“If you don’t own a dog, at least one, there is not necessarily anything wrong with you, but there may be something wrong with your life.”
Roger A. Caras
Wednesday morning, north of St. Paul. The day will be warm, the breeze slight. Lift gates open. Tailgates drop. Dogs bound to the ground. Another training day.
So it goes, as it does most summer days, on the fields of Kelley Farms in Marine on St. Croix. A vast livestock operation, with grass-fed beef as its centerpiece, Kelley Farms is also heaven on Earth for sporting dog trainers, perhaps especially retriever trainers.
It’s on these hallowed acres that some of the nation’s best competition dogs have been molded, as well as those, no lesser in their owners’ eyes, that have won few ribbons, if any.
Consider Jeff Kolanski, a professional trainer of retrievers. Training alone on this morning, Kolanski has a dog box on his pickup and is pulling a trailer on which he carries a four-wheeler and other gear, including remote bird throwers that can launch training dummies from distant locations.
Kolanski, of Andover, is a stay-at-home dad who has until the end of the school day to be afield with his clients’ dogs. On this morning, his final dog to train is a 5-month-old chocolate Lab, a fun-loving female who trails a 10-foot check cord, so Kolanski can control her as necessary.
On this training day, the goal is to expose the young dog to new and different situations. She’s grown comfortable riding in the truck box, and soon, like Kolanski’s other dogs, she’ll learn to launch herself up and into the travel container under her own power.
It’s all part of nudging her toward an adult life as a trained retriever.
To that end, and heeling her alongside him using the check cord, Kolanski soon triggers a remote thrower, which arches a dead duck high into the air.
“Izzy!’’ Kolanski commands excitedly after the bird falls to the ground, sending the dog to retrieve.
And she does, quickly out and back, she beams with self-satisfaction on the return trip, happy to retrieve, and wanting to again.
A half-mile away by the crow, Bob Larkin, his wife, Pat, and Sue Liemohn are among a small group of trainers preparing their dogs for an AKC licensed hunt test this weekend.
Bob Larkin, 73, grew up in Kenyon, Minn., not far south of the Twin Cities. His dad was a hunter, and when Bob retired from the Navy in 1979, he intensified his lifelong interest in chasing pheasants and ducks, and also in retrieving dogs.
“At one point we had 17 dogs,’’ he said. “But we’ve cut back. Now we have five, all Labs.’’
The drive to Kelley Farms from Kenyon, where the Larkins live, takes an hour or a little more, and every Wednesday morning they arrive, along with Liemohn and others in their training group, to try to improve their dogs’ skills.
These include “marking’’ (the ability to accurate assess, at distances of 100 or more yards, where a training dummy or bird falls), “taking a line’’ (to run straight in the direction a handler commands, regardless of obstacles, including water) and “handling’’ (stopping when a whistle is blown to take hand signals directing the dog to its left, right or “back,’’ meaning to continue further on).
“If you want to run with the big boys, at the Masters [highest] level in hunt tests, you’ve got to train every day,’’ Larkin said.
A bit of an outlier in the retriever game, Liemohn has owned American water spaniels since 1981, and now counts a pair of this versatile breed among her training partners, as well as two Labradors.
Two of her water spaniels have earned their Master retriever titles, the only two so honored.
“I have a professional trainer help me, because I don’t think I’m a good enough trainer to run dogs at the [Master] level, which is where I like running them,’’ she said, adding:
“I just love the teamwork involved in training a dog. You develop a special relationship when you work with a dog every day, far more so than if you and your dog just hang around together.’’
Hunt tests for retrievers, pointers and the versatile breeds were developed beginning in the early 1980s to provide an alternative to traditional field trials, which are competitions, usually with first, second and third places awarded, and perhaps honorable mentions.
In hunt tests, by contrast, dogs enter in Junior, Senior and Master levels and are judged against standards, with increasingly difficult challenges facing dogs and handlers as they rise through the three title ranks.
Wednesday afternoon, retriever pro Greg Schreiner of Stacy, Minn., was at Kelley Farms, along with clients Doug Bringgold of South St. Paul, Mike Riippa of Maple Grove and Todd Gallaty of East Bethel.
Schreiner runs hunt tests with some client dogs, and field-trials others. Gallaty, by contrast, runs neither hunt tests nor field trials.
“Greg has trained all of my dogs the past 12 years,’’ Gallaty said. “He’ll have them for seven or eight months to get them started, and I try to get out here training with him two or three days a week. I just use them for hunting, but I like to keep them in shape.’’
On this day, Schreiner has set up three long “marks’’ for the dozen or so dogs he has with him. Each involves a dead bird thrown after a shot from a blank pistol, and each requires the dogs to cross at least one large pond to find the downed bird. Distances range from about 125 yards to about 200 yards.
As frustrating as retriever training can be sometimes, ultimately the process itself, most owners and handlers agree, is tantamount to a mental health break; a balm for the day’s wounds.
Said Schreiner, “Training becomes addictive.’’
Sunset wasn’t far off Wednesday when members of Northern Flight Hunting Retriever Club finished their evening’s training session in still another corner of Kelley Farms.
One group had worked with Junior dogs, another with Seniors and Masters.
Though bird hunting is far more popular among men than women, retriever training and handling is somewhat more equally distributed between the sexes.
Making the point, Kathy Strong of Cumberland, Wis., was on hand with her dogs Wednesday evening, as were Julie Mach of Harris, Minn., and Linda Kiey of St. Paul, among others.
Mach owns three Labradors, and has been a member of Northern Flight since 1990. Also a longtime club member, Kiey owns two golden retrievers.
“We met 25 years ago, through dogs,’’ Mach said. The pair travel to hunt tests throughout Minnesota and neighboring states.
Wet, well-exercised and tired, Mach’s Labs and Kiey’s goldens had been crated for the ride home, as had the 15 or so other dogs in this group.
Yet no one seemed in a hurry to leave.
Instead, small talk ensued among the handlers; some of it, inevitably, about dogs, some about the hunt test this weekend and some about nothing much at all.
This was summer in Minnesota, after all, and friends with common interests were hanging out, satisfied that their dogs had made a little progress, and would make still more on the next training day.