Building a Life Around Dogs in the Field
Melinda Benbow’s love of dogs and discovery of upland hunting have become her business and her passion.
When it came time to choose a hunting-dog breed for her first companion in the field, Melinda Benbow knew that she wanted something different. “As a biracial woman in the hunting world, I stick out like a sore thumb,” she says. “. And, cliché as it may be, I wanted a dog that stuck out, as well.” So Melinda did what she’s always done, when it comes to dogs—she learned as much as she could on the subject and made an informed, well-thought-out decision. Last August, she traveled from her home in Indianapolis to Wisconsin to pick up a Ryman-type English setter puppy, whom she named Shotgun Sugar (Suge, pronounced shoog, for short). This was the culmination of a lifelong fascination with dogs and hunting, and a first step toward her goal of training and breeding hunting dogs.
For Melinda—who owns and operates Urban Uplander Pet Care, in Indianapolis—dogs have been an obsession since she was a young child. “When I was a girl, I wanted a dog more than anything in the world,” she says. This obsession began soon after Melinda’s family moved to small-town Wisconsin when she was about five years old. As a child of color in an overwhelmingly white community, she always felt slightly separate from the other kids. “When I would go to their homes for playtime and sleepovers, the highlight was often the time I spent with their pets,” she remembers. “I seemed to have an intuitive understanding of dogs and was better able to read their intentions than those of the strangers around me.” This connection was so deep that Melinda spent most of her free time researching dogs—studying breeds, care, nutrition, training, and basic husbandry.
“As a biracial woman in the hunting world, I stick out like a sore thumb,” she says, “and, cliché as it may be, I wanted a dog that stuck out, as well.”
Finally, just before Melinda’s 13th birthday, she got her first dog—a black cocker-spaniel puppy named Maggie. Melinda began to put all her knowledge of training and socialization to work, so Maggie would be the best dog ever. Unfortunately, the other members of the family were not on the same page. “Maggie quickly discovered that my dad would bend to her every whim and spoil her,” Melinda laughs, “so she ended up becoming his dog, rather than mine.” It was a formative lesson about dog training and about relying on others to share her level of commitment.
As a young adult, Melinda got her regular dog fix by pet sitting, dog walking, studying to become a veterinarian (a path she determined she wasn’t passionate about), and working for a pet-sitting company. All of this experience helped her discover her own standards for pet care and motivated her to launch her own business. She took a National Association of Professional Pet Sitters course and learned everything from animal behavior, nutrition, and housing, to first aid and general care for animals. Melinda began to build her own business as a certified pet-care professional while working as a positive-reinforcement dog trainer (an approach she endorses to this day). Within the first year, Melinda’s was named one of the city’s Top Five Pet Care Companies, and in the five years since she went out on her own, she has built a thriving business that offers a range of pet sitting, day care, boarding, and training services.
An early client who had four trained German shorthair pointers, all trained as gundogs, rekindled another fascination from Melinda’s childhood--hunting. In Wisconsin, the schools would empty out when deer season came around because everyone would be off at their cabin hunting with their family. “It seemed like something that ‘normal’ families did together,” Melinda says, “and I really wanted that.” Although her parents never allowed Melinda to take up hunting, they did buy her a camouflage coat and a BB gun one year for Christmas. She didn't get to use the BB gun much, but she wore the camouflage coat down to the last thread.
Three years ago, Melinda attended her first Becoming an Outdoors-Woman (B.O.W.) retreat, a three-day event with classes that range from gun-handling to an introduction to small game. She realized that not only does she love shotguns, but she is pretty good at using them, too. Soon after B.O.W., Melinda launched an Instagram account that focuses on the sporting breeds that she had worked with. This sparked conversations with more bird doggers and hunters, and led her to Durrell Smith’s Gun Dog Notebook blog.
Last fall, Melinda spent many hours in the field with Suge, training her to hunt upland birds, as well as to participate in field trials. As her interest in hunting dogs has grown, so have the possibilities for the future. Her goals are to advance her dog-training certifications to the highest possible level, showcase her skills by accumulating as many titles as possible with Suge, and find the opportunity to hunt wild birds over Suge. “I also want to travel to educate others in the bird-dog community about the power and importance of positive reinforcement for dog training and training in general,” she says. A young girl’s dream of one day owning a dog has expanded into Melinda’s life’s work, which is more fulfilling and eye-opening than she could have imagined.