5 Lessons from Expert Dog Trainers

What Durrell Smith has learned from these legendary Southern gun-dog trainers can’t be found in any book.

Durrell kneeling in a field holding a hunting dog's collar

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.

A gun dog next to its trainer in a field
A group of men on horseback walking a woodland path
Durrell smiling with his hunting dog


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.

A dog smiling at camera while leaning against his owner

1. First, be your dog’s friend

One day, when I arrived at Dekle Plantation for a day of working dogs off horseback, Curtis called me to come to his horse trailer. He and Neal had conspired to give me one of their dogs, and Curtis knew he had the perfect dog for what I needed. Out of the crate came a yearling pup, long-legged and ready to roll, but with no understanding of what his genetics had in store for him. This gift of a dog from Curtis meant the world to me, and I told him that I was aware that I’d have big shoes to fill. He laughed and handed me a long lead to handle the dog.

 

I wanted to get right to work with Jughead, but as I set down a pen-raised quail in a tip-up trap at the far end of the field where the horse trailers were parked, Curtis stopped me. His words were simple: “Before you get to tryin’ to work this dog, you need to be the dog’s friend and he’ll give you the world.” Those words have guided my training ever since. Befriending the dog, developing a relationship, and earning the dog’s respect is the single most important part of working a hunting dog, and following Curtis’s advice has been invaluable to the success I’ve had with this young dog thus far. Each day after training, the dog looks up at me, wide as his hazel eyes are, with confirmation that he enjoyed the session as much as I enjoyed watching him put the pieces of the puzzle together.

A hunting dog standing in a field

2. Get to know the dog’s natural skills and limitations

Knowing what you’re getting into before you acquire a dog is vital. Doing an abundance of research and asking the right questions about the dog’s pedigree and genetics will help you avoid a lot of headaches during the training process. This is true whether you’re training a hunting dog or a pet. A dog with a genetic predisposition to range 300 to 600 yards might not be ideal somewhere like the grouse woods of the Northeast, and a dog bred to hunt closer, say under 100 yards, might make for a long, slow day in the chukar hills or the western prairies. A retriever whose parents were never quiet in the duck blind might grow up to create quite a commotion and scare away birds that might come into shooting range. Take a look at your desired breed’s pedigree, what part of the country the dog came from, and especially what the dam and sire look like in the field.

A dog standing still for a trainer who is attaching a collar around the neck

3. Develop a daily routine and stick to it

My wife often tells me that I’m obsessive about managing my dogs and getting kennel chores done. My routine is simple: come home from work, play with my son and daughter and hang out with my wife, and before the day is over, get out to the kennel to yard work the dogs. Admittedly, I can be a pretty scattered individual, but Neal stressed that dogs learn most from routine and regimen. It’s non-negotiable, and some very basic, foundational tasks absolutely have to be done each and every day. It’s not about putting a dog on birds daily, but taking 15 to 20 minutes each day with each dog to polish the foundational skills that the dog needs. It doesn’t take much—having the dog stop and stand, sit in place, or hold and carry a bumper—but the dog needs to see that you are there and you are committed to them. Each day, Neal walks the length of his 11-run kennel and addresses each dog by name, with kindness of heart, and a light pair of hands. Each dog receives some form of foundational interaction every day, no matter the circumstances.

Two men walking with hunting dogs in a field

4. Get another set of eyes on your dog

Since meeting Neal, Curtis, and Joe, I’ve always admired the peer-to-peer evaluation that each offers to the others during a day afield. It’s critical, honest, tough love, but everyone is in it to make the next man better. Frankly, some dogs just aren’t “gettin’ it done” like you might think. When I’m working my dogs with Neal, he makes note of things that my dog Vegas may be doing well, and with the same passion and wisdom, Curtis surveys my training videos and my field work, noting the areas where I’m falling short in working Jughead. Joe knows if I’ve put too much pressure on a dog and will tell me to ease up. We talk a lot of good-natured trash to each other, but we also congratulate each other on good dog work. Having a second pair of eyes in the field has been a priceless asset that reveals how many things one might miss while training independently of others. Find a training partner, preferably someone who knows more than you, in order to see outside of the blinders that we all develop for our dogs.

A man and dog walking through a field

5. Take ownership in showmanship

One unique characteristic that I absolutely love about Joe Fryson is that he’s loud and takes command of the field. Everyone knows and respects when Joe is competing. One thing I’ve learned is that a handler who can’t take control and ownership of the field leaves it open for the dog to assert its own authority. Being confident in your ability and being the leader in the field doesn’t mean applying more pressure or doing a whole lot of squallin’. It means being assertive and exacting. Taking pride in the way you show a dog in the field is a reflection of the confidence you have in your dog, the relationship you have with the dog, and the work you’ve put into the dog. I love to see a dog running to the front, tail high and cracking, head high, and happy to work for the handler all while the handler moves patiently through the field, calling only when necessary, and delivering that call in a way that lets the dog know who is boss. There is no negotiation, yet the dog is happy to be seen and to perform for you.

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.


Durrell Smith is winner of the 2021 Orvis Breaking Barriers Award. He is also the host of the Gun Dog Notebook podcast, a founder of the Minority Outdoor Alliance, and a fine artist.

Two men talking in the back of a truck with a dog
A trainer working a dog in a field
A group of 4 men on horseback in a tree-lined field


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