"WHISKEY." Mike Stewart, the owner of Oxford, Mississippi's Wildrose Kennels, gives the retrieve command flatly, as if he's ordering a round, and the yellow Lab at his left knee fairly launches onto the Colorado sage flats after a scented dummy. But a few paces in, Stewart peeps a whistle and Whiskey skids and sits.
"Drake." The black Lab at Stewart's other knee uncoils and lines past Whiskey before Stewart stops him with the whistle as well.
"Whiskey, back." And Whiskey is off again, snatching the dummy and returning it.
Alas, neither of these genteel all-stars is my eight-month-old chocolate Lab, Danger, whom I've brought to Wildrose's new summer facility in Granite, Colorado, to mold into a dependable pal for hunting, skiing, fishing, and mountain biking. No, while Stewart demonstrates the results of his low-force training, Dangera Wildrose-bred UK retriever, like Whiskey and Drakeis an intermittent and rebellious glimpse of brown in the swamp willows behind us.
Stewart, 54, the son of a horse trainer, stands six foot two and looks as imposing as the Ole Miss campus-police chief he was in the eighties. His first career shows in the way he interacts with dogs; he's calm, direct, and fair, and he reacts swiftly and assertively when pups challenge him. His philosophyhe calls it the Wildrose Waywas developed over the past 30 years around the pack-leadership obedience techniques that pop-culture dog gurus like Cesar Millan espouse.
It works like this: Establish yourself as the dominant dog by doing things like eating first, leading through doorways, and carrying yourself like an alpha. That means cutting out the indiscriminate cooing, petting, and stick throwing. It's these last few that get everybody, including me. When I tell Stewart that my girlfriend squeals at Danger and twirls his ears, he says, "I can't change the dog.
I can only change the people. Send her up here next week and I'll train her."
When I finally manage to get a leash on Danger, Stewart leads me through some basic heeling drills: "Danger." Wait for eye contact. "Heel." When he's at my knee: "Good dog." If he gets too far ahead, snap the lead or reverse directions. Reinforce good habits and correct the bad. It works: After a couple of days, Danger is making consistent eye contact and acting calmer, though ingraining good habits takes months and years.
If none of this sounds particularly advanced for a hunting dog, that's because the majority of the training for any working retriever comes down to obedience. All dogs, be they hunting stock or pound puppies, are smart; the important question is whether they're interested in pleasing their handler. Danger is prone to relapses, and not long after our trip to Wildrose, that tendency results in three costly trips to the vetfor a barbed-wire cut, a close call on a pulled ACL, and a deworming after what we'll call the Diaper Incident. The cause was the same in each case: out-of-control dog, untrained owner.
Now I take obedience seriously, if only for Danger's health. And for his part, he thrashes around in the brush with more purpose and always returns with the duckmy reward.