5 Things I Learned from My Dog-Training Mentors
By Durrell Smith
About four and a half years ago, while leafing through an issue of Garden & Gun at the grocery store, I found inspiration and, eventually, mentorship as I dove into the pursuit of learning about and developing bird dogs. A story in the magazine featured men who looked like me, on horseback posing with long-tailed, white dogs. Neal Carter was the head kennel manager at Sinkola Plantation in Thomasville, Georgia, and Curtis Brooks Sr., standing valiantly with his Pointer on the tailgate, ran the kennel at Tamathli Plantation, a few miles south in Quitman. President and Vice President of the Georgia-Florida Shooting Dog Handlers Club—sometimes called the Black Handlers Club—Neal and Curtis run dogs in the organization’s annual field trial, along with more than thirty other men bent on demonstrating their acquired skill and craft in front of a gallery of folks on horseback in the midst of elusive, wild bobwhite quail.
As soon as I saw those images, I knew that I needed to find these men and figure out what made me so drawn to them. I met Neal in October of 2018 and was able to attend the trial the following year. While sitting in the passenger seat of a gallery Jeep driven by Joe Fryson, I was entertained by his wit and listened closely as he subtly dropped sage wisdom about the way bird dogs operated and provided deeper insights on why the dogs were performing the way they did. Somewhere later in the conversation, Joe told us that he wasn’t competing in that year’s trial—won by Curtis Brooks Sr. with his setter, Tamathlion Cody—but predicted he would take top honors the following year. He sure didn’t lie, as he won the 2020 trial with Melrose Big Rambler.
These men have provided me with their time, camaraderie, and mentorship over the last few years. And their histories and knowledge of handling bird dogs has been the central driving force to my own success. I owe it to them to not only perfect their methods and techniques to the best of my ability, but also to pass along that knowledge to the next generation of aspiring handlers. Here are five important lessons about dog training that I have learned from these masters.
In the end, it all goes back to the art of handling dogs. These men have learned over the years that the key to success is to keep the job simple, fun, and effective. Their art is in the way they study a dog’s movements and demeanor. It’s a practice that's been passed on from generation to generation, and each of these three men has presented me with more gems of knowledge than I’d ever fathomed, yet it’s all based on an ethic of simplicity.