Talking to Janelle Negen about her British Labrador retrievers Skeeter and Brutus is akin to popping the cork on a shaken bottle of champagne.
It’s a conversation you can’t control, and one you don’t want to control, because it’s a subject she’s fluent in and elated about.
Negen loves her dogs. She loves training her dogs. She loves hunting her dogs. She loves doting on her dogs. And she loves talking about her dogs and giving advice about her experiences with them.
“Asking me about my dogs can be dangerous,” said Negen, laughing. “I can talk dogs, especially Labs, all day, every day. Quite honestly, I can’t believe I’ve been able to limit myself to just two.”
Negen, 30, of Garfield, Minn., a small town west of Alexandria, is more than your typical dog owner/trainer. In seventh grade, Negen began cleaning the kennels for a professional dog trainer and breeder near her home. She got to observe, and became fascinated with, British Labs and the meticulous process of training them — a desire, she said, that’s never ebbed.
“I started learning about retriever training when I was 12 years old, and today I run hunt tests with my retriever club,” said Negen of Prairie Lakes Hunting Retriever Club. She’s one of three female members. “Training dogs is a lifestyle. The more you train dogs, and the better you get at it, the more addicting it becomes.”
Negen grew up in an outdoors family of hunters, anglers and conservationists. Most of her memories, she said, revolve around taking trips to idyllic places such as Yellowstone National Park, sitting in a deer stand with her father, and snowmobiling and ice-fishing, among other adventures.
“[Being outdoors] has been a way of life for us,” said Negen, adding her brother Matt and sister Jamie are hunters and active outdoors, too.
“Opening deer hunting is like a holiday in my family, and I love to hunt birds. The feeling of watching your dog flush a rooster pheasant and make a perfect retrieve is unexplainable — I live for it.”
Negen got married in 2015. Her husband, Cory, whom she met in 10th grade, has his own dog: a German wirehaired pointer named Koda. The couple’s daughter Jordie is 16 months old. The three dogs, Negen says, are spoiled rotten.
On good trainers
To be a good dog trainer, you simply need to be willing to put in the time. Period. Woman or man, it doesn’t matter. You need to be dedicated and motivated. Every. Single. Day. No excuses. It doesn’t take two-hour training sessions twice a day. Even just 20 minutes. One or two drills, just a couple successful retrieves, a little bit of obedience reminders. Dogs want to constantly learn and need to exercise their skills to become more confident in themselves. As a trainer, watching your dog succeed increases your confidence, as well.
On getting help from others
You need an open mind. Listen to others, their experiences and their advice. There is no one right way to train a dog. They’re all different. I’ve taken bits and pieces from dozens of different trainers and have come up with what works for me, and the personalities of my dogs. I’ve learned more invaluable tips from a training session where I left my dog at home, and just watched the successes and failures of others and their dogs.
On understanding your dogs
You also need to be able to listen to and read your dog. They have a way of communicating with you, and if you can work to figure that out, you may reduce a lot of future disagreements. Think ahead, and get to know how your dog responds to certain commands or situations, and be proactive as a handler. It’s also important to always hold your dog to the same standards — have the same expectations whether you’re in the field, in the house, at the lake, or simply just hanging out at home in the yard. Consistency is key.
On what dog training means to her
Dog training is more than just a passion or hobby. It’s a lifestyle. I look forward to summers with all my dog training friends — we understand each other. We’re the same type of crazy. When driving, I find myself looking at fields and thinking, “That would be the perfect pond to run a blind retrieve.” I’m always rethinking drills, or past training sessions and figuring out how I can become a better handler, or be more effective in guiding my dog through what I am asking of him. It’s something that’s always on my mind, and something I always strive to be better at. It’s such a rewarding sport.
On the retrieving club
I’ll be honest, being a woman in the sport can be intimidating. We are definitely a minority. But, I’ve also felt very included and capable. Men in this sport are extremely supportive of women handlers and want to see them succeed. It’s a time-consuming sport, and now as a new mom, I can see why there may be less [female] involvement.
On attracting female hunters
I think diversifying sales and marketing techniques along with products is one way. Most things hunting are geared and marketed toward men. Most hunting sections in department stores have tons of options for men, and only a couple for women.
As a demographic, I sometimes think women are simply overlooked. I think keeping an open mind that there are women out there who aren’t afraid to breast a duck or stand in a slough in waders, or who thrive off a flock of mallards landing in the decoys just as much as any man.
On raising Jordie
I’d like to think of myself as a mentor, especially to our daughter. My husband and I intend to raise her the way both of us were raised — in the outdoors. I hope she values this lifestyle as much as we do and will learn positive life skills as she grows up by taking care of the dogs, putting in the time it takes to be successful at the sport and finding something she can be passionate about.
Tori J. McCormick is a freelance outdoors writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.