Training Dummy: How Tom Dokken is Changing Retriever Training
May 12, 2014
One name among many has become synonymous with the words "training dummy." That name belongs to 60-year-old Tom Dokken, who calls Northfield, Minn., home and has single-handedly changed the way sporting dog owners look at training. And it started with a simple love of hunting and hunting dogs.
"In high school a good friend of mine, Bruce Knowlan, had a black Lab named Charlie that we would hunt with every chance we could," Dokken recalls. "At the time my parents wouldn't let me have a dog, so I had to rely on Bruce and Charlie. However, as soon as I graduated high school I went out and bought a pup.
"I was still living with my parents and didn't even tell them I was going to get a dog. This caught my dad off guard, but I think he also realized how bad I wanted a pup to go out and get one without even asking his permission."
Dokken split his waking hours between working second shift at a computer company and training dogs part-time for a kennel in Blaine, Minn. He also devoted plenty of time to his new Lab, Dyno.
"I had a friend who ran some field trials at the time, and I started running Dyno in them as well. She was soon on the National Derby list, and ran the open category at a very young age. Truthfully, she turned out in spite of me."
Dokken's modesty is one of the reasons he has been so successful in the industry, and while he may give his original dog all the credit, it's clear a natural knack for training existed years ago.
"For her age, Dyno was exceptional and since she competed at a national level, she drew a lot of attention," he notes. In fact, Dyno drew so much attention that a well-heeled doctor from Texas offered him $6,000 for her.
"It was pretty emotional considering she was my first dog and at 2 years old she was simply a great dog," Dokken says. "It was one of the hardest decisions I've ever made, but I sold her to him and told myself I would use that money as seed money for my own business.
"The toll it took on me to part with Dyno was heart-wrenching, but I made myself spend that money intelligently and not just blow it on something like a new car. Of course, I immediately went out and got another dog."
That money would turn out to be the financial springboard Dokken needed to go out on his own. Within five years of selling Dyno he was training full-time and a fortuitous encounter would alter the course of his life forever.
"Chuck Ross had an outdoor TV program at the time and he asked me to train a dog for him. After that he asked if I could train a group of dogs to do a retrieving act for the Minneapolis Sport Show. That was a big boost for my business because thousands of people would go through the show, many of whom eventually stopped by our booth."
The association with Ross would lead to a meeting with industry powerhouse Ron Schara. Schara's string of black Labs named Raven are some of the most widely-known dogs in the hook-and-bullet circles, and Dokken trained every one of them.
Throughout all of this he worked to build his business and while spending time on the sport-show scene, got a call from an agent who booked national entertainment. This led to Dokken taking his retrieving dog act all over the country.
"At the time I didn't even think about not making it. I had all of these new possibilities coming up, but I also had to work hard to stay afloat. I guess it's just youthful ignorance, but I can remember a point where I had $38 left in my checking account and I still wasn't going to give up on being self-sufficient and making it."
Nearly destitute but still determined to follow through on a dream is a theme found in most entrepreneurs' histories and often the tipping point between those who can and those who can't, although it would be a simple idea that would propel Dokken.
"I was at our training facility one morning watching one of our trainers work with 5-month-old puppies in the water. The trainer was using shackled ducks and I noticed that nearly all of the pups would grab the duck by the head or the neck, which is pretty rough on the ducks. I realized that I needed to figure out how to get dogs to grab birds by the middle.
"At the time training dummies were either rubber or canvas, some hard, some soft. I watched dogs over and over pick up the softest dummies they could and it got me thinking. So I took some rigid foam and carved a body, then I made a wooden head and took some lawn edging and made some crude feet. Essentially, I had a dummy with a soft middle and hard parts at both ends.
"I realized I was on to something after watching dogs retrieve the dummy, but I also noticed they would shake the dummy during nearly every retrieve. That's when the idea came of running a rope through the dummy to make the head loose. After that the dogs would get smacked on the snout every time they shook the bird."
Few could guess at the potential of these dummies, but you need only look at the displays of DeadFowl Trainers in sporting goods stores to realize how good an idea they were. Today's lineup includes dummies representing nearly every species of gamebird.
Running the DeadFowl Trainer business would keep plenty of folks wrapped up, but Dokken still found time to build one of the premier training facilities in the country, Oak Ridge Kennels. Several full- and part-time trainers train 250 dogs a year for hunters and non-hunters alike.
When asked how they are able to train so many dogs in a year, Dokken simply said, "It takes a staff of dedicated professionals. We have some of the best trainers in the country, and it shows." In addition to his other business ventures, Dokken has also developed a line of shed dog products and started N.A.S.H.D.A. (North American Shed Hunting Dog Association).
Most successful business owners know it takes drive and dedication to achieve the American dream, but it also takes strong support at home, which is something not lost on Dokken, who is quick to give credit to his wife. "A mutual friend introduced me to Tina at the game fair in Anoka, Minn.," he says.
"She had a Lab but didn't hunt, although her dog loved to participate in all of the training drills. We were seated next to each other at a seminar and she started peppering me with dog-related questions.
"I found out she went to college on a golf scholarship, so we initially traded golf lessons for training sessions. That relationship grew and honestly, with Tina, I hit the jackpot. She hunts, fishes and loves dogs." Tom and Tina divide their time between their Northfield facility and a hunting shack in South Dakota.
It's a safe bet that the hunting world has not seen the last of game-changing ideas from Tom Dokken. His indelible mark on our sporting dog industry has already resulted in countless dogs becoming better retrievers, and innumerable dog owners finding training a little bit easier and a lot more rewarding.