Become a professional dog trainer
If you’re considering giving up your day job for a career as a full-time dog trainer, these inspiring stories may be enough to give you the courage to take your own leap of faith. (Photo courtesy of Chris Akin/Webb Footed Kennels)
If you’ve trained a few of your own hunting dogs, chances are you’ve thought about doing it professionally. A job brings money, a career will mark, but honoring a vocation? That’s some creepy stuff. Sure, there are a number of multi-generational dog training families, but the reality is that most professional dog trainers have worked in other jobs. One day they quit and here are the stories of three top trainers who don’t regret their old jobs at all.
make a mark
Robert Milner of Duckhill Kennels in Somerville, Tennessee has a way with dogs; it’s called the right path. His books Retriever Training and Absolutely Positively Gun Dog Training have inspired many young dog handlers, some of whom have gone on to become professional dog trainers. But Milner wasn’t always a coach. In fact, before starting his kennel, he served as a lieutenant colonel in the US Air Force.
“I got my call to serve in Vietnam in 1967,” Lt. Col. Milner said. “Rather than wait to be called up, I went ahead and enlisted. My dad served in the Air Force, so it was an easy choice. I had five years of active duty and my last posting was at McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Washington. There I met Roy Gonia, a breeder, trainer and tester. People may remember Gonia as being at the origin of a Mega Whistle dog whistle.
“Gonia had a puff-shouldered Labrador retriever puppy that no one wanted. The puppy’s name was Toni’s Blaine Child, first name Canuck. All the other puppies in the litter went to field trial homes, but this sorry little guy didn’t seem to want to amount to much. I bought it, brought it home, and worked with it every day. He racked up several Open places before his derby year, and I sold him to one of Tommy Sorenson’s clients. Tommy got his FC and made him a finalist in three National Opens.
“My active duty ended in 1972 and I moved to Grand Junction, Tennessee. I bought a farm and started Wildrose Kennels. I bred, trained and participated in American Labs during this time. But on a trip to England in 1980 I met my friend from the British Army, Major Morty Turner-Cook Morty fought in Dunkirk and when he retired he started in dog training and field trials. Over the next few weeks I went to a number of field trials with him, and I was very impressed with those dogs and those trials. The biggest difference between British and American Labrador breeding programs comes from the very different values that are favored, one is not better than the other, but they are definitely different.
Soon after, Milner began importing British Labradors into the United States. He found impeccable bloodlines and traveled overseas every year in search of promising champions. The British positive training method also appealed to him. It was a deliberate way to bring out the best in a dog, which is very different from forcing a dog to follow an order. These days, British labs and positive training methods are accepted in the United States, and Milner introduced both.
Master the craft
How do you know that Chris Akin, from Webb Leg Kennels in Bono, Arkansas, is he honoring his calling? He has trained over 4,000 dogs and produced over 350 Hunting Retriever Champions, 175 Master Hunters and 35 Grand Hunting Retriever Champions, that’s how. But before professional training and country dogs, the professional trainer had a mundane job. Akin was a traveling window salesman.
“In the ’80s, I was living with my dad in Memphis,” he said. “I started working for Jordan Aluminum Windows selling windows to family lumberyards. The home building and renovation market wasn’t as strong back then as it is now, so it was very difficult for a new guy like me to break in. Every time I showed up at a job site, the employees would whisper “sales” and the buyers were suddenly too busy to talk.
Mom didn’t raise a quitter, and Akin somehow tripped over an icebreaker. It was with a black Labrador he received from Robert Milner. “I had a young dog that didn’t fit together, and I went to see Robert about a dog,” Akin said. “He had one that I really wanted, but couldn’t afford. Robert realized that I was pretty serious about dogs and training, and when I was about to leave, he gave me this dog. I’ve never forgotten it, because that’s really how I got into the training business. This pup was my buddy, and I took him on my sales calls. In the summer, I left it in the truck with the engine running and the air conditioning on. One day a customer asked me why I left my truck running.
“I’m forming a lab and he’s in there. The AC is on to keep him cool.
“Well, get him out, let’s see what he’s got.”
“So I took the dog out and we did some obedience drills. A crowd started gathering for this as well behaved dogs were rare back then. I moved on to throwing bumpers and people loved watching him recover. They lost him a bit when we ran marks and blinds. Before long everyone was eager to see my dog and the progress we were making. I started selling so many windows that I quickly became the top salesman in the business.
“Along the way, people started asking me about training their dogs. I picked up a few dogs to offset my duck hunting expenses, then a few more to buy a new duck. Before long, I had 16 dogs in my kennel and a client did some math and showed me that I could make a living by training professionally. I thought about it for two days in a row and on the third day I tendered my resignation. Four decades later, we are still training dogs. I feel incredibly blessed.
A dog’s life in the sunny south
To arrive at a life of bird dogs, Mark Fulmer, of Sarahsetter Kennel in Aikin, South Carolina, circled her elbow to kiss her thumb. “My grandfather was a quail hunter, and he had a pointer and a setter,” Fulmer said. “He didn’t want anyone bothering his dogs, so he always told me they would bite me. Hell, I ran my hand through their cages every day and everything I got was licked off. A few years later, my brother was dating a girl named Anna, and he gave her an Irish setter. Anna already had five dogs of her own, and her mom sent the puppy away. I took her and named her Sarah, which kind of evolved into the name of my kennel.
“In the 1980s, I worked as an assistant superintendent of greens at Houndslake Country Club. I have also participated in field trials, running mostly in American Field, NBHA, AKC and NSTRA in the Dismounted and Mounted Shooting Dog classes. The best part about working at the country club was that it was a large property with 27 holes. Late in the afternoon, I drove my Land Cruiser down the middle of the fairway while my dogs ran around the edges. There were also wild birds around the edges of the property so my dogs would have contact on bobwhite quail and seasonal woodcock.
“Over time, things kind of came together. People learned that I was good with dogs and they started bringing their puppies to me to train. Along the way, I realized that I liked working for myself more than anyone else, so I just stopped and focused on training and testing. I bred an average of about three litters a year for 31 years of English and red setters. I’ve been training full time since 1991. No matter how hard the day or the season, how hot the temperatures or the rain, there’s nothing I’d rather do than train dogs.
Leaving the security of a job with many benefits is not always easy, especially if you are married or have a family. For some, throwing caution to the wind comes with the territory. It’s a dog’s life, a life that is not a job or a career but a vocation. Everything becomes clear with a walk through the kennel. These happily flapping tails make the toughest and toughest day disappear.