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Memories of Three Gun Dog Training Pros

Memories of Three Gun Dog Training Pros

Relating anecdotes with legendary retriever trainers...

D.L. Walters shared retriever training wisdom with healthy doses of humor.

A couple of months ago, I read that D.L. Walters had died Jan. 28, 2010. Ever since reading this, I have found myself mentally reliving my experiences as one of his clients/students many years ago, which led me to recall and relive similar experiences back then with two other pros.

Please allow me to share those experiences with you now. These memories may not increase your retriever training knowledge, but they should definitely enrich it.

D.L. Walters Back in the late 1970s, D.L. cured my Brandy of a popping problem I had created. He also educated me more fully than I realized at the time. Always very positive in his approach, he never told me what I was doing wrong, but concentrated on what I should be doing instead that was right. Great trainer. Great teacher.

D.L. trained and handled countless retrievers to their FC titles, plus two to their National Field Champion titles. His clients handled many of these same dogs to their American Field Champion titles. He was inducted into the Retriever Hall of Fame in 1994. In the retriever field-trial world, he was the Babe Ruth, the Ben Hogan, the Bronko Nagurski of his era.

And yet, for all his success and fame, he was a quietly modest man. Always friendly and affable, he talked little and listened much. Perhaps that's why he read people about as well as he read dogs--and no one read dogs like D.L. When he spoke, he delivered retriever training wisdom sprinkled with his own, often self-deprecating, humor. Right now, I would rather focus on the latter. Perhaps a couple of anecdotes will help you understand why.

Once, in a field trial Open stake, he was handling a "sticky" FC Lab. Stickiness, of course, is a nasty, never-completely-cured problem. Going into the final series, a water blind, D.L.'s dog was a strong contender. He ran an excellent blind, with maybe only one or two whistles. But back at the line, he refused to surrender the duck.

D.L. grasped the bird's head and pulled gently. No luck. Knowing the dog was thereby eliminated, D.L. started hoisting the duck's head up higher and higher, with the dog still gripping the body. Finally, when the dog was high above the ground, the duck separated at the neck.

The dog tumbled to the ground, still holding the carcass. D.L. handed the bird's head to one of the judges and said, "Sorry, but this is all I could get!" Then, with a grin that must have been difficult to achieve, he heeled the dog, still holding the duck, away.

At another trial, D.L.'s client, Bing Grunwald, was handling NFC FC AFC Butte Blue Moon in the Amateur stake. D.L. had trained this dog and handled him to his FC and NFC titles.

The Amateur water blind required the dog to swim about 150 yards across a lake, then between two points about 15 yards apart and finally through a bay about 25 yards wide. I was standing near D.L. in the gallery, where I could watch his reactions throughout this test.

Moon was a strong contender, and Mr. Grunwald was an experienced handler. However, much to D.L.'s unpleasant surprise, Mr. Grunwald made two handling mistakes, either of which could have eliminated Moon. First, when Moon reached the two points, he was swimming about halfway between them. Great! But for reasons known only to Moon, instead of continuing on course, he turned and swam directly toward the right-hand point.

Mr. Grunwald didn't blow the whistle until Moon had landed. He should have stopped him long before he reached land--that was his first mistake.

All was not yet lost, if Mr. Grunwald would simply give Moon a left-arm Over to put him back into the water. But instead, he gave the dog a left-arm Back! That would strongly tempt even Moon to run the bank around the edge of the little bay, a fatal mistake.

I looked over at D.L. and saw him standing there rigid, seemingly frozen in silent agony. He didn't change his facial expression. Still, his eyes were screaming, "No! No! No!"

For reasons again known only to himself, Moon jumped back into the water and swam directly to the bird.

I again looked at D.L. and saw him exhale, and then smile. After recovering for a few seconds, he muttered half under his breath, "I wonder if Bing has room for any more dogs in his string, 'cause Moon damned sure won't do that for me."

Jim Robinson, a retired federal game warden and self-disciplined retriever trainer.

Jim Robinson
In the early 1970s, pro Jim Robinson cured my Duffy of a suction problem. He also taught me a great deal about retriever training and handling. A retired federal game warden, Jim operated a thoroughly disciplined training program. Thus, while training under his direction, I felt like I was going through boot camp again, which can be beneficial for inexperienced retrieverites.

At a field trial once, I learned that Jim also disciplined himself quite severely when dealing with clue-free clients. I was standing near him in the gallery while one of his clients was handling a golden in the Amateur, in the water blind. The dog swam straight at the bird for the first 60 yards and then veered off directly toward land on the left.

The handler just stood there while his dog swam about 30 yards and landed on the shoreline. Only then did he blow his whistle and try to handle his dog. The dog turned him off and went out of control.

After putting his dog away, this handler approached Jim with frustration bordering on madness on his face.

"Why," Jim asked, "did you wait so long to blow the whistle?"

"Wait so long? Wait so long? I kept blowing it all the time she was swimming toward shore. She turned me off and just kept going until she reached shore! You better give her a lot more training on responding to the whistle, and damned soon!"

Having seen the whole thing, I knew he had not blown the whistle until the dog had reached shore. But Jim, realizing the man was temporarily irrational, became quite stoic, accepted the unjust criticism and said no more.

I probably wasn't an ideal client, either, for once Jim told me I reminded him of a cross between a golden and a Chesapeake. I didn't ask what he meant.

Jane Laman, a specialist in tough-love training.

Jane Laman
Jane turned pro in the late 1970s, and she worked with one of my dogs in the early 1980s. However, I remember most vividly her earlier days as an amateur. By profession, she was a high school teacher specializing in kids too tough and unruly for an ordinary classroom environment.

Jane brought them around with tough love, long before that term was invented. She disciplined them strictly and consistently when necessary, but she so loved them in spite of their faults that they responded positively.

She trained dogs the same tough-love way, and she turned out some very nice ones. All through the 1970s the local retriever club held monthly fun trials through the spring, summer and fall. We took turns judging, so things sometimes became quite informal, perhaps too informal. I contributed my share to this excessive informality: I slipped into a habit of talking non-stop to the judges while my dog was running.

This started with nervous idle chatter, but eventually led me to stand there at the line and tell the judges what my dog was doing all the time. I made this mistake only once when Jane was judging. After I explained away some mistake or other, she stepped up to the line beside me.

"Jim," she said, "you just handle your dog. My co-judge and I'll decide what he's doing. We don't need your help."

I shut up. She was right. Later, I decided that the next time she judged, I'd come to the line with a big cork in my mouth. However, she turned pro shortly thereafter so could judge no more.

Years later, I was judging a Derby stake in which Jane was running a gung-ho young Lab. In the second series, just as I called her number, her dog took off. Jane stood there, outwardly nonchalant, but (I'm sure) inwardly dying, wondering whether we would charge her dog with a break. So, after she had suffered a few tense seconds, I walked up behind her and whispered,"Just like in baseball, a tie goes to the runner."

Then she began breathing again.

James Spencer's books can be ordered from the Gun Dog Bookshelf: Training Retrievers for Marshes & Meadows; Retriever Training Tests; Retriever Training Drills for Marking; Retriever Training Drills for Blind Retrieves; Retriever Hunt Tests; HUP! Training Flushing Spaniels the American Way; and POINT! Training the All-Seasons Bird Dog.

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