No direct route leads from the small town of Appleton in west-central Minnesota to the even smaller town of Grand Junction, Tenn., as Dave Rorem can attest.
Rorem, 65, is a retired Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conservation officer (or CO) who spent 26 of his 27 years in law enforcement patrolling the state’s most northern border reaches, from Rainy Lake to Lake of the Woods.
But during the many nights he sat alone Up North in his DNR pickup waiting for spotlights to illuminate roadsides and fields, betraying the hideouts of deer poachers, he thought about retrieving dogs and how to train them.
“I enjoyed my work as a CO, but dogs were my passion,” Rorem said. “They have been since I was a boy.”
Rorem was 6 when his dad, a physician in Appleton, came home with a black Labrador puppy named Pepper. Between that time and this past February, when Rorem was inducted into the National Retriever Field Trial Hall of Fame in Grand Junction, he has trained hundreds and hundreds of clients’ retrievers, many of them field trial champions and amateur field trial champions, as well as some national champions.
“But to this day, of all of the dogs I’ve trained, I think Pepper was one of the smartest,” Rorem said.
A lifelong duck hunter who would sooner leave his shotgun at home than his dog, Rorem ratcheted up his interest in retrievers in the 1970s after seeing his first field trial featuring a who’s who of Minnesota Labrador trainers, among them Tony Berger, Phil Berger and Roger Reopelle.
Rorem had played football at the University of North Dakota. His innate competitiveness, he believed, combined with his love of dogs and dog training, might suit him well in field-trialing.
“When I saw that first trial, I thought, ‘I just have to do that,’ ” he said.
Living so far north, and being busy with his conservation officer duties, Rorem in his early dog training years had to squeeze in canine sessions when and where he could. He found kindred souls when he joined the Iron Range Retriever Club, in Virginia, Minn., and during his initial field-trialing years competed more in Canada than in the United States.
“Given my proximity to Thunder Bay (Ontario) and Winnipeg (Manitoba), it was closer for me to compete up there,” he said. “It also worked to my advantage in those early days because the trials weren’t as big as the ones in the U.S. and I was able to be successful.”
Few states can match Minnesota’s reputation for producing winning field-trial retriever trainers. Two of the state’s best in recent decades, the late Charlie Hays and his wife, Yvonne, befriended Rorem in the 1980s and eventually asked him to run two of their dogs, Marty and Dinah, in the Canadian national championship.
Rorem won that stake in 1989 with Marty, and in 1990, Charlie Hays handled Marty — who remains the all-time high point field-trial yellow Labrador — to the Canadian National Amateur Championship.
With that title and others, Rorem’s training reputation grew, and he attracted more and better dogs from clients throughout the U.S. and Canada. His wife, Paulette, son, Seth, and daughter, Ty, were key parts of the expanding operation.
Tempted as many trainers are to accept as end points the training methods that earn them success, Rorem nonetheless knew the minds and hearts of dogs are moving targets, and to connect more often and more deeply with the charges in his care, he needed to grow as a trainer.
If only, he thought, he could mine the experience and wisdom of the legendary California retriever trainer Rex Carr.
“I called Rex, who had retired from the game, and he didn’t want to take me in. He said he wasn’t interested,” Rorem recalled. “But I wouldn’t take no for an answer, and finally he said, ‘You’re more stubborn than I am.’
“So I flew to California, and at our very first meeting, we hit it off, and eventually he became like a second father to me. He said, ‘I’ll tell you everything I know about dogs and training, if you agree to pay it forward and pass it on.’ ”
Carr stressed that viewing retriever training from the trainer’s perspective misses the point.
“You have to think like the dog,” Carr would say. “You have to look at a training exercise from a dog’s perspective, through a dog’s eyes. Put yourself in the dog’s shoes. When you do, training becomes very simple.”
Fifteen years ago, after more than a quarter-century of wearing a badge and a gun to work, Rorem, at 50, took early retirement from the DNR.
Today, he, Paulette and Ty spend the warm months at their home and training center near International Falls, and pass their winters at a second home and training base in south Texas.
With a full kennel of 24 client dogs, many ferried by private delivery services to northern Minnesota from both coasts, they train five or six days a week and run 22 trials a year, plus the national championship.
Rorem also coaches his amateur clients on handling skills, and as he promised Carr he would, regularly offers training tutorials to sportsmen’s and other groups.
In February, Pepper, the black Labrador puppy Rorem’s father brought home so many years ago, was long gone but not forgotten when Rorem, with his family present in Grand Junction, joined Charlie Hays, Rex Carr and may of his other heroes as an inductee of the National Retriever Field Trial Hall of Fame.
“Pepper,” he said, “was a smart dog.”