I never had a dog as I was growing up in Statesville, North Carolina. My Dad got me started hunting early on and we did have one crazy Brittany Spaniel for a short while, but he was not with us long enough to form any kind of a bond or appreciation for what a dog truly can be to a family or a hunter.
All of that changed when Cathy and I moved to our home on Lake Norman. We picked up a black Lab male and shortly after that, a precocious little Boykin Spaniel. All of this was happening at a time when a revolution was consuming the retriever world. A group of guys got together in New York and started something called a NAHRA field test, what is known today as a hunt test by several different groups. They had no idea how big this concept would become and how many folks they would recruit into the addiction of training dogs to perform for a hunter’s need.
If you have not read the book, Outliers, I suggest you do so. It talks about timing in the lives of overachievers in various fields of expertise. The moral of the story is that while many folks have extraordinary skills and abilities, the opportunities that present themselves are quite random and almost luck. This is how I feel about the hunt test games we play today. I happened to be in the right place when the games began, fell in with a group of folks that expected high end performance from their dogs and, most importantly, had a dog that could dance. Actually I had two of them.
The Boykin Spaniel I mentioned earlier was the first in his breed to earn an upper level title in any game. His name was MHR WR FIRESTONE. He won the Boykin Spaniel National Championship as a puppy and continued to perform at a very high level throughout his career. The “Little Soldier” as we called him had one thing on his mind, fetching ducks. As we worked our way through the various levels of training, I was winging it. At that time there was very little training information and there was a lot, and I mean a whole lot, of trial error training as we learned how to train. And as in Outliers, that timing thing came into play again. I had this little brown dog that I loved but nobody else would train with me because they did not want to have to deal with a Boykin. So, the result was that Fire taught me what worked and what did not work in a dog’s mind. He taught me how to train dogs and what a great teacher he was.
A couple of months after Fire came into our lives, another dog showed up. He was GMHRCH WR CJ’S BOCEPHUS MH, better known in the event world as Hank. If Fire gave me a master’s degree in dog training, Hank bestowed a PhD on me. He was an incredible worker, whether it was ducks, pheasants, doves or geese. Hank was perfectly happy to sit all day in a marsh covered in skim ice while hunting ducks in Nebraska or plow through a snow bank flushing roosters that had holed up in hopes of escaping his nose. That dog knew nothing about quitting, being tired or getting cold. His skill set grew to the point where he went for three and a half years without failing a test. At the same time, he passed five NAHRA Invitationals becoming the first five-time All-American. Gastric torsion took him from us at the early age of seven.
While all of this dog stuff was going on in my life, I was still a pharmacist counting pills every day and hating each one of them. With the successes I was having in the hunt test world, folks were asking to train with me. That led to, “Will you take my dog and run him this weekend”. And that led to “Will you take my dog next month and fix his problems”. Before I knew it, I had fourteen full time dog clients and was making more money training dogs than I did in my pharmacy. A phone call came during this time that one of my best high school fiends had been killed in a car wreck. He had fallen asleep at the wheel while working two jobs trying to “get ahead”. I left his funeral and went straight to my parent’s home. My mind was made up and my father thought I had lost my mind when I told him I was going to sell my pharmacy and train dogs full time. That day, Cathy and I made a decision to do what we liked every day. If I had to work every day for the rest of my life, I was going to do something I enjoyed and that was train dogs. Beaverdam Kennels was born on that day. Second best decision I made in my life. I think you know what my best one was, asking Cathy Isenhour to marry me.
The NAHRA game was running wide open in the Southeast and I had a truck load of dogs at every event. We piled on tons of points and titled so many dogs that I truly have no idea what that number is. We did take seven dogs to the 1000 point title of GMHRCH and routinely passed a truck load of dogs at the yearly NAHRA Invitational. It was a hoot. The friends I made, places I went and things I saw were beyond my wildest dreams.
During my NAHRA days, I spent a fair amount of time with a guy named Richard Wolters. You may have heard of him. He wrote a few books. Richard and I became friends. Not beer drinking or going out to eat friends, but we were kindred spirits when it came to the dogs. NAHRA was his baby and he loved it as much as anything in his life. I loved NAHRA just as much and was fortunate enough to be able to make a living with it. When Richard died, I was asked to make his books into videos. The Outliers concept of timing and opportunity reared its head again. The videos took me into a lot of homes on tape and took me to places all over North America in person. Doors opened and I was introduced to another level of dog knowledge through so many different people that were also doing things outside the box. More opportunities came my way from a group of editors needing to fill pages of their rags with something, anything I guess or why would they call me? Initially I would send in articles and the editors would make me look good. Later they let me solo with some help from my daughters and bride editing the content. As my confidence grew, I decided to take on a much larger project, a book on how to train and, most importantly, the dog’s perspective on that training. After three or so years of hacking away, I finally completed FINISHED DOG. I tried my best to put down what the dogs had taught me, and as of today, still like and believe the things they said to me.
While all of this was going on, I had two extraordinary dogs come into my life. The first was Richard Wolters’ last dog GMHRCH WR RAW’S SOUTHLAND DUCK SOUP. When Richard died, his wife, Olive, sent Duck to me so he could continue to run the NAHRA events. What a great blessing he was. Duck is still the best physical specimen of a Labrador Retriever that I have ever seen. I handled him for several years. During that time something remarkable happened. He picked up every mark, training and eventing, without a handle. Think about that, three plus years and he never handled on a mark. I still shake my head when I tell folks that.
There was this other dog I had an acquaintance with during that same time. His name was Scoop and I could go on about him for days. Instead check out his story at http://www.finisheddog.com/scoop/. If a tear does not well up when you read about what a dog can become, you ain’t human and need to take up golf or something else other than dogs. Please go to that link and imagine an animal like that in your life. What a blessing.
I parted ways with NAHRA and went on to this other “little game” (in my mind at that time) called the Hunting Retriever Club. Some of my old NAHRA buds were playing it and I had no idea how much fun running dogs could be before HRC. Another set of kindred spirits that liked to wear camo and shoot guns. How good can life get? HRC introduced me to one more dog event that is truly mind boggling. It happens twice a year and is called the Grand, a true gathering of the mentally ill. Anytime you need a dose of humility, take a well trained dog to one of these things. You will come back to earth like a meteor. I tell folks the Grand is like trying to catch a butterfly. It is right there, you have your hands around it and then all of a sudden the party is over, “pick your dog up please” comes from the judges behind you. The HRC Grand is kind of like stabbing yourself in the head with an ice pick, it feels so good when it finally stops. I am not really sure why I run the Grand. Did I mention mental illness?
During my Grand running experiences I brought along another dog, GRHRCH IMA ROCK STAR, or Rebel. He is Scoop’s son and probably the best dog I have ever seen. Few dogs enjoy life as much as Rebel. He has now taken his dad’s role as lesson horse at the kennel. So many folks have learned how to handle dogs with Rebel and Scoop at their sides that I cannot count them all. Rebel is taking his place on the list of great producers. Not many dogs can claim multiple GRHRCH offspring from multiple litters but Rebel can. The beat goes on.
Something that came from all these dogs was people coming by to train with us on a daily basis. It was not uncommon for us to have up to twenty folks running their dogs, or the previously discussed lesson horses, each morning on our marking and blind set ups. Of all the things I have been associated with in dogdom, I am proudest of the amateurs we have trained. The gratification received from watching someone I have helped as they pass a Grand is far greater than passing five dogs myself. As these amateurs became good handlers, they also raised their standards to the level of a professional trainer. And with that, many of my past clients and employees are now training dogs on a full or part-time basis. There are many ways to look at this and not all of them are good, but for the most part, I am extremely proud of the footprint we have left in the retriever and hunt test worlds.
Recently I was asked to host a television show for the National Bird Dog Circuit, The Patternmaster BDC World Championships. It is airing on MAV TV and The Sportsman’s Channel this spring. This has opened another door and with a little help from some friends, I think we will have our own outdoor show in the near future.
What a ride I have taken with dogs. Timing, opportunity, inherent God given skills and hard work have taken me and my beautiful family on a ride that few can imagine. There have been plenty of hard times but the number of moments that have taken my breath are uncountable. I have been blessed with great dogs, good people around me and the best family a man could ask for. Even when I question what I am doing, Cathy steps in and all is well again. Life is good.