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.

Aloneness

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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.

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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.

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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!

“Looks Like a Road Killed Skunk”

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.”

Dog Breeds

 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.”

Summary Thoughts

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.

 

 

 

 

 

$20 dollars a month for one black dog– Bo Allen and Stealth Point Kennels

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.

Training Systems

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.

Training

 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.

Final Impressions

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.

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