The Professor: Training with Ronnie Smith

image 1-13-19 at 7.03 pm (1)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.

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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.

image 1-13-19 at 7.04 pmRonnie 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.

image 1-13-19 at 7.02 pmRonnie, 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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

 

Battle Born Dog Trainers: Aaron Linfante—A New Generation of Great Bird Dog Trainers

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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.

Nevada

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

“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.

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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.

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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.

Training Methods

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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

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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.

Summary Thoughts

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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.

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