Women Report on the Dog Handlers’ Workshop

This is the second in a series of stories about the spring dog handlers’ workshops.  In this entry, we hear reports from two of the four women who participated.

In March Wildrose conducted four days of workshops for dog handlers.   On Friday and Saturday (the 18th & 19th) thirty folks participated in the basic workshop.  Fifteen folks worked in the advanced sessions on Sunday and Monday (the 20th & 21st).  Serendipity sent sunshine and weather temps near 80 degrees each day.

Mike Stewart organized and lead the program, with participation by English partner, Vic Barlow, and Associate Trainers Jay Lowry (Illinois), Tim Clancy (Massachusetts), and with leadership from other staff members: Ben Summerall, Steven Lucius, and Tom Smith.  All of the staff family had a hand the program’s success from Mary Lee Ward handling all of the meals, as well as the store, and Patrick Allen trouble-shooting in the field.  Photographer Chip Laughton, Days Afield, snapped pictures of everyone in action.  Of course, Cathy, as ever, served as communications central and the general factotum.

In the following report Heather Cass talks about her first visit to Wildrose.  Heather, a successful architect who lives in Baltimore, MD, is seeking to replace the loss of a wonderful years-long association with a dog.  After doing research and talking with friends, she has ordered a finished dog.  Eager to hunt with her gundog, she has been taking shooting workshops as well as practicing dog handling, using the Wildrose videos.  After meeting Heather, one knows that she is determined to be as successful in this dog-handling venture as she has been in raising a family and in carrying on her professional career.  Mature and self-assured, Heather is nevertheless gracious and humble, almost self-effacing, in her demeanor.  Here’s her report:

Heather Cass

As a beginner (with nowhere to go but up!) I arrived at Wildrose with high expectations for what I would learn about training and handling.  I was not disappointed.   The sessions were structured so that beginners like me could work on very basic training and handling skills, while more experienced students were given more challenging tasks.  This benefitted both groups, as we learned that reviewing basic skills is important for even the most seasoned dog and handler.  And watching the “old pros” work their dogs taught me a lot about what lies ahead and gave me a great appreciation of the results, which the “Wildrose Way” produces.

I also learned that there is a big difference between practicing whistles and hand signals in the mirror at home (with Mike Stewart’s reassuring voice playing on the Wildrose video in the background) and putting them into practice in the field.  The dogs are taught to be “steady” and ignore gunshots, birds falling from the sky, and other distractions.  I discovered that I was the one who needed more practice with this skill.  Since I don’t have my Wildrose dog yet, I was working with a wonderful “loaner” dog who generally did his best to make me look better than I was.  But even “Wildrose Paddy” couldn’t guess what I wanted when, instead of motioning him to go back for the retrieve, I simultaneously whistled him to a stop and motioned with my hands for him to come to me.  All this, while he was treading water!  Poor Paddy.

Mike schools Heather on basic handling strategies as she works with Paddy.

Along with the learning, the weekend was great fun. The setting is beautiful, the food was terrific, and the people — staff and students alike — made me feel welcome, in spite of my ignorance and inexperience, and helped and encouraged me at every turn.  The Wildrose dogs are truly remarkable, and we learned that at the root of their training is a simple philosophy: Praise success and ignore mistakes.  As I walked back from the fields on the final day, more than one person complimented me on how much I’d improved, how well I’d done that afternoon.  Praise success and ignore mistakes.  The Wildrose Way.  It works for people, too!

Sarah Barnes

This year was young and savvy Sarah Barnes’ second dog handlers’ workshop and she wowed everyone with her performance in handling Gunner.  In fact, Mike was so impressed that he offered her a job as an associate trainer on the spot.  Of course, Mike knew Gunner’s lineage and had seen Sarah work with him in last fall’s Double Gun Shoot as well as in last year’s dog handlers’ workshop.  After thinking it over for a time, Sarah accepted the job.  She’ll be Wildrose’s first female trainer, something that Mike has worked long to achieve.  When one catches the enthusiasm in her voice and sees her knowledge of the work, it’s easy to understand why everyone holds great promise in her future with Wildrose.  Here’s Sarah’s story in her own words:

This year was my second trip to the WR Handler’s Seminar.  Last year Gunner was nine months old and barely knew what a bumper was!  We stayed for the first two days of the seminar and were already way out of our league 🙂 I was shocked at the training level of the other dogs and handlers!  All of the staff at WR were so encouraging and helpful, it made me want to keep working with Gunner so we could get better.  This year was the first time that I attended both the basic and advanced course.  This year was fun because of all of the familiar faces and all of our hard work paying off.

The WR workshop’s are a great way to see how far you have come since last year and how far you still have to go.  It’s also a great way to meet people who have the same love for working dogs as you do.  I first visited WR almost three years ago after my last lab suddenly died (he was only five).  After a friend of my father’s showed us an issue of   Outside Magazine that featured the Editor’s dog Danger (a Chocolate lab from WR), we made an appointment to visit the Oxford kennel.

When my dad, Gunner, and I arrived at WR, the first person we met was Patrick Allen.  Patrick grew up in Tuscaloosa (as did I) and it didn’t take us long to recognize each other (my mom taught him in pre-school).  After Patrick gave us a tour of the kennel (and let me play with a puppy that was going home the next day) we were sold!  I called Cathy the next week to get my name on the list for a puppy.  At the time the waiting list was nine months or more, but I got super lucky because Wigeon and Sadie had just been bred.  I was third on the list for a yellow male.  A couple of months later I got a call that two yellow males had been born.  Come to find out the two other people on the waiting list had decided to wait for another litter.  So I got Gunner and Mike kept Indian for an adventure dog.  We have been a part of the WR cult ever since 🙂

I am very lucky to have Gunner!  I always joke that getting Gunner was fate.  Most people go to puppy picking day. . . and get to pick a puppy.  In my case, I was handed a puppy!  I don’t think I could have gotten a better dog if I could have picked from 100 puppies.

Because all of the staff at WR were so encouraging and helpful, I wanted to keep working with Gunner so we could get better.  After we came home from the first year’s handlers’ workshop I decided we had a lot of work to do.  We went back to the basics and started working on sit, stay, heel, and lots of denial bumpers.  After he mastered those basic commands, we moved on to incorporating whistle commands and simple retrieves.  Simple retrieves turned to simple memories and when he mastered simple memories, we moved to more complex ones.  We worked every day after I got home from work.  Dad and I would get home, grab our bumper bags, and head to the back yard.  It was always our plan to train and raise our dogs together.  We had hopes that raising two puppies at the same time would allow them to have a companion while everyone was at work and we hoped it would make them better dogs in general.

By October (six months after the first dog handlers’ workshop) we were working on remote sits to the whistle and simple hand signals (which we are still working to master).  I had toyed with the idea of running Gunner in the Double Gun Shoot, but wondered how far behind the curve we would be.  After some encouragement from Jean Prough (owner of WR Hops, one of the many people I had met and stayed in touch with from the first handlers’ workshop) I decided we would give it a shot.  So Gunner and I ran in the Double Gun Shoot.  Gunner did a great job, and all of the trainers commented about how far we had come, but it showed us how far we still had to go.  Once again we came home and started preparing for this spring’s dog handlers’ workshop.  At the top of the list this time was hand signals and long retrieves!

Sarah sends Gunner for a retrieve in tall cover as Ben and Eider look on.

This year’s handlers’ workshop was fun because of all of the familiar faces and all of our hard work paying off.  The WR  workshops are a great way to see how far you have come since last year and how far you still have to go.  This year at the workshop Gunner did great.  He was steady, quiet, patient, and eager to retrieve—all the things a lady’s gun dog should be.  With all that being said, we still have plenty of work to do!  We are still cleaning up our hand signals and we still have some water work that needs attention.  We are back to working every afternoon after I get home from work.  After all, we have to get ready for the Double Gun Shoot next October!

Following her report, Sarah wrote a personal note about her opportunity to become Wildrose’s first female trainer.  The perspective she has is instructive.  Here’s how she put it:

Three years ago when my dad and I visited Wildrose for the first time, we left Oxford talking about the amazing job that all of the trainers had (I was so jealous).  Getting paid to work with animals seemed like a dream!  Two weeks ago we left Oxford talking about the offer that Mike Stewart had just made to me.  To become his first female trainer, it is an understatement to say that I was excited!!!  As an engineer, being a female is normally the exception rather than the rule.  To be honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  This is what I’m used to!  The great thing about dogs is they don’t care if your male or female, they don’t care if you’re wearing make-up or if your hair is done or even if you put on your best cloths.  The only thing they worry about is when can we go hunt some birds.  Being a part of the Wildrose family is a dream come true and I can’t wait to see where this adventure takes Gunner and me!  I’m sure it will be beyond my wildest imagination!

For now I will be attending all of the seminars as part of the WR team, and will start working as an Associate Trainer!  I am super excited about my future with the kennel!  I hope that one day I will be as good as Jay, Tim, & Tom!!!!  I hope to start training a pup in May.

In the mobile blind Sarah Barnes (with Gunner) and Jeff Ramsey (with Jack) strategize with Mike on how to run a memory retrieve in flooded timber.

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