By: Dr. Ben McClelland
In his comprehensive training book, Sporting Dog and Retriever Training The Wildrose
Way, Mike Stewart discusses the art of canine leadership, pointing out “three parts to becoming an effective, positive leader: communication with the dog, understanding canine behavior, and becoming a problem solver” (39-40). The trainers on the Wildrose staff embody those essential elements, and no one more so than Steven Lucius.
Senior trainer at Wildrose, Steven Lucius, began as a part-time kennel assistant in 2008 when he was an undergraduate student at Ole Miss. He got his first dog when he was a junior and, after work, followed Mike around, observing how he trained dogs. Then he would apply those techniques to training his dog. Steven wasn’t the first Lucius to work at the kennel. His brother, Charlie, worked at Wildrose during his college years. The Lucius brothers hail from Marietta, Georgia, and both earned degrees in marketing from the University.
In 2010 Steven was promoted to training apprentice, shadowing Mike and working directly with Mike’s string of started and finished dogs. At the time Mike remarked that he would invest a great deal of time developing Steven’s training skills and he hoped that Steven would stay at least five years on the job. On June 1, 2011, Steven was promoted to assistant trainer working with the gundog and adventure dog training programs. Today—more than seven years after his apprenticeship began—senior trainer Steven coordinates all training operations at the Oxford facility, which includes gundogs, adventurers, and obedience dogs. Therefore, over these years, not only has Steven returned a remarkable dividend on Mike’s investment, but he has also has made an enviable transition from holding a job as a dog trainer to developing it as a career.
Steven recalls a day about five years ago, as he realized that his work was evolving, he called his father and said, “I enjoy getting up every day and going to work.” His father replied that ninety percent of American workers wished that they could say the same and that Steven was fortunate to have found such meaningful work.
On June 3, 2017, Steven added even more meaning to his life by marrying his lifelong partner, Schuyler Corderman, in Fredericksburg, Virginia. They live in Oxford, near Wildrose Kennels. Schulyer is completing a second undergraduate degree in education at the University of Mississippi. The couple enjoys watching collegiate sports and has an active home life.
Moreover, Steven has kennels at home and, in addition to housing his personal dogs, he is able to bring problem dogs to a quieter environment, enabling him to address their needs. Of course, Steven is an avid hunter, so his avocation is closely related to his vocation.
I began my trainer apprenticeship at Wildrose in 2011, just as Steven was working with Mike, and even after that year, I have continued to participate weekly with Steven and the other trainers in Group Work activities. Every Wednesday a trainer sets up a specific, multiple-step, training activity and, working alongside each other, the trainers work each of their client dogs through the activity. Local members of the Wildrose family, as well as anyone visiting with a dog, are welcome to join in the group activity. For me, of course, working in a group of trainers and dogs has given me many opportunities over the years to challenge my dogs’ skills in novel training scenarios with various stimuli and distractions. I also enjoy the camaraderie, much as anyone who attends a Wildrose workshop does.
Steven, of course, uses the group work similarly, judging his client dogs’ progress as developing gundogs and comparing them to other dogs’ work. However, as senior trainer, he finds another value in the group work activity. He and the other trainers can view each other’s handling skills and make constructive observations to each other. The perspective of an outside observer enables one to gain new insight for skill development.
Fellow Trainer Danielle Drewrey has been the beneficiary of Steven’s observations. She said, “Steven is always willing to help a trainer who is having an issue with a dog in training and can lighten things up because he can find humor in a situation. He helped me a lot when I was learning to train. Because he is a patient and methodical trainer, Steven doesn’t try to find a ‘quick fix.’ He takes time to really get to know the dog find a balanced way to resolve an issue.”
From her observations Trainer Bess Bruton agrees. “As a trainer, Steven is considerate, patient, quiet, composed, and successfully reads the dog. . . its personality, its sensitivity level, and its knowledge level. This keenness lets Steven adjust his training program to fit each individual dog.” Bess says that she emulates the qualities that she has observed in and learned from Steven, concluding, “his success in turning out well-trained dogs is proof of his quiet demeanor, consistency dedication, and love for our canine companions.”
By attending group training, I observed another aspect of Steven’s training technique. As we begin a round of group work, the trainers gather with their dogs in the parking lot near the client-dog kennel. Each dog sits at heel as we wait for everyone to join in. On several occasions while waiting, I observed Steven focusing intently on developing and maintaining eye contact with his dog. When I asked him about this practice, he said, “It’s how we can both read each other,” mentioning the popular metaphor of “the eyes being the window of the soul,” meaning that a trainer can really connect emotionally and physically with the essence of the dog through sustained eye contact.
Mike’s maxim, “Own the Eyes,” enabling direct communication with the dog correlates with this (Stewart 75). Steven added that dogs’ attention span and eye contact vary; some take readily to making eye contact and giving full attention to the trainer, while others require more time and repeated practice to be able to hold eye contact for as long as three to ten seconds. Every command from the handler begins with establishing eye contact and saying the dog’s name, so this practice is an essential foundation to training success. Being consistent in this practice lets the dog understand that it doesn’t go anywhere to begin fun activities in the field until it exhibits good eye contact. Danielle Drewrey also noted that this practice was part of Steven’s ability to connect and really build a relationship with each dog that he trains.
Associate Trainer Erin Davis concurs with Danielle, calling Steven “a true asset to the Wildrose training team.” One of Erin’s favorite things about working alongside Steven, she said, “is watching his gift for reading dogs and his ability to capture their individual motivators. Additionally, I appreciate his insight on troubleshooting and willingness towards idea sharing. While he doesn’t always say much, what he does say has weight. He may not converse at a loud volume, but his choice of words is filled with honesty, realism, and encouragement.”
To succeed as a trainer Steven believes that one must have a balance, must maintain flexibility between dedication and patience. The trainer must consistently come to work every day with his dogs. And a trainer must be patient because the skill level and pace at which each dog learns differ. Moreover, dogs have varying levels of energy. Some are upbeat and others are lethargic, so the trainer must adapt his energy level accordingly.
Steven finds satisfaction in seeing young dogs grow and improve, and in seeing older, trained dogs return, so that he can see what they have retained from their previous training.
Routinely, Steven trains twelve client dogs at a time. In addition, he has three personal dogs: Archer (Widgeon x Purdy), Ivy (Murphy x Pinny), and Moe a descendant of Archer. Six-year-old Archer, who comes from Angus’ lineage, hunts ducks and upland birds, including going on the annual Wildrose pheasant stint in North Dakota. Steven also keeps pups from Archer to train and send out as started dogs.
Even as he consistently works through all steps in the gundog program, Steven views two points of development as crucial. The first is a decisive moment and the second is a harbinger of the dog’s future effectiveness in the field. First, the steps in the process from hold conditioning through back casting is a crunch time for the dog, with the later steps in the training process rolling on more easily from then on. Casting exercises require time and patience. Mike writes, “You need to run back casts, pull/push, rotational backs, and stop-to-the-whistle backs for quite some time—a minimum of 30 days—to ensure that the dog fully understands the back command before introducing left and right hand signals (Stewart 142).
Second, Steven most enjoys when a dog reaches a level of skill where Steven is able to work with birds, shooting over dog, and engaging in transitional drills so that he can see how the dog is prepared to handle important aspects of hunting situations. Here again, Steven takes the time for the dog to run these exercises successfully. Erin Davis said, “Steven typically works alone with an individual dog in areas off the beaten path. This tactic allows him to clearly focus on the dog and provide quick appreciation for the dog’s successes. His dedication to controlling the dog’s environment through decreased distractions undoubtedly allows him to provide dogs with more complexity in training scenarios leading to his positive outcomes in training.”
Steven builds lasting relationships with clients. He begins by communicating with owners every month through two phone calls and photo, plus text messages. Moreover, he asks each client dog’s owner to visit with him and the dog midway during the seven-month training period and at the end. Both visits give the owner a chance to work with the dog, going beyond basic obedience training to retrieving and handling the dog in the field. The midway visit enables to owner to see what progress the dog has made. By that point most likely the dog has completed hold conditioning and is engaged in casting work. The final visit lets the owner see the finished product: the dog’s development from a pup to a started gundog.
Erin Davis expresses the sentiments of many who know Steven as a trainer, “His wealth of practical field experience is evident in the way he prepares his pups correctly from the start. The relationship he forms with each pup allows each one to freely look to him with trust as a leader and teammate. He’s a quiet handler who gives clear direction, fair redirection, and sufficient praise from the yard to the field. These leadership features are evident in his consistent production of confident dogs who are biddable, athletic, and critical thinkers.”
Mike Stewart, Sporting Dog and Retriever Training The Wildrose Way, New York: Universe Publishing, 2012.