By: Dr. Ben McClelland
In his comprehensive training book, Sporting Dog and Retriever Training The Wildrose Way, Mike Stewart emphasizes the related roles of “communication” and “relationship” in training a dog: “Knowing how to interpret the subtleties and innuendos of canine communication is vital to a proper relationship. Communication begins with never compromising the trust and respect built into your relationship with the dog while still establishing a position of leadership” (Mike Stewart 41).
Through years of unstinting effort, veteran trainer Blake Henderson has developed an uncanny skill of working dogs through the gundog training regimen effectively. What’s been key for him in becoming so adept at the art and science of dog training?
Before directly answering that question, let me fill you in on Blake’s previous work history at the kennel, and some personal background, because he didn’t arrive at his apprentice trainer year, sight unseen. Not in the least. Born and raised in Oxford, MS, Blake began working at Wildrose as a kennel hand in 2007 and moved to kennel keeper at the end of 2008.
During his six years working in those positions, he made significant contributions to the kennel’s infrastructure, creating more realistic scenarios to replicate real hunting environs for dog training. For example, designed and constructed three duck blinds on the kennel’s ponds and lakes, giving trainers and their dogs a variety of actual hunt-like conditions for water retrieving.
Moreover, Blake worked with the evolving bird program, with bird-dog training, and with upland hunting activities, maintaining sufficient birds for training. I recall traveling with him on a pigeon-purchasing trip to an Amish farm in nearby Pontotoc County. Blake bargained with the farmer for some of his barn pigeons, leaving a few empty cages at the farm. Returning a few days later we picked up the caged quarry. Many times, Blake would travel to several states throughout the Southeast and Midwest, gathering up various upland bird species.
Then, Blake began the kennel’s own bird breeding program with an incubator, birdcages, birdhouses, and a fly pen.
One of his most useful facilities for dog training is the recall house. Using Belgium homing pigeons, he developed a recall house where about 40 birds are housed and fed. To train dogs to stay steady in the face of a big flush of birds, trainers place dogs at sit in front of the recall house and flush the birds out the door. After a short flight around the area, the birds return to openings in the top of the house, roost and rest, and are ready for similar releases day after day. The recall house, with its flush of live birds, continues to be an invaluable facility for steadying dogs and preparing them for real hunting situations.
Also, during these years of working at the kennel, Blake met Mary Lee Ward, who ran the Wildrose Trading Company. The two—who share a love for dogs, the outdoors, and hunting—married in 2015 and now live close by in Lafayette Springs with personal dogs, a kennel, and a workshop. (Blake is always engaged in a rebuilding or a repair project on one type of vehicle or another.) While Mary Lee and Blake most enjoy wing shooting, they hunt everything they can together—deer, ducks, dove, quail, and squirrels.
So, following those notes on his kennel work history and his personal background, let’s return to the question, “What’s been key for Blake in becoming so adept at the art and science of dog training?”
Early on in his days as an apprentice trainer in 2013, Blake understood what Mike explains to all novice trainers: “Your dog’s success depends as much on you as it does on him or her. A good hunting dog is bred to do many things naturally. You, on the other hand, are not genetically predisposed to train a dog. You need to spend as much time learning how to be a great canine leader and communicator as you do learning to apply the principles of effective dog training. An understanding of why dogs act the way they do, how canines learn, and how they communicate is imperative if you are to train hunting dogs in a positive, natural manner” (Mike Stewart 35).
During his apprenticeship year under Mike’s tutelage, Blake eagerly sought all of his mentor’s advice, as he worked a string of 6 to 8 dogs. As Blake worked his dogs, Mike stood at a distance, observing. Afterward, Blake would ask for a critique. Mike might say, for instance, “Okay, with this dog you’ve done the activity here enough. Don’t get in a rut. Move to a different spot. Remember—Five times in five different places.” With another dog Mike might suggest that Blake try a different approach altogether to the training drill. Mike’s critiques varied and were focused on the unique situation for each dog, whether it be reading the dog, keying on correct timing to stop a dog from moving out of the target range, or using the right tone with a particular dog. Over the year Blake was able to develop a handler’s mindset and an arsenal of training strategies.
Then, in 2014 when he became a trainer with 12 dogs, Blake had a foundational understanding of the related elements of a trainer’s mindset and methods of inculcating training activities in his dogs. Beyond that time, Blake has continually sought to improve his training techniques and strategies by seeking the insights of mentors. For example, when the dean of Associate Trainers Craig Korff (Wildrose Kennels – North Central) visits Oxford from his home in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin, Blake makes a point of sitting down with him to discuss the finer points of specific training activities.
However, don’t think for a minute that Blake is an all-work-and-no-play type of guy. Far from it. Everyone on the staff—including Blake himself—views him as a jokester. As keen an observer of people as he is of dogs, Blake easily seizes on someone’s characteristics,
foibles, or circumstances and makes playful remarks. As I join the staff for weekly Group Work sessions, I’ll soon hear Blake’s comedic commentary on someone and something they said or did. Soon, I’ll become the focus of his barbs, as I work—not always with the sharpest technique—through the day’s training scenarios.
Yes, Blake is a tonic, lifting everyone’s spirits even on Mississippi’s most languid summer days. And no time does he do this more effectively than in his prankster mode. Bearing a mischievous grin, he’ll sneak up behind someone, tickling the back of the neck with a long blade of grass. Or he’ll set up a more elaborate practical joke for a hapless fellow worker. Ending in either an impish chuckle or a belly laugh, Blake’s aim is always to bolster camaraderie and lighten the tedium, as the staff works through all the day’s goals. Associate Trainer Erin Shay Davis (Wildrose Kennels – Great Lakes) notes that even with Blake’s witty humor and brother-like teasing, “he has absolutely always made me feel like a valued member of the pack.”
Blake is all business—from start to finish—when it comes to handling dogs. At the very beginning with a new pup he works to develop a relationship with the dog, becoming the pup’s friend, orienting him to the kennel and to the other dogs, all the while just being supportive of the pup, reassuring him in his new surroundings, while still being a leader, and not letting the pup get away with any misbehavior without some correction. After they’ve established a respectful bond, Blake, works on foundational obedience— such as, sit, stay, retrieve and recall, using positive reinforcement. (See Note below.) During this introductory phase, Blake is reading the pup’s demeanor, personality, relative energy level, athleticism, ability to take line, and to retrieve on land and in water. He After getting into the dog’s mind, that is, after gaining an understanding of the dog’s way of acting and thinking, Blake designs the training techniques he’ll use, depending on his assessment of the type of pup he is dealing with.
For Blake, hold conditioning is a pivotal moment in the dog’s role as a learner and Blake’s as a leader. All of the fun field activities of retrieving end and the dog enters a two-or-three-week process focused solely learning how to develop a “good mouth” for retrieving birds. Blake says, “Hold conditioning—getting the dog to hold a stick gently but firmly in his mouth—is asking him to do something that he absolutely does not want to do, but he does it because he wants to please you.” That’s where the foundation of your relationship with the dog comes in. If Blake has developed a relationship with the dog built on respect, the dog will go through the various steps of hold conditioning, motivated by a desire to please his trainer. As Blake explains further, “We don’t force a dog to hold. He must do it on his own. But he does it because he knows you want him to.”
Following a successful hold conditioning process, Blake carries the dog back into the field work activities, sharpening up lining drills along a fence, teaching multiple types of retrieves on land and water, using a variety of birds and bumpers, introducing gunfire, etc. Besides working through the training regimen alone with the dog, Blake says, “I also do a ton of group work to steady the dog up. I want him to learn that when he’s in the field that he has to honor other dogs, to be steady when they are working, and to wait quietly and patiently for his turn. Blake continues over the last several weeks of a dog’s training to build on that early relationship with the dog, shaping him into the best gundog he can be.
Over the years of handling experience, Blake has developed savvy in reading dogs. As Erin Davis says, “Blake has a great eye for exceptional waterfowl retrievers, knowing exactly what it takes to be successful afield from a practical stance.” Midwesterner Davis wryly notes his Southern roots when she says, “Through his sweet Southern drawl, he’ll freely share a mountain of honesty about a dog’s abilities for the field and help you best prepare for a hunt.”
Adding more detail, Erin says, “As a handler and trainer Blake has the commanding presence of an assertive leader who gives clear direction to his dogs.” Erin observes, “One of Blake’s major strength’s is knowing when to let a dog work and when to step in and help him out. His ability to anticipate the dog’s needs, know his individual strengths and weaknesses, and creating diverse training scenarios allows him to produce confident dogs that excel in the field.”
After working with a dog for several months to its achievement of being a started dog, Blake still has another job to do: training its owner to handle the dog effectively. Understanding Mike’s insight about novice handlers and trained dogs (as noted above), Blake has the owner begin working the dog through a training activity while Blake watches from behind. Blake says, “The dog knows more at this point than the owner. The dog is familiar with the drill; he’ not going to mess up. At a certain point I will interrupt the activity, have the owner put the dog at sit, and I’ll walk in front of the owner, and ask him why. ‘Why did you do this or that? Why?’ It’s not necessarily that he did anything wrong, but I want the owner to stop focusing on the end goal and get inside the process, not struggle through the drill and maybe let the dog go off course or become disobedient. Rather, I want the owner to focus on reading the dog, staying in the moment, thinking through the process with the dog, and thinking like a handler: ‘Which hand do I signal with? When do I blow the whistle? How loud do I blow it?’ That’s when the owner begins to think like a handler and can become much more effective working with his dog.”
Blake sees this moment of discovery for the owner—reading his dog and thinking like a handler—as an essential step to his effectiveness throughout his life with the dog. While the owner has observed Blake using “muscle memory,” just intuitively employing timing, tempo, and tone to work with the dog, the owner has to think through every step of the drill, every action of the handler, until he can begin developing facility with it. Blake hopes that the owner will hold this revelation in his mind and go home and practice, practice, practice with his dog—all the while developing that respectful, trusting relationship with the dog that Blake has developed with him.
Guy Billups (Wildrose Kennels Texas) attests to Blake’s acumen in reading dogs and in enabling dog owners to become dog handlers:
“Blake does an outstanding job teaching handlers how to problem solve anything with a dog, going beyond just getting a drill done to making sure the dog understands the command. It is very important to know why and how a dog does something not just that he does it. To me this is probably more important than any one drill. As trainers we can do great things with clients’ dogs but if the end users, the dogs’ owners, can’t perform the same tasks and eventually continue the dogs’ improvement, then it is all for naught. I think everyone beams when a dog comes back to the kennel better than when he left training. It means we successfully trained the handler. As we opened Wildrose Texas, I was concerned about how to translate dog training to dog owners. Blake was very helpful when I quizzed him on what clients receiving newly trained dogs should be instructed to do with their dogs. I knew what I could do with owner’s dog but it was important to understand how the owner could build up to that point, by starting out slow and small, as they got back in sync with their now-trained gundog. Blake’s ability to teach handlers is paramount to his and Wildrose’s successful delivery of proficiently trained retrievers for the home and field.”
On a recent weekend, Blake flew to another state with a dog that he trained for several months, delivering it to the owner and spending valuable time enabling the owner to begin learning how to become a handler.
Returning to Wildrose the next week satisfied with that delivery, he began a new day, finding stimulation in getting out with his string of dogs, because each day is fun. Something different happens every day. No day is the same. And he enjoys the mutually supportive friends on the kennel staff. And who knows the fun that a new day can offer a trickster!
The concept of relationship between trainer and dog, as discussed here, concur with Linda Case’s recently published analysis of how a “well-known psychological phenomenon called the Benjamin Franklin Effect” works in dog training. Her review of research studies bears reading by the interested dog trainer. Her conclusions show that both positive and negative reinforcement have significant outcomes on the cognitive and emotional state of the dog as well as on the dog’s owner. Simplified conclusion: Dogs perform and feel better when trained with positive reinforcement and owners feel better about the dogs they train with positive reinforcement. With negative reinforcement, the opposite is true for both dogs and owners (Linda P. Case 199-201).
Linda P. Case, Dog Smart: Evidence-based Training with The Science Dog, Mahomet, IL, AutumnGold Publishing, 2018.
Mike Stewart, Sporting Dog and Retriever Training The Wildrose Way, New York: Universe Publishing, 2012.