How a Champion is Born and Raised
By Dr. Ben W. McClelland
Just over three years ago when Hattie Billups went to Wildrose’s puppy pickin’ of a Deke and Mira litter, she didn’t get to pick one. After the other new owners picked their pups, the last pup was put in Hattie’s arms. Sure, Deke and Mira come from proven bloodlines, but in his training book Mike cautions prospective owners that are looking at a litter of puppies:
You’re making a decision based on the probability that a pup from a proven bloodline will inherit the desirable traits from its parents and grandparents. In doing so, you have to be reasonable about expected outcomes. Variables do exist between pups and even between littermates. Think of a family with four children. All four children are not going to be the same; they will differ in size, temperament, personality, learning ability, development, and even likes and dislikes. The same variables will exist between pups within a litter. A good breeder can give you genetic predictability, but it can’t give you absolutes. (Stewart 26. Emphasis added.)
So, Hattie took home her new pup—Gus—hoping that he had the desirable traits and that
she could develop him into the gundog that she hoped for. It wasn’t exactly a crapshoot, but whether Gus would excel or not was an open question. And—oh, yes—as a novice handler, Hattie had to develop effective handling skills.
Many of you know that at the end of a three-year journey together Hattie and Gus won Wildrose’s Double Gun Classic. Hattie and Gus didn’t just become a good team. They excelled at the highest level in two days of competition against twenty-some of the best handlers and dogs in the Wildrose pack. How did “probability” and “genetic predictability” result in perfect performance?
The story began some time before this novice handler met the last pup left. At the Wildrose Double Gun Classic at Greystone Castle in Dallas, Texas, Hattie’s husband, Guy, and their son, GC, enjoyed the exciting activities where veteran dog handlers worked their marvelous canines through multiple training-and-shooting scenarios. Afterwards, the two Guys suggested that Hattie get her own dog. She agreed and thus came the trip to Oxford to get Gus.
Gus came home to an existing Billups Pack that included a chihuahua, Nacho, and Guy’s two-year-old, trained Labrador, Corky. While Corky was delighted to meet Gus, Nacho, who likes attention, wasn’t as thrilled. Corky hunts upland, waterfowl, and deer. Guy will place him at the base of the tree he climbs up. In a recent hunt Guy shot a deer that ran out of the field. Guy climbed down and told Corky to go find it, which he soon did. Corky has also tracked several deer for guests at the Billups’ hunting camp. Corky did what they hoped Gus would do.
Within a year, a Wildrose female pup arrived, making life a little more challenging. Coffee is Guy’s dog and he named her Wildrose High Octane Coffee because of their coffee company. Hattie says that Coffee has lived up to her name because she has so much energy. But true to the nature of British Labs, she lies on place inside the home without issue. All live in the family home in harmony on place.
Gus, who sleeps on a Kuranda bed, was crate trained from the beginning. Hattie required that Gus be obedient and fit into the family pack. She says, “Gus’s being well behaved is what makes him enjoyable for me to spend time with him in all other areas of our life.” Soon he and Hattie attended puppy class at Wildrose. So, his training began early on. And so did Hattie’s.
Guy had trained his dog, Corky, and now Hattie wanted to train her dog, Gus. Her son, GC, encouraged her to train Gus, but being unsure that she had the skill to train a hunting dog, Hattie began to train herself to train Gus. She understood what Mike advises in his training book:
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 effective principles of dog training. (Stewart 35)
Hattie read Mike’s training book and attended Wildrose workshops with Gus. She discovered that as she got more confident as a handler, Gus gained more confidence as well, making the work of training fun.
Hattie made other discoveries, as she reports, “After our first dove hunt, I realized that I needed to learn to shoot better for my dog. It is sad to have a really great dog and you don’t hit anything for him to retrieve.” So, she began to practice her marksmanship, making her a better wingshooter and piquing Gus’s interest in hunting. Hattie saw during their first hunts, when she didn’t hit birds, that Gus would just watch the ground. Later, as her shooting improved, Gus watched the end of her barrel. It didn’t take long for him to make the connection and now he watches the sky, waiting to mark the falling game.
As they trained in various situations, Hattie observed Gus’s incredible drive no matter what they were doing. She says, “I have heard others talk about their dogs getting bored with training. I have never experienced Gus getting bored with anything to do with training. I can do some of the most basic skills and he doesn’t mind. He has the same drive no matter the skill. He absolutely loves anything involving water.”
Keenly observing his behavior, Hattie discovered something else about Gus: He wanted to do well for her. As she says, “When he was younger if we were practicing a new skill in the field and perhaps he didn’t understand what I wanted, he would sit down and look at me until I gave him a recall. He didn’t shut down, but he didn’t want to do the wrong thing either.”
It became evident that Gus possessed some superior qualities. “Amazing,” was Guy’s word when he mentioned it to Hattie. Guy has trained several retrieving dogs through the years, including a HRC Hunt Test champion. GC, who also watched them work together, was the next person that told Hattie that she had a special dog.
As the bond between them grew stronger, Hattie developed a passion for handling Gus. She says, “I would say the passion I feel today was not there from day one. It has developed over the time I spent with Gus, during the activities that we did and continue to do together now.”
Earlier in the Billups’ life, Hattie and Guy traveled all over the country with their daughter, Claudia, who has been riding horses since she was five years old. While Guy and GC hunted, fished, and talked football, Hattie enjoyed watching their daughter ride, watching GC play football, and she also enjoyed going fishing and some hunting with Guy. However, as she says, “Now having my own dog, that I trained myself, by my side has given me a passion to be a better trainer, hunter, and adventurer.” This relationship that made champions out of both of them bloomed over many days of repetitive training.
When Gus was four months old, the Billups Pack attended a handlers workshop at Wildrose. In the morning session Hattie worked Gus. In the afternoon she used Corky to complete the workshop. Gus learned to honor dogs during the session. Hattie found that attending the workshop and continuing to read Mike’s training book brought it all together for her.
Once she had decided to be Gus’s primary handler, Hattie vowed to work with him six days a week—every single week no matter what. Sometimes the weather was bad. No matter. They continued to train even if they had to do it inside. And then, when Gus was six months old, a major catastrophe challenged their training regimen—Hattie broke her ankle and had to wear a boot for several weeks. No matter. They continued to train. She did not want to turn over the training duties to Guy. As Gus’s primary handler, she didn’t want him to look to anyone else for commands, so she set up training activities in their yard and, steadying herself with crutches, she worked with him. During this time Hattie also took Gus to Wildrose weekly to get help from trainers in meeting their training goals.
Over time Hattie and Gus worked through the gundog program, including hold conditioning, whistle and handling activities, and introduction to gunfire. Their progress together was not some fantasy-like unbroken line upward. It was real life. Good days and bad. Through it all they stuck with it. Guy and GC encouraged her, lifting her spirits when she became discouraged and cheering her on.
Early on in her days as a novice trainer, Hattie watched other handlers and realized that sometimes she expected Gus to do a skill before he was ready. Someone counseled her, “Enjoy him when he’s young. The steadiness will all come together and all the other skills. Just relax and learn to let things happen naturally. Let everything pull together as he grows.”
She took the advice. Moreover, Hattie trained with Gus, simulating what their first hunt would be like. Hattie, reports, “I made sure he was familiar with decoys. I trained him in the yard wearing his vest and leaving and returning to his MoMarsh stand. I launched several marks to simulate several ducks falling.” She also practiced sending Gus on multiple retrieves in a pond full of fallen timbers. Still, their first hunt together was terrible. Transitioning from training to an actual hunt can bring challenges. Hattie says, “Gus’s very first duck hunt was devastating to me. I was so disappointed. He seemed to be running around like a nut. He wasn’t marking the birds, or listening, or taking hand signals.” Hattie first thought that all the training was for nothing. And then came the second hunt and the situation was more familiar to Gus. Hattie says, “The second hunt was a 180-degree turn around. Gus was watching the skies and marking the birds. It was like a snap of a finger and it all came together. Night and day difference. It all fell into place.” Her evolution as a handler, as Gus’s development into a skilled gundog progressed together.
Reflecting on some of their various activities together, Hattie makes several observations that handlers can benefit from:
- Some days we spend several hours in the cab of the tractor disking or bush hogging. Gus and I walk around the edge of our hayfield so I can get my number of steps in a day. Some days we just walk, some days we train during the walk. I like to take a tennis ball with us to work on his steadiness. I quickly learned that I needed to change things up. Not because he would get bored but if I do several days of long retrieves then we need to do some short ones as well. As the training book describes – cyclical training. If you hunt cover for several days, you have to punch through past the cover and hunt or hunt before he gets to the cover. GC has encouraged me to swim him more and give him days off from training to let him recover from a hard training day.
- Some days we just get in the yard and work on hand signals with the bumpers within ten-to-twenty feet to make him think about what I am asking him to do.
- I think one of the most important things I have learned from watching Mike train is the dog’s success. Sometimes I would think I was doing something too easy and Guy would remind me it is all about the dog being successful, building his confidence.
- During the summer of 2017 I wanted to make sure Gus was solid on hand signals, so I cut paths in the hayfield with my lawn mower. I cut a big “+” sign in the field. I put Gus in the middle gave him right/left and back casts to the bumpers. Also, there was one particular permanent blind he had a terrible time grasping, so I cut a path through the hay field to that blind. I’m sure the field looked interesting from a plane.
However, life for Hattie and Gus was not all fieldwork. They went fishing with the family, worked on Adventure Dog skills—bikes, restaurants, rides in tractor, rides in side-by-sides, rides on four wheelers. They took family trips to Houston and stayed in hotels. Hattie says, “We have always traveled with our dogs. We visit family on the coast and go to Dallas to spend time with our grandson as often as possible. The dogs travel great. Whether we stay in hotels or our camper. They are used to the routine. They learned to take advantage of the travel days to rest for the days when we hunt.” Gus became a member of family. And the handler-dog bond continued to grow between him and Hattie.
That bond was tested and proved solid under various circumstances, including competition at Wildrose’s Double Gun Classic. Their first time Gus was young, but had a great experience. The encounter stimulated Hattie’s passion even further. As she says, “The second year I told Guy and GC that I wanted Gus to win in 2018. I trained and worked toward that goal. I tried to think of the different retrieves I saw dogs accomplish over the first two events. I would use the round bales of hay on our farm to stand beside, and I would set up really long blinds because I remembered there would be some on Sunday in the backfield.”
Hattie describes her experience with Gus during the DG competition:
- I was so pleased with Gus because he did everything I asked him to do. He took straight lines, he stopped when I blew the whistle, and took the proper cast. The first bird we were asked to retrieve I had to send him past a peg and over the hill. Because I could not see the bird that was down, I made sure to line him in the wind cone especially because I knew he would be out of sight. He took the line and as he started slowing down, I gave him a back and he went out of my sight. All I could do was wait and within seconds he was returning with the bird.
- The second bird we were asked to retrieve went down about 200-250 yards away. Gus took a perfect line for probably 100 yards. I saw him slowing to start hunting and I whistled. I gave him an exaggerated back cast to encourage him to go way back. After he ran another 50-75 yards I saw him slowing to hunt. I whistled and gave him another exaggerated back cast. As soon as he turned that time the bird fluttered and he was locked in.
- The third retrieve wasn’t as far but he did have to hunt a little because it was partially under the cut grass. He stopped at every whistle and took every cast. Working with him in that hunt made me appreciate the wonderful companion I have. They put the last pup of the litter in my arms and I couldn’t have picked a better dog.
Although they worked and worked for perfection daily, Hattie was surprised at the outcome. She says, “Even though I set the goal for myself, I was still shocked when we actually won Double Gun. There were so many great dogs, great handlers, and great retrieves. I told Guy when we left the backfield on Sunday morning that whether we won or not, I couldn’t be happier with Gus.”
In accepting the Double Gun award, Hattie spoke humbly of her achievement, but revealed that finding a group of like-minded people at Wildrose and developing her passion for the relationship with Gus were key to their success.
Here’s how she sums up her experiences and feelings:
- Wildrose has changed my life tremendously. We traveled all over the country with our daughter and her horses. People joke that now that we don’t have horses anymore, we have “gone to the dogs.” And even though I have hobbies that I enjoy, I wouldn’t say I have a passion about any of them until Gus. Of course, my daughter, Claudia, and I have that mother/daughter bond but I didn’t have the same bond with my son, GC. Now I feel like I have that bond with GC through our dogs. I feel the passion for the adventures with Gus.
- I want to become a better shooter for Gus. If I don’t hit the birds, then he doesn’t get retrieves. Guy used to buy me jewelry for birthdays, anniversaries and holidays. Now I get shotguns, leather cases, waders, hunting bags, and dog training stuff. I love it.
- I set the goal for Gus to become a Master Trekker Adventure Dog. We attended two Adventure Dog Workshops in Arkansas, the Wildrose Bahamas Adventure Dog Workshop, and worked on other skills around town. Gus received his Master Trekker badge in March. Gus is also the reigning Bahamas Coconut Retrievier Champion. Our next goal is for Gus to get his Therapy Dog certification. I am fascinated with the stories of how the dogs have helped children and adults with special needs or challenges. Although Gus has a lot of drive he also has loving eyes and a gentle heart.
- We have made so many friends being part of the Wildrose pack. Attending the workshops and hunts is a great learning experience but more than that, it is great spending time with so many people with the same interest and passion. As I said, we have traveled with our daughter, Claudia, competing in horse shows all over the country and met a lot of people. However, the friendships and camaraderie doesn’t compare to the Wildrose Pack. The only judged event is Double Gun, but even then everyone is so encouraging. The pack is a group of people that enjoy spending time with their dogs and watching other dogs make great retrieves.
As is evident from reading about Hattie’s life with Gus, she is not one to let them rest on their laurels. Following their Double Gun weekend, the Billups Pack went on a three-week-long hunting adventure in several venues.
Hattie reported on their first experience in a big time pheasant hunt, “Pheasant hunting in North Dakota was amazing. It is a challenge physically for sure. I do a lot of walking normally, but the walking through the terrain in North Dakota was certainly a bit of a challenge at times. Nevertheless, I was so excited that on our first hunt I got a rooster and Gus retrieved it.
Wildrose Kennels can give you a pup that possesses the probability of becoming a successful gundog. The genes promise only predictability. So, it takes a dog handler to turn probability and predictability into proven success. Hattie and Gus show how a champion is both born and raised.
Mike Stewart with Paul Fersen, Sporting Dog and Retriever Training the Wildrose Way: Raising a Gentleman’s Gundog for Home and Field. New York: Universe Publishing, 2012.