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.

 

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