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.

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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