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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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