with my questions though.”
This was day three with Ronnie on my three-month Sabbatical Journey to learn from some of America’s best pointing dog trainers. Because of his renown and accomplishments as a dog trainer, speaking to Ronnie was my most anticipated visit in my quest to explore how great trainers live and work.
Ronnie did not disappoint.
Ronnie Smith aka “The Professor” looking earnest
Although my gate doesn’t swing that way, I will admit now to a man crush on this humble, world class dog man who has trained thousands of bird dogs including National Champions. He is the youngest of a family of famous dog trainers. He was tutored by his father, Ronnie Smith Sr., who died young at 44 years of age leaving Ronnie to take the reins of Ronnie Smith Kennels at just 20 years old. He was fortunate to be able to partner and be mentored by his Uncle Delmar and cousins, Tom and Rick, all dog trainer royalty.
He never mentioned his pedigree except to talk about the life and dog wisdom his father and Uncle Delmar passed on. Ronnie remembered that his dad made him an official dog trainer at 8 years old when he was handed the shotgun to shoot the birds his dad was training.
An apprentice of Ronnie, Dave Bale of Side by Side Upland Bird Dog Training and retired University basketball coach headquartered in Salem OR said of Ronnie, “If dog training was D1 basketball, Ronnie is the legendary coach whose team is always in the Final Four.
Ronnie working with multiple dogs and people at a seminar
After two days hunting Chukars with Dave, I drove my Airstream “Hi Ho Silver” from Eastern Oregon to Stanford MT. My legs were sore and my two French Brittany’s, Tex and Chaco completely done in. 12 hours of travel brought me to a classic Montana ranch, 7500 acres of grass, grain, sage, and coulees, perfect habitat for wild Sharpies and Huns, a magnificent finishing school yard for the 25 young dogs Ronnie and Susanna had brought to this spectacular Big Sky country.
Ronnie, Reagan, and Gage watching a young dog hunting for wild quail along a creek bed at the 6666 Ranch in the Rolling Plains of Texas
Greeting me was Ronnie, his amazing wife and training partner, Susanna Love, and their adorable twins, Gage and Reagan. Susanna is the love of Ronnie’s life and the perfect partner to Ronnie’s laid-back Okie style. Trained as an attorney and raised on a West Texas working cattle ranch, she is organized and driven. Certainly, they are a dynamic duo whose strengths make the other better. Their adorable, well-mannered five-year-old twins participate fully in the care and training of the dogs. As one experienced with families and the raising of children, I can say these children are well raised and educated in a rich loving environment. Susanna like other great teachers I have worked with said she was inspired when “the light comes on” and the dog figures out the next step in their development. Susanna has the dog whisperer touch as well. I watched her organize a dozen dogs in the play yard. All it took was a gentle word and the playful pointers attended to her and did her bidding joyfully. I saw the same response from Ronnie.
Susanna working with a student to instill the concept of heeling on a loose lead and standing quietly beside the handler
In my head I nicknamed Ronnie, “The Professor,” because he understood and articulated the big picture of dog training. He explained three things better than any articles or videos I have read or watched.
FIRST, he explained that every interaction we have with our dogs puts our fingerprint on them. Dogs are amazingly resilient (thank God I thought, considering the times I blew up and screamed at my dogs), but he went on to explain that each contact is a training situation where you can move the dog forward in its development as a bird dog and partner.
SECOND, Ronnie said, “our goal is to develop focus, prey drive, which is the key for a successful bird dog. All else, obedience, pointing style, running big is driven by the positive focus of hunting birds. Birds are key in building dogs and the experience must be positive.” He used the example of coaching basketball to make point. “If you want your son to play basketball you give him the ball and say ‘have fun’; you don’t start him running suicides or dribbling drills. You do that after he loves the game.”
A young Ronnie Smith Kennel’s pointer finishing her training
Like my favorite Wheaton College education professor, Dr. Cliff Schimmel’s, who was also an Okie with a homey way of talking full of Jed Clampett like expressions, who inspired me to be an educational leader by focusing me on educational philosophy and the big picture of what happens in schools. The same way Ronnie gets the big picture of everything his does with his dogs and the people who run them. Dr. Schimmel’s would say, “education is people passing on the great ideas from one generation to the next in relationship, to be excellent you must know why you do everything you do.” Professor Ronnie, who had his PhD in dog training after decades in the business explained it, “maintain focus first, but keep it fun.”
The THIRD big picture insight was slightly subtler, quoting Delmar, he quipped in vernacular Okie, “you have to learn a dog to learn.” The dogs need to comprehend that you are in charge, directing them toward something they love and were born for—chasing game. “The early exercises and games are vital to teaching them the process of learning to be partners with you for life,” he explained.
“The best part of this experience in Montana is letting a dog discover his or her potential to cover ground and hunt,” he quipped. I saw this first hand as he allowed a gorgeous 7-month-old settler, Scout, to run huge for 3 hours over the country with no “whoas”, beeps, stimulation just a touch of encouragement, “alright boy” when he ran near him.
Ronnie working dogs in some of the spectacular Montana landscape
At 56 Ronnie still loves this work and he and Susanna are constantly working to improve their system. “Dogs have changed” he explained, “they used to live outdoors in a kennel and were tools of the hunt. Now they live inside, pampered like a child, and often not given much in the way of limits. So, we must change our training format to help dogs with these new challenges.”
“Because I grew up as a bird dog trainer, I never realized that I chose this business until a woman asked me if I might quit one day. It was the first time I realized that I had a choice. It is in my blood I think, and part of my destiny.”
Hanging with Ronnie and Susanna was inspiring and encouraging. I realized that I had so much to learn about dog training, but I was glad to meet a couple on the front edge of the art of building great bird dogs. I was pleased to be with people of such strong character and convictions. These were good Christian people with tender hearts toward God, his creation and a couple who understand that their gift in life was to help people create great relationships with their dog partners.
Jeff working Lulu on Pigeons–Lulu had terrific boldness for a three month old dog
As I pulled my rig, Hi Ho Silver, into the Ruiter farm yard, I stepped out of the truck and watched as Josh worked an energetic three-month-old French Brittany (more accurately titled Epagneul Breton or EB), Lulu, bust through cover, hunting a couple of planted pigeons. When she hit the scent cone, she stopped on a dime and leaned into the scent in an intense crouch. My thought was that if all the Trinity Kennels dogs had this kind of prey drive and focus, then I had found great dogs and fantastic trainers. Everything I saw and heard confirmed my first impression.
Back to Lulu- she could not have weighed 15 pounds or stood more than 12 inches at the shoulder, but she tackled the three-foot-tall brush with all the joy and élan of a seasoned hunter. Her intense steady point was such a perfect model of what my larger more experienced EB’s Tex and Chaco, do that I had to laugh. My only sadness was to hear that the owner was picking the dog up that week to hunt her in South Dakota. Although Lulu was a great three-month-old dog, I don’t think any pup should be hunting for a group in a pheasant hunt.
This was my introduction to Jeff and Josh Ruiter, a father and son team who make up Trinity Kennels. I spent a delightful afternoon at their Iowa farm home and kennel. They had an ideal training set up with a couple acre patch of tall CRP-like grass, large mowed lawns and acres of corn and beans around them. They train right out their door. Immediately I felt a strong affinity with this capable duo of bi-vocational lovers of French Brittany’s and bird hunting. Jeff, when not training, works in business for a technology and fulfillment company, and has five children. Josh is in his early 30s, has a M.Div. and has pastored in DC Anglican churches, has a long mane of hair and is incredibly passionate about his dogs. They were open about their lives and we shared many of the same values and interests. We clearly shared midwestern Christian values, a passion for family, and a love of the hunt.
Jeff, dad, was thoughtful, strategic and having fun working with his son to create a great line of EB’s. Josh brought passion and the willingness to research to improve their line of dogs. Their goal was to build the best EB possible and had travelled twice to France to purchase French EB’s and to watch how they train their dogs. They had beautiful dogs, one of the new French dogs was a spitting image of my Tex, and they believed they were seeing better dogs with each generation.
“Table work is a productive place to develop steadiness,” explained Josh.
Their love for EB’s was obvious. Josh explained, “these dogs want to train with you. We just orient their natural hunt drive. The dogs are wonderfully biddable and willing partners. Our line of dogs will have the whole package—great people and family dogs who love to hunt. We are seeking repeatability in our breeding and following the French vision to create a consistently great family bird dog.”
For 28 years the Trinity Kennels dogs have been family dogs. Their five children all participate in the care and training of the dogs and over the years the dogs have been 4H projects and a part of everyday life. Jeff’s wife, Lisa, takes special care of the pregnant females giving them special walks and TLC. All their dogs, including the dogs they train for others get time in the home as part of their work to build great family dogs for their clients.
“Dogs think in pictures,” explained Josh,” think old school cartoon slides. They build associations in pictures and connect them to experiences with birds.” George Hickox, a current bird dog guru whose dogs have had tremendous success in the Field Trial circuit, built the model for their training system. It features few verbal commands, uses clickers to reinforce right behavior, makes training exercise fun, low pressure and with lots of birds. “We think it is a great system and has helped us build great young bird dogs quickly.” I watched them work several dogs and the dogs all exhibited great enthusiasm for the hunt and solid points-not always steady– but clearly their dogs knew what to do.
Dog Insights from Jeff and Josh
Male v. Female
“We have discovered that female EB’s are committed to a place. They protect the place and are oriented to it and the people around the place,” said Jeff. “They are also moodier, and we must pay more attention to their focus on any given day.” The males are loyal to people. They are not like a Chesapeake Bay Retriever who are just loyal to one man or a family, but they are oriented toward people. All my favorite dogs have been males.”
This reflects my experience. I have two male EB’s, Tex and Chaco. Tex, my 6-year-old, lives in my shadow when I am around. At home he may be my wife Laurie’s or son Jason’s shadow, but he always keeps an eye on me. Chaco, my one year old, is everyone’s friend with a delightful warm personality. They have adapted well to my three-month journey, seemingly never to weary of being in a different setting almost daily as long as they get to be with me and hunt. Matt Keller, our EB breeder, recommended males for us saying they were less emotional and easier to live with. I cannot imagine a difficult EB since they have such Golden Retriever personalities in social situations. I love them for their personalities and their drive and athleticism in the field.
Lulu on point. The next day her owners brought her to the South Dakota Pheasant opener where she pointed five birds and had her first retrieve.
Picking a Pup
Josh told of his experience visiting French EB breeders. “The French choose EB pups much differently than Americans. The most common idea in America is to choose a dog that is outgoing, bold, curious or maybe people prefer the dog who chooses the owner. In America we lean toward the strong individual dog expecting it to have more drive. In France, they prefer the mellow dog that may be staying by its mother. They trust the genetics to provide the hunt drive and think the best dogs will be biddable and a good family member.”
My insight here was that we may choose puppies in America who reflect our cultural values of individualism, strength and self-reliance. The French choose dogs based on their relationship orientation. It never occurred to me until this conversation that we may choose our dogs based on our cultural values.
We finished our afternoon drinking beers in their barn/kennel. We had so much in common: strong Christian faith, Christian colleges (they went to Dordt, me Wheaton), traditional family values, broad international experiences and passions (Josh is married to a Jamaican woman), a crazy passion for EB’s and a love for hunting and the outdoors. I really wished I lived near Jeff and Josh because I could imagine many great days in the field together.
Aaron with Megatron–his reliable Vizsla.
“I grew up in Southern Utah hunting quail with a Springer Spaniel. Nothing compares with the joy of hunting behind dogs. At 12 years old I tried deer hunting which was a rite of passage in my community, but without dogs, it held no attraction,” explained Aaron Linfante as we drove North from the Washoe Valley to the Peterson Mountains north of Reno, Nevada.
Today Aaron is training dogs because he loves to be outside and is still fascinated with bird dogs. “I love dogs, I love being outside so dog training is a great marriage of my passions,” he explained.
I met Aaron in late November after a two and a half day pitstop at my home in Albuquerque. I headed north inHi Ho Silver, my 25-foot Airstream, accompanied by Tex and Chaco, my joyful bird dogs and hunting companions. Through a Google search I found a healthy group of dog trainers in northern Nevada and headed that way. Aaron was the only trainer who welcomed me to visit after my e-mails and phone calls which was sad but hanging with Aaron was completely worth the trip.
It took me almost three days to drag my home and self to the Washoe Valley crossing northern Arizona and the Western edge of Nevada though some of the most desolate landscapes in America. Rock covered, barren mountain ranges with scrubby sagebrush serve as parenthesis to Highway 95 which I drove from Kingman AZ to the Washoe Valley. The high passes on this journey brought me to old mining towns like Gold City and Tonopah which in my opinion are the ugliest, most barren desert towns I have ever seen. The even smaller towns on the trip: Mina, Alkali or Hawthorne looked like completely defeated, ragged, ramshackle, modern ghost towns. In at least two towns I passed through had a few ancient trailers and empty businesses without even a convenience store but did manage to have a brothel with an enticing name like “Chicken Ranch” and “Moonlight Bunny Ranch.” I was stunned. My slightly urban sensitivities must have really gotten the best of me because while I love the desert landscape of New Mexico and Southern Utah, these places reminded me of post-apocalyptic dystopian film scenes from The Roador The Book of Eli.
The scenery reflected my mood. I had just received news that my son, Jason, had been arrested for breaking probation and a restraining order because he inadvertently walked by his ex-girlfriend in the university library. He left the library immediately without speaking or making contact, yet our local constabulary still arrested him in what is most certainly a travesty of justice.
Arriving at Washoe Valley State Park was a joy. I stayed in a beautiful state part with covered in Cottonwoods, rough grasses, and large pale-yellow sage. The flurries and wind did not diminish my pleasure at seeing the blue lake, snow covered mountains and lots of wild animals. I saw wild horses, deer, quail, ducks, geese and coyotes. This is the kind of landscape that inspires bird hunters like me.
Aaron had promised me a Chukar hunt, so our introduction was a 90-minute ride north to chase one of North America’s native and most elusive game birds, the Chukar.
“Chukar hunters are a unique breed,” explained Aaron, “they are passionate, secretive, individualistic and most often loners. To hunt these birds, you have to be a mountain hiker, to enjoy the pain and frequent bird-less hunts. Shooting a Chukar is a great accomplishment.” I began to understand the sacrifices necessary as we drove over rutted, dirt roads into the Peterson Mountains north of Reno. We travelled through a sage brushed valley with newly snow flocked rocky, steep inclines on either side. The trail challenged his F250 4×4, but Aaron drove with the confidence of someone who knows his path and truck’s capabilities.
Aaron waxed eloquently, “You will see views which you will never see any other way. For me, Chukar hunting means freedom, it means being connected to Mother Nature. Every time I come to do this, I come away refreshed and inspired.” Aaron said he would rather Chukar hunt with is free time than any other activity. I must admit, his enthusiasm was infectious, and I was looking forward to some mountain time after too many hours in the car and hoping it would lift my worry for Jason, in jail and suffering terribly.
Shooting a Chukar is a proof of tenacity and luck
Aaron had a great plan. He and his two dogs: Megatron, his seven-year-old Vizsla and Q, his one-year old German Wirehair pup would head high on the ridge and I would walk the lower visible hillside and we would meet at a pass further up. We had radios to help us connect in this new wilderness. Five inches of new snow covered the hills with threatening clouds peeling off the California Sierras to the West. Walking separately with our dogs, without another human in sight in the rugged Peterson Mountains was something we both relished.
We set off and after 30 minutes climbing sideways on a rough hillside, Chaco and Tex’s energy told me there was bird scent around. My big running young EB, Chaco, chased several hundred yards up an incredibly steep, large boulder strewn hillside which Aaron later described as treacherous. “I was stupid and tried to climb it once. It’s slick and I fell off a boulder and hurt my shoulder.”
Both dogs chased them uphill but soon birds emerged on the black basalt crags on top. I could see them; my dogs could smell them but there was no way to get within shooting distance. Instead, the dogs and I stayed on the gentler, opposite slope and clambered up toward the pass. Both dogs were birdy and eventually one bird flushed wild out of range. As we came to a brushy outcropping with bushes and brambles, a solo chukar jumped and headed downhill only to be intercepted by the number 6’s bursting from my 28-gauge Browning Citori’s top barrel. After Ten minutes of digging, the dogs brought me my first wild Chukar. (I had hunted Chukars in Oregon but only killed Huns). I felt real joy to be part of the great cycle of life on this glorious mountainside. I radioed Aaron about my successes and continued our hunt upward. I stopped to rest at the pass and took a photo of my gun, bird and uncooperative dogs.
My first Chukar with Tex who appears camera shy
For the next half hour, I hunted a steep hillside while Aaron worked downward toward me. I had heard him shoot but he said he missed—something I would learn later that he was good at.
By the time we reconnected the weather had changed, temperatures had dropped, and the wind picked up. Aaron pointed and said, “my Chukar radar says go this way.” We hiked down and across the face of the mountain and found a spot out of the wind and magic happened. Single Chukars began jumping up around us and both of us choked. We shot but always at the wrong bird. Two coveys of six flew away, untouched by our shots. We both laughed at our apparent ineptitude and headed to the car. We waxed philosophically as hunters will do, after the incredible “rare” misses.
“I loved seeing birds,” Aaron quipped, “truly, I rarely miss that often but these mountains and Chukars will humble you.” On the way to the truck, our steps were light, our talk positive and I could tell the walk, the hunt, the mountains, the dogs, had cleansed us.
The next day as we duck hunted around Washoe Lake, he turned and confided in me, “Yesterday was one of my all-time favorite Chukar hunts. We worked our asses off, you shot your first bird and I missed all the birds. My Chukar radar worked and it just felt good.” I couldn’t have agreed more and discovered a great “simpatico” connection with this passionate dog man and bird hunter.
Aaron’s two sons help him train his dogs. His training approach emphasizes the dogs natural bird drive.
At Aaron’s favorite all-you-can-eat-post-bird-hunt Sushi place, he explained his application of the West/Gibbons Training System. “It’s all about the birds. We use the birds to teach the dogs, to bring out their natural hunting instincts. It is about exposing dogs to birds in natural low-pressure situations. This method is a gentle approach that does not rely on the e-collar but uses it sparingly. He explained that the pointers learn at their own pace. “Often, I will start a dog, return it to the owner to hunt wild birds then bring the pointer back to finish and insure that they are steady on point to the bird’s flush after they demonstrate that they hunt with passion. Aaron spent a lot of time talking about his mentors: Bill Gibbons, Mo Lindley, Anne Taguchi, Willie Stevens and Larry Carpenter. For years I trained every weekend with the local Reno dog club and while in graduate school in Missouri, I apprenticed with Larry Carpenter a Summer, and eventually met Bill Gibbons, who recently passed. Currently, I am informally mentored by many master trainers, Maurice Lindley, in South Carolina and Anne Taguchi in California, whom I call when I need help problem solving my dogs.” I loved that Aaron had a network of support. In my 35 years working with great teachers, I discovered that great teachers most often are great learners who listen to others.
Aaron began professionally training dogs a year ago and has had great success with local clients and with many Canadians who send him their dogs during the winter when training is impossible in bitterly cold Saskatchewan. “I train any breed but recently have fallen in love with Red Setters and Llewellyn Setters and now French Brittany’s after meeting your two dogs. My great reward is bringing the owner and a dog together to do what comes naturally to both–hunt.”
Nevada and Washoe Valley
Tex and Chaco ready to leave the Washoe Valley during a show squall.
Although I did not love travelling in Nevada, I loved the Washoe Valley. After 12,100 miles and 21 states, if I were to choose a new place to live, the Washoe Valley and Livingston, Montana would be at the top of the list. Aaron had thousands of acres of wild land where he could train and hunt. He had the spectacular Sierras to the west including Mt. Rose with its ski runs smiling down. The Valley sits just 15 minutes from the resources of Reno. Aaron spoke of his spiritual connection to the area. “I feel tight with the mountains and deserts here. It may be rugged and hard, but the people are great. And God how I love Chukar hunting.” His enthusiasm about his home was inspiring.
Aaron is a trainer who still hunts. About half the trainers I visited had stopped carrying a gun in the field.
Aaron is the new generation of bird trainers. Like most of us, he has some life/identity/work struggles, but I am convinced he has found his passion, that unity of experience, opportunity and temperament. Aaron is also articulate and educated with a BA in Writing from University of Nevada, Reno, and an MA in Foreign Languages from UNR.
I would love for him to train my dogs and frankly he is already on my speed dial as I learn to train my dogs. We are both exploring business models for training/boarding kennels and businesses. My times with Aaron were some of the richest hunting/connecting experience of this Sabbatical adventure. He became my friend in a couple of days of hunting because we share passion for similar things – dogs, hunting, family and mother nature’s beautiful playground.
I have very few photos of just me so you get ones with my gorgeous dogs
I was walking among the towering Ponderosa Pines of Northern Arizona as the last vestiges of sunshine turn the tree tops into living torches of silver and yellow. As I crunched through the brown needles and watched Tex and Chaco sprint around hunting anything—squirrels, chipmunks, deer scent, maybe a grouse, I was reflecting on being alone. Honestly, I was sad to leave my home, wife, son and my own bed for the last three weeks of this sabbatical journey. I have relished and struggled with being alone. Often, I enjoy the freedom of being alone to make decisions my way but during this interesting journey I wish Laurie, or another friend was along to share my experiences. My best times have usually been with other people. The good news is that Tex and Chaco, my enthusiastic travel partners are always happy to be with me and reduce the sense that I am alone. They don’t talk much though.
I am also addressing this topic because my son, Jason, in a long phone conversation challenged me to answer the question in my first blog where I opined that one of my challenges was to see “how I would manage aloneness.”
I have been alone for most of this trip and will be mostly alone for two more weeks until Laurie, God willing will join me in California for the last week. I am congratulating myself for dealing with aloneness with little pain. I like who I am, that helps. I feel connected which I think is the key to being ok with aloneness. I am connected to the creator God who makes me feel whole; I have a wife, Laurie, who loves me and grounds me; I have five amazing children and one, Jason, who still lives at home. They all still need me in differing degrees to still be dad and now more often a friend. I have a leadership role at Menaul School and in the larger community where I am known and needed. All of these connections ground me and give me purpose.
On a practical level, I have a cell phone and dozens of folks to call. I have Facebook and Instagram which “connects” me to other people’s stories and new ideas. I have my books to read, a Prime video series, “Patriot” on my iPad which is ironic, quirky and suspenseful and is greatly entertaining. I have a dark Audible story, “The Cartel” which feels like a violent train wreck which I am blessed to observe from the sidelines and thank God I don’t live in Northern Mexico. My modern media devices prevent me from my evening times just sitting and thinking around the campfire although I long for more good weather to enjoy that. So, my entertainment and many connections are lifelines that prevent me from living truly alone like someone in prison or in a wilderness cabin.
So, I am alone but with a strong set of connections which keep me grounded and not lonely. Even when loneliness creeps in, my tools help me cope and put that loneliness aside. Thanks to the gifts of my life, I recognize that I am not truly close to alone. An example of extreme aloneness is the hero of the movie and book, “The Martian.” Now he was truly alone. Millions of miles away, unlikely to return to earth, with just a few mix records of his favorite 80’s music. He had only himself to resolve his problems which made for a great movie and is certainly a better example of someone lonely and alone who has every right to howl at the universe about his loneliness which he did quite dramatically. But he also used his wits to return home which made for a satisfying movie ending.
My constant hunting companions–Chaco and Tex.
When I consider aloneness, I think of Kipling’s poem “If” where he challenges the reader to be a man despite the circumstances. He expects a real man to maintain his character and virtues whatever life brings—success, failure, adoration, rejection—I extend this to include aloneness.
My Minnesota background, personal temperament and Norwegian heritage make me at heart stoic in the face of difficulties. If Aloneness is a difficulty, it is one I have chosen so my response must be acceptance and certainly not complain.
Many people, including me, experience aloneness, often it happens in a group of people, with a loving spouse or with family. Feeling alone, I believe, is a human soul condition, which is resolved by accepting aloneness as a gift. So, feeling alone has more to do with internal struggles than with external circumstances. It has more to do with hope and faith than life. I think that if you have God, He can be a connection to help deal with that aloneness. Unfortunately, God, in most people’s experience Him, is no easy panacea—he is certainly no simple fix for all of our needs and challenges. I believe He is the Start and maybe the end, the Alpha and Omega. I have known many believers feel abandoned by God when bad things happen to them or that they don’t deserve his love or attention because of their choices or life. My point is that Believers struggle with being alone and just claiming “Jesus is my friend” will never be enough. Life, as He created it, is not, thank Him, that simple!
Nonbelievers have to manage this existential funk by living for the moment, this life or for themselves since without God there is less of a reason for morality, selflessness or hope. Without ultimate truths or consequences, they have to find hope right here on this earth which will ultimately disappoint. Many people who follow this material, we are only here by chance philosophy, have discerned that when followed to the natural conclusion like Sartre or Camus, end up feeling very alone in the universe.
While I don’t fall into the nonbeliever, existential camp, I am sympathetic to their plight and philosophy. I too have many questions about how a good God allows evil in the world that I pay attention to how people think when they are not connected to God.
Aloneness does give me the gift of reflection and the chance to explore what I like to call ultimate ideas, ideas of eternity and God, ideas of life and good living, ideas of hope and hopelessness. I have enjoyed the opportunity to think with great writers, good people while living in my own mind a lot. This may be the gift and solace of being alone and a little lonely.
My partners for three months on my Sabbatical Journey. They did a lot to ameliorate loneliness. They may not talk much but they listen well!
Here is Sonny Force Fetch Training with Piper
The strongest single personality among a unique group of curmudgeons, iconoclasts and stong characters whom I met during my three-month journey visiting great dog trainers is dog trainer turned teacher of people about their dogs–Sonny Piekarz from Hay Creek Kennels.
What impressed me most about Sonny was his intensity with the dogs and his desire to improve his training/teaching technique. His passion to rethink current practices oozes out of him. He wants to build great dogs and wants to create systems to address the challenges dogs face with modern dog owners. I visited him in his sparkling clean and orderly kennel which sat in the mixed farm/woodlands of north central Wisconsin. He has 80 acres of property with his home, kennel for 32 dogs and training yards. Everything was trimmed and shipshape—one of the nicest kennels I visited.
My visit was mid-October which was a quiet season for Sonny. Spring and summer were intense times training young dogs, late summer and early fall meant tuning up hunting dogs and in January and February he guided and worked pointers at the Mariposa Ranch, a 45,000-acre quail hunting paradise for high end hunters, in South Texas. Now was a quieter time and he was prepping his dogs for Texas and working on “project” dogs—biters, aggressive, antisocial dogs referred to him by veterinarians. “Mostly the problems with dogs are problems that we, the owners, create,” he explained.
Sonny and Shannon in their office. They have one of the cleanest and most organized kennels I have visited.
Have Dogs Changed?
“Today we are training house pets to be hunting dogs. In the recent past they were dogs first. They were sent to me to develop specific skills in their role as hunters: to be steady, to hunt with us, to move in front of us, and maybe to retrieve,” explained Sonny. “Now I spend more time teaching people to be the leaders of the dogs. Many dogs suffer is because people want to be their dog’s friends, not their leaders. In our current PC culture, we treat our dogs like humans and it is ruining dogs.”
Sonny clarified, “People expect dogs to meet their emotional needs and be sensitive to them, but they don’t get that dogs think about survival in a pack animal environment. They crave a leader and without one they are confused and unhappy.” He said that dogs’ needs are primal and lethal. “Surviving by having security, food and a place in the pack is what motivates dogs.”
As I reflected on this insight, I remembered that human development experts theorize on what motivates humans. Maslow’s highest human need is “self-actualization” Gilligan asserts that it is “love or care for others.” Sonny made a great argument based on years of study and experience that dogs are motivated by a far more basic need to survive and do the work of the pack which for a bird dog is hunting with his leader. “When we become aware of a dog’s true needs, we can accomplish so much more,” he remarked. Sonny learned most of this as an Apprentice to Ronnie and Rick Smith, two of America’s foremost dog trainers.
“Rick says that we should treat our dogs like deaf children. What is most important is body language and touch. We need a “point of contact” to communicate with dogs. I use the “Wonder Lead” to give me an almost primal connection to the dog so I can instruct them,” explained Sonny. I watched him work and was blown away. First, he puts his hands firmly on the dog’s shoulders and then holds their face in his hands and rubs firmly around the eyes and muzzle. Then he cues them with his Wonder Lead. He took a three-year-old black lab who was sent to him because she was a biter. She was not previously trained by him. After working the dog through a series of agility training—jumping on tables, weaving through poles, and walking narrow planks, he asked what I knew about force fetch training. Yes, I had done it with one of my Golden Retrievers and read extensively about it. Normally force fetch training requires a month of hard pressure on the dog. It is tough work to insure the dog will always retrieve which usually includes pinching the dog’s ear or toes with pliers to insure compliance. Good trainers do it efficiently and effectively. Personally, I hated it. Not that I minded pressuring my dog physically, but I felt like I discouraged my dog doing the traditionally force fetch training methods.
Before Sonny started with his painless Force Fetch Training, he works the dogs through agility exercises so they learn to take commands.
However, in just 20 minutes I watched him take Piper through a series of exercises where he picked up and delivered the wooden dowel to his hand by queuing the Lab with the Wonder Lead. Sonny barely spoke to the dog during the 20 minutes. I was astonished. Sonny explained, “the more you talk, the more you interrupt because they are queued by your touch and body language.”
How Dogs are motivated compared to Humans
Sonny explained,” Dogs think in a tunnel where we think more broadly.” This concept got my attention like an anvil falling on my toes. Too often we treat animals like they are motivated by what motivates us. My son will pet the animals and play with them all day and be disappointed when I come home, and they follow me around the house like I am wearing a Lady Gaga meat. From Sonny’s view, they do this because I am the family leader and survival means insuring they attend to what I want. Too often human egoism and egocentrism means we think animals are thinking like us. This also explains phenomena like “doggie sweaters, doggie Chiropractic, dog spas, dog psychologists and so many of the ridiculous dog toys we give our pets.
Trainer to Teacher
Sonny’s morphing from trainer to teacher is his attempt to meet people where they are at. Dogs need leadership. “Dogs need a dominant leader, so they can be a submissive learner. I spend time teaching people to make the dog accountable using touch, the Wonder Lead and consistent direction.” He explained that many people try to love their dogs into obedience and cooperation and it always backfires. Too much of the “support dog” ideas come from this wrong-headed thinking, instead, “if people can truly be a leader and train the dog, they will grow by training themselves, developing leadership.” He sees much of his mission now to teach people how to manage their dogs effectively.
Sonny was cordial and direct in his speech—he was passionate about what he did and thankful to have made a good life out of working with people’s dogs but his underlying drive to do better struck me most. “We are adapting our business to meet the needs of our clientele. People love their dogs but too often mistreat them by treating them like human children. We are doing more obedience training, short seminars, dog grooming and delivery to help our busy clients take care of their dogs.”
Sonny’s newest interest is building great detection dogs. With the increased threats in America from terrorism and weapons, trained dogs are our best solution. The growing need for these dogs to protect our public spaces will soon include schools. Sonny has attended five government/academic seminars dedicated to this topic. After meeting these folks, he discovered that in their current system too many dogs “wash out” because of poor preparation and also give false positives because they are rewarded and taught with treats. “They often work the dogs at frenetic speeds which creates mistakes. Dogs need a quiet mind to be successful. Teaching them to recognize the needed smell; bombs, drugs, weapons, is the easy part. I taught a dog to find Windex on a car bumper in 3 days. Creating attuned dogs is not happening.”
Sonny explained further, “They really need dog people helping them. I think using our bird dog training methods we can do better.”
Sonny really likes athletic, big running dogs for his Texas Guide work. “They must be ‘Special Forces’ level dogs to manage the work they must do every day.”
I like people with big personalities. Sonny is one of those. His clarity and drive told me that he would work to be cutting edge. I wanted to stay in touch with this great teacher who has realized that the key to good dogs is good people who understand how dogs think.
Two of my best days afield were with Lonnie Meyer: cabinet-maker, Emu rancher, German Wirehair point dog enthusiast and Montana bird hunter of Manhattan, Montana. Square headed, thick-set, this kind man was raised on a central Minnesota farm. His engaging, loquacious wife Lori explained, “He never did well in school because he was always focused on the family farm.”
Life changed for Lonnie though when he discovered Montana on a deer hunt. He returned, got a job on a farm and fell in love the Montana mountains. Lonnie became truly grounded when he met and fell in love with a local Dutch farm girl, Lori, and married. They are proud of their three grown children several of who live nearby and work in the family business.
Along with a custom cabinet shop, Lonnie runs a menagerie of sorts on his property with ducks, geese, pigeons, pheasants, quail, horses, sometimes Emu, and most importantly five German Wirehair Pointers who live to hunt local birds.
I was visiting Lonnie after stopping to visit my son in Billings Montana. This was my second stop of a three-month Sabbatical from my position as President/Head of Menaul School, a small independent day/boarding school in Albuquerque New Mexico with my three partners, Tex and Chaco, my energetic French Brittany Spaniels and Hi Ho Silver, my 2005 26-foot Airstream, my home away from home. I am visiting great dog trainers across the US to find out what makes them tick and chasing wild birds along the way.
My Wyoming friend, Jim King’s daughter is married to Lonnie and Lorie’s son. Jim connected us when I told him I was looking for dog trainers. I drove to Lonnie’s place from Billings on a sunny mid-September fall afternoon. Lonnie and I sat on his porch in the sun eating pears and apples from their kids’ Washington orchard. Jim had told me that Lonnie was laconic and spoke little. I soon discovered as long as the topics are dogs, hunting and the land, Lonnie was downright loquacious. We chatted about those topics and I knew in a few minutes that Lonnie was a man to be trusted implicitly and that we had a common bond around bird dogs, hunting and faith.
Lonnie walked these foothill fields with grace and joy accompanied by his excellent German Wirehairs.
Eventually Lonnie asked if I would rather watch him train his dogs or hunt wild Sharpies and Huns. Without hesitation, I chose the unexpected but completely welcome chance to chase wild birds with our dogs. After purchasing a license, we headed out to a local farm. As soon as hunting was mentioned, Logan, Lonnie and Lorie’s 22-year-old son showed up. He helped dad manage the hunt and used the OnX Hunt app to help find the best fields. Logan was a thoughtful thinner version of Lonnie, soft-spoken, and full of energy to hunt and work the dogs. As we pulled near the field we intended to hunt we saw the best possible sign–a covey of Huns scattering from a thick hedgerow. This grain and alfalfa ranch was set in the foothills of the Spanish Peaks. The land was hilly, developed farm land with grassy shelter belts, dry creeks, and harvested wheat fields. The views were spectacular as we looked down into the Gallitin Valley below and 10 thousand-foot mountaintops above us. He ran two dogs at a time and I brought Tex and Chaco out to see how they would handle these birds. Lonnie’s dogs were all business and after my pup, Chaco, blew through the first covey of Huns, we just followed them. Huns, unlike many game birds often land within a quarter-mile where they are first flushed. Sometimes if flushed multiple times, they fly shorter and shorter distances unlike a pheasant who would fly two miles on a second flush.
The second flush put birds within range of my 28-gauge Citori O/U, and though it did not fall right away Jordan saw it go down and Keysha, Logan’s wise old girl made an amazing find in deep cover after we kept telling her to come on. We followed this broken up covey and earned some additional shots. Lonnie made a good shot on a crossing bird which after a 15-minute search was still alive until Tex pointed and retrieved it to hand. Heading back to trucks on these tilted fields 4 Huns flushed and I shot a clean double. Tex retrieved them proudly and I groused gleefully, “boys, I just shot my first Montana double.” I may have jinxed myself because I found few birds in my next 6 days of Montana bird hunting
Duck, Duck, Hun! My devoted French Brittany,Tex, and I celebrate our first Huns in Montana
Over the next day and a half, we chased our big running dogs and several coveys over a variety of up and down country. We perspired profusely hiking up brushy coulees and down steep ledges but persistence paid off with dozens of shootable birds.
The second day my oldest son Lindsey III and his three-year-old French Brittany, Monte, (named after III’s favorite book The Count of Monte Cristo) joined us. It was a warm day and we saw only one covey, but we managed 3 birds.
The rewards of this trip were multiple. It was the first time I intentionally hunted Hungarian Partridge and had any luck. Second, I got to spend time with Ronnie, Lorie and Logan as they invited me to stay overnight at their home between hunts with them instead of driving back to Billings which was two hours each way. Plus, they fed me like a king, so it was a good thing I was walking eight miles a day
Third, it is always it is a joy to be in the field with my son. He is now out walking me, and I suppose he will out shoot me soon. Most of all I will remember hunting with humble men who shared a love for wild birds, pointing dogs, and the chance to walk softly on God’s glorious creation as our ancestors have for millennium.
Interview with Leonard Hauser of Thunder Ridge Kennel
“Road Killed Skunk” were the words Leonard had for his favorite French Brittany Spaniel who was one the best bird dogs he had ever hunted behind.
Those were his first comments when we met my handsome dogs, Tex and Chaco. They were only mildly offended to have one of their breed compared to skunk but we soon discovered Leonard’s outspoken, old school character and generosity about dogs. “She could not have weighed more than 25 pounds but that little bugger could handle anything from ‘geese to grizzlies,’ steady as a rock on point, she would retrieve a goose or grouse. She was a dandy little dog.”
That was my introduction to Leonard Hauser as I stopped by to chat with him about dog training, bird dogs and visit his kennel and 600-acre training property. The kennel, Thunder Ridge Kennels, was a strong name and wonderful location just north a few miles outside of Billings Montana. Cordial and full of stories, all I had to do was ask a question and he was off regaling me with accounts of great dogs, bad dogs and crazy people.
Why do you do this?
“Well my dad was a wild-eyed bird hunter and I fell into it after Vietnam. For a while after the war I was an iron worker and cowboy, but I always had time to hunt birds. There was no such thing as PTSD, so I guess my way of dealing with seeing 200 American soldiers, many some of my best friends, and thousands of Vietnam soldiers die violent deaths was to go outdoors.”
“I discovered I was good with dogs and when I found that people would pay me to hunt and work with their animals, I knew I had found brilliant fun.”
Leonard has trained over 1000 retrievers and 500 pointers in his 30 years of full-time dog training. “Many became National Champions, but most are just great partners in the field.”
Tell me about dog psychology
“I learned I could read animals and know what they are thinking. There is no single way to treat animals. You have to figure each one out and help them from there. I believe in positive and negative reinforcement. You start positive and then as they trust you, you can push them a bit more and require directed work from them.”
The Training Business
With a twinkle in his eye he quipped, “I figure it is like the sheep business, you can shear them once or shear them for life. Not every dog is a hunter, many have not been exposed to birds soon enough, other dogs don’t have the temperament. I am clear and honest with my customers—once I have worked with their dogs, I tell them the truth about their dog’s future as bird dogs.”
As Leonard walked through his kennel he commented in his direct and clear way on different dogs and breeds. “For pointers, I love Shorthairs and many of the Pointing labs are great. In fact, I have crossed them, and I call them Shorty Labs. The have great stamina, are good with heat and cold and run forever. Several guides in North Dakota use them exclusively because they are so tough. I am not a fan of Wirehairs or Griffons because they have too much Airedale in them and they are not always birdy enough. Vizlas and Weimaraner’s can be great dogs too but aren’t has strong as Pointer or GSP’s.”
I was only able to spend a couple of hours with Leonard but my summary thoughts were that this was a man who knew dogs, had a first-class training property with trees, grassland, ponds, and thick cover. He told story after story of his hunting buddies, many of whom began as clients, and now were best hunting pals. He has built a strong business training dogs and kenneling mostly local hunting dogs. I loved that he spoke his mind and told the truth from his experience. I would absolutely trust him with my dogs. I actually encouraged my son, Lindsey III, who lives in Billings, and has a slightly untrained French Brittany, Monte, to have Leonard work with him to finish his training.
I loved bird hunting from a young age,” commented Bo Allen, owner and trainer of Stealth Point Kennels, as we sat inside his kennel room with dogs milling and whimpering in their runs.
I was visiting Bo near Meeteetse Wyoming, a town of 327 souls, as my first stop of a three-month Sabbatical from my position as President/Head of Menaul School, a small independent day/boarding school in Albuquerque New Mexico with my three partners: Tex and Chaco, my energetic French Brittany Spaniels and Hi Ho Silver, my 2005 26-foot Airstream, my home away from home. I am visiting great dog trainers across the US to find out what makes them tick and chasing wild birds along the way.
Bo explained further, “I’ve always tried to make my hobbies into my careers. I bought a pointing Lab from a local breeder and paid $20 a month for most of my high school years. It was the best dollars I ever spent.” He also told how he fell in love with golf at 21 after toying with college studies and then became a golf pro for five years.
Stealth Point Kennel sits in the rolling grassy hills as part of the Leigh Ranch, a beautiful ranch of dusky sage, brown grasslands and emerald irrigated alfalfa fields. He has great training in his front yard and three kennels full of 40 or so dogs. He lives in an old ranch house with his very pregnant wife and 5 of his own dogs. His focus is breeding, raising and training his own Pointing Labs and German Wirehairs but trains all breeds.
Bo does not use any particular system for training but gets to know the dog and tries to meet them where they are at. “If there are two types of trainers, program and non-program trainers. I am in the non-program camp. I try and work with dogs from their needs in light of their readiness.” He sounded just like many of the master teachers I have been graced to work with over my own 37 years in schools, who within their subject matter and class objectives teach students first and the curriculum second.
In two hours of watching Bo train, I saw him work his own form of magic. From helping a four-month-old black Lab get turned on to birds to helping a gun-shy yellow Lab named Trump to reinforcing woah to a 14-month-old Wirehair by putting a e-collar on his waste to stop him from creeping on a point. He even helped me put my sensitive 13-month-old pup, Chaco, onto birds. In each case Bo was patient and warmly approached by each dog. The best example was the way he worked with the gun-shy, Lab, Trump. He used no pressure and despite the dogs fear he worked hard to please Bo. The dog retrieved but then headed right to his kennel. Bo only used positive words with this dog. All the dogs approached him comfortably with appropriate tail wagging and ears back. Clearly here was a teacher who knew to build rapport first and to teach the lesson next.
Bo explained his educational psychology to me. “Dogs learn through associations. For example, we try and have them associate the bang of a gun with a bird flying. With my gun-shy dog, Trump, the gunshot makes him anxious because as a young pup someone took him goose hunting before he knew to associate a shot with birds. Fixing him is a major undertaking and there is less than 50/50 chance of success.” But unlike his namesake, this Trump will make a good housedog.
The second concept was more dynamic. “Every drill must give the dog purpose and for gun dogs, it should be about the birds first, then obedience.” Bo demonstrated this as a client, Dave, an effusive, retired petroleum cowboy with a big personality, an Oklahoma twang and two spoiled Labs. Bo coached Dave as much as the dogs about practicing what they did here at training. The Chubby four-month-old, Fancy, gobbled up thrown dead birds and did not flinch at shots fired over his head. The 14-month-old non-pointing Lab eagerly booed up the planted Chukars and retrieved a killed bird to hand. The once a week session were going to create great hunting companions for Dave who quipped, “we will have to hunt a bunch because I can’t shoot worth a dam anymore and the dogs might get frustrated.” Dave was as proud as a peacock as he watched his dogs perform under Bo’s tutelage.
My lasting impression of Bo and Stealth Point Kennels is that Bo is a real dog man. When he explained that the kennel name is for his best pointer, Izzi, a Wirehair, who pointed with intensity and stealth, the pride is his voice and light in his eye told me that this man lived for and loved his dogs. I found in him a real teacher who I would be happy to have teach my own dogs.
“God gave me this journey for reasons bigger than my reasons.”
On day 1 of this three-month Sabbatical Journey I set down my reasons for doing it.
- It is in my contract. I earned it.
- I want to see how expert teach their dogs and how they learn.
- I want to explore what retirement might be like.
- I want to apply great dog training principles to my dogs and school.
- I look forward to escape my day-to-day.
- I want to experience time in a new way.
I want to explore our amazing country.
- I want to be outdoors.
- I want to connect with “real” men.
- I need to be sure of my call to Menaul School.
- I need to affirm my confidence in my Menaul School team.
- I want to see how Laurie and I do apart and her patience with me.
After over a month on the road, these reasons still hold true. I might add one or two new ones.
- I want to wreck my daily schedule so I can insure purpose in everything I do.
- I want to hear God’s voice in new ways.
- I want to see how I manage aloneness.
- I want to meet new people who share my passions in life.