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.

 

French Brittany Fanatics! A Father and Son Team Raise Superior Dogs

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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. 

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“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. 

Training Methods 

“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. 

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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.

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