Hunting dog trainer Tom Dokken with his black Lab, Chase.

Tom Dokken Is the Godfather of Retriever Training in America Leave a comment

For those who’ve ever owned a chook canine, then you definately’ve in all probability acquired Tom Dokken to thank. Possibly you learn his e-book or used the examine twine he designed. You virtually actually purchased a Useless Fowl Coach (or an imitation of 1) to show your pup the correct maintain on a chook. Or possibly you despatched your canine off to a coach who learn Dokken’s columns or attended his seminars, or possibly even skilled underneath Dokken himself.

Throughout his five-decade profession, Dokken based Oak Ridge Kennels, developed his personal line of retriever-training merchandise, and helped a great deal of newbie trainers like me. He has skilled 1000’s of gun canine and helped reshape gun canine tradition in America. At 69, Dokken continues to be working his kennel, coaching canine himself, tinkering away with new innovations, and looking laborious. And regardless that there are extra professional trainers now than ever earlier than, extra coaching movies, extra on-line tutorials, and extra “consultants,” Dokken’s coaching technique and philosophy are simply as vital at this time as they have been a long time in the past.

As a Minnesotan by start and South Dakotan by residency, looking, farming, and manners are programmed into his DNA. Dokken doesn’t swear, as a substitute counting on Midwestern standbys like “geez,” “jeepers,” and “goat rope.” When introduced with an issue, he doesn’t stall or gripe. He solves it.

A part of what makes Dokken an elite coach are these Midwestern roots. Together with his canine, he’s delicate mannered however agency. He’s pleasant with out overpraising. When a canine makes a mistake or is willfully disobedient, he by no means loses his mood. Tom Dokken is, above all else, even keeled. The canine he trains acknowledge that confidence and authority, and respect it.

And so do their homeowners. As a result of if you prepare with the perfect, you possibly can’t assist however really feel you and your canine are going to turn out to be the perfect you will be, too.

Coaching with Tom Dokken is instructive for each the creator and her pup. Invoice Buckley

The Dokken Philosophy

When Dokken started his profession, trainers would get one-year-old or older canine—an expertise he’s likened to “wrestling alligators.”

“You wouldn’t see them after they have been younger. We began a two-week chook and gun program [for pups as young as five months] after I began my very own enterprise. It’s a lot simpler to see them at that age. Their drive is up right here, slightly below the floor,” Dokken says, holding his hand excessive. “The older they get”—his hand drops steadily—“the tougher it’s to entry that drive. If there are social or developmental points, now’s the time we will really do one thing with them [to address it].”

Dokken gained’t say he was the primary gun canine coach to tackle such younger pups, since he can’t be certain what was taking place nationally within the Nineteen Seventies. Nevertheless it was a brand new method at a time when looking canine lived exterior and weren’t a part of our households the best way they’re at this time.

“I don’t wish to take credit score for that stuff, nevertheless it had a big impact on not simply our [bird and gun] program, however the way it set the stage for the subsequent course, which is ending coaching. We acquired them on the fitting path instantly.”

Dokken acquired a have a look at my yellow Lab, Hatchet, when he was six months outdated. We’d been invited to the Dokken’s house in South Dakota for summer season coaching earlier than Hatchet’s first chook season. I’d taken care to socialize my pup and run him by the obedience outlined in Dokken’s e-book, together with a primary introduction to birds, however I had no expertise coaching a gun canine.

Hatchet Krebs holding a dummy.
The creator’s canine practices his maintain. Invoice Buckley

As a substitute of slinging recommendation or plowing right into a textbook bird-and-gun program, Dokken merely noticed us work collectively. He studied our progress with out judgement, and requested questions to raised perceive Hatchet’s temperament and drive as a result of, as he famous, I do know my canine finest. I knew Hatchet to be desperate to please, regular, a reluctant recaller, weak on land retrieves (as a consequence of our recall troubles), and a robust retriever on the water.

Quickly Dokken prescribed a routine of enjoyable chook and gun introduction, the place he minimize my pup unfastened on clipped-wing pigeons with the steering of a examine twine. Dokken studied Hatchet’s physique language carefully at every step—if he twitched or checked out all uncomfortable, they’d again up. Dokken ran by a gambit of clapping, shouting, .22 blanks, and 20-gauge shells, making noise at a distance with every and transferring nearer till he may unload a 12 gauge over Hatchet’s head and not using a twitch.

Solely as soon as did a session veer off monitor, when two pigeons in a row escaped with out Hatchet getting a retrieve. Unperturbed, Dokken produced extra pigeons from his vest like a stage magician. Even Dokken, an outstanding shot and skilled pigeon wrangler, had deliberate for the worst-case state of affairs, and was nonetheless capable of set Hatchet as much as succeed.

“He’ll at all times ask you what may occur, and if that occurs, how are you going to react?” says Tina Dokken, who has been coaching along with her husband for 20 years. “What are you going to do to appropriate the canine’s mistake? He’s attempting to get you to be ready that these issues will occur, as a result of timing is all the pieces with these canine. He does that so that you, the coach, could make errors forward of time—earlier than you make them on the canine.”

My errors have been simply corrected underneath Dokken’s steering. Our recall hassle was mounted in a single day of examine twine work and e-collar reinforcement. As we superior by Hatchet’s intermediate coaching, Dokken requested me to deal with his personal canine, a glossy black Lab, and Tina’s older chocolate, so I may get comfy with hand gestures, timing, corrections. These veteran Labs could be resilient to my slip ups.

Any time we launched Hatchet to one thing new—the heeling stick, the drive fetch desk—Dokken confirmed me the best way to make optimistic associations with these instruments earlier than including self-discipline. We let him scent the heeling stick and even pet him with it properly earlier than utilizing it to fine-tune his heel work. Within the days main as much as his first force-fetch session, he’d eagerly leap into place on the force-fetch desk, the place he acquired loads of affection.

Tom dokken training a yellow Lab.
A second of reward for Hatchet after a very good session of cripple coaching with a diving DFT mounted to a fishing rod; demonstrating a brand new section in drive fetching so the creator understands precisely the best way to run by the drill. Natalie Krebs

“Some canine will be pushed, some canine you must take a extremely sluggish method, as a result of you must hold them working,” says Dokken, who trains pups from various qualities of bloodlines. “An excessive amount of management on some canine early will take drive away. A canine with tremendous excessive drive? It is advisable begin controlling that instantly. These are the issues we discover out early. Once we do chook and gun, we’re getting that glimpse of drive stage and character.”

As a result of Oak Ridge Kennels trains looking canine, Dokken’s trainers should use chook and gun periods to construct drive and need.

“We don’t have the luxurious of washouts,” Dokken says. “If somebody is operating subject trials, that’s a excessive proportion of canine that gained’t transfer on. For us, the household isn’t going to go, Daisy isn’t actually working that properly, we’re eliminating her. Not gonna occur. So you must do something and all the pieces to get any sort of drive stage. That’s a problem, as a result of you must actually know all of the tips to tug the drive out. At 5 months, it’s simpler to entry it. At a yr in the event that they’ve had no chook contact? That’s powerful.”

These tips (and he actually means tips—this isn’t beneficial programming) embrace artistic problem-solving to get disinterested canine to select up birds. In case your canine exhibits some curiosity however gained’t choose up a pigeon, drop the chook in two-foot-tall grass. The pup would possibly seize it and drop it within the brief grass for a greater look. If the canine is an efficient swimmer, possibly you attempt a water retrieve. They’ll seize it and drop it on shore to take a look at it, however most significantly, you bought the canine to select up the chook. A retriever that loves taking part in hold away (a nasty behavior Dokken can repair in a day) is perhaps persuaded to select a chook up if it thinks you’re going to seize it.

“We have to get to the top outcome [of a capable gun dog], however we’ve to guage the canine first. They’re like folks,” says Dokken, who research a canine’s drive and character. “It’s like a group sport. You’ve acquired your tremendous athletes, the place all they wish to do is apply and apply after which play, and a few gamers who’re simply there as a result of their buddies are there.”

I hazard a guess at Hatchet’s psychological profile: Craves approval, can deal with some (however not rather a lot) of stress, and a blended drive. He’s lukewarm on drills however likes to hunt birds.

“I believe the place Hatchet is at, he wants numerous alternative now,” Dokken says diplomatically. “He must get out and hunt, get birds killed in entrance of him. He’s been on the apply squad. It is advisable put him within the recreation.”

The Making of a Legend

Lengthy earlier than he started avoiding cities with populations above 500, Dokken grew up within the suburbs of St. Paul. He had began looking with buddies north of the Twin Cities after they have been 14, these hopeful outings the place “you’d exit, however you’d by no means get something.” That hunch ended his junior yr.

“It was like, geez, that is the true deal,” says Dokken, who had tagged alongside together with his dad’s associates one morning. “We’re seeing geese, we’re taking pictures our weapons. There wasn’t a canine on that first journey, nevertheless it’s what planted the seed.”

Though {the teenager} badly needed a chook canine, his dad and mom thought their solely son was too busy with soccer, hockey, and baseball. After commencement, Dokken left for a small faculty in Minnesota and a spot on the soccer group. That lasted a semester.

“It’s like, what number of lessons are you able to miss since you’re looking and nonetheless be in class? Faculty simply actually wasn’t for me. Even in highschool. Faculty was for sports activities, and also you simply put up with going to class.”

As a substitute, Dokken began working second shift at a pc firm and spent all his free time looking together with his highschool buddy, Bruce Knowlan, who ran subject trials together with his Labs. The 2 dragged Dokken’s camper all around the northern U.S. and Canada, bowhunting caribou and taking pictures geese and residing the dirtbag life-style lengthy earlier than it was glamorized like it’s at this time. Via Knowlan’s subject trial contacts, Dokken purchased a 5-month-old Lab pup, a black feminine he named Dyno—brief for Dynamo.

“I needed to hunt, however I began operating trials too. We labored day-after-day. She favored to work, and we figured issues out collectively. And she or he was very profitable, particularly at a really younger age,” says Dokken, crediting Dyno’s drive and the time they spent coaching fairly than his personal talent. A yr later, the younger Lab was on the nationwide derby checklist and operating competitively within the highest stage of subject trials. “I didn’t know that you just weren’t supposed to have the ability to try this [with such a young dog], however we did. Lots of people paid consideration. Like, what’s that man doing there with a yr and a half outdated canine and operating within the Open?”

The pair began coaching with extra skilled handlers. Quickly Dokken took a second job cleansing kennels for Jim Kappes, Dyno’s breeder. Grunt work—feeding canine, hosing stalls, catching pigeons—finally gave strategy to a full-time coach place because the kennel grew to accommodate some 60 canine, principally looking and subject trial Labs. (Minnesota hunters, Dokken explains, are particularly a fan of Labs.) When the tough Minnesota climate settled in, Dokken would load the canine trailer and head south for the winter to coach and trial.

By his mid-twenties, Dokken was prepared to start out his personal kennel. He purchased a constructing with a fellow coach, however they shortly realized the power was restricted by metropolis ordinances and too small for the expansion they envisioned. The lads parted methods and, really on his personal now, Dokken bought a constructing in Northfield, Minnesota, and named the enterprise Oak Ridge Kennels.

“I didn’t know I couldn’t do it,” Dokken says of these early years. “Which was in all probability a very good factor. It was obvious from the primary kennel [I worked at] that the enterprise was there, and I may make a residing at it. Might I be affluent? That’s one other story.”

4 a long time later, it’s a 70-dog operation with 4 full-time trainers plus workplace and services employees. He doesn’t rent trainers from different outfits who’ve their very own concepts about looking canine, however fairly trains them to the Dokken program from the bottom up—identical to the canine. Over time, many of those trainers have gone on to start out their very own kennels and packages, and plenty of have been fairly profitable. On this means, Dokken’s coaching philosophy has expanded throughout the nation.

Present Enterprise to Businessman

Within the Nineteen Seventies, Dokken landed a slot on the Minneapolis Sports activities Present to placed on an hour-long retrieving canine act. It was an enormous deal in an period with out looking TV channels or YouTube, and 1000’s of spectators noticed what well-trained gun canine may do. Demand for Dokken’s coaching companies exploded. Then a expertise agent from New York Metropolis started reserving his act at different sporting exhibits throughout the nation. Dokken spent his winters on the street, staying at motels in main cities with as much as six canine and placing on as many as three exhibits a day.

A pointer would work throughout the stage and lock on level above a pretend bush, the place one other canine would come out. Or if the auditorium was sufficiently big, Dokken would place a retrieve means up within the grandstand and deal with a retriever to a bumper. The finale featured a simulated goose hunt full with a blind, honking taking part in over the loudspeakers, shotgun blanks, and a goose that appeared rather a lot like an early Useless Fowl Retriever dummy splashing down right into a pool for a retrieve. A lot of the canine have been his consumer’s canine, though Dokken’s personal Lab would play the clown because it required some difficult coaching. The clown’s job was to make the viewers chortle by doing the alternative of no matter Dokken requested.

Tom and Tina Dokken at home in South Dakota with their dogs.
Tom and Tina Dokken with their retrievers. Invoice Buckley

“It was entertaining, and it was fast-moving,” says Dokken. “There’d be an emcee and he’d be explaining it whereas we’re going by all the pieces. So having 4 canine up on stage at a time, one canine working at a time with out the others operating round loopy—it was rather a lot.”

As sporting exhibits phased out within the early Nineteen Nineties and his coaching enterprise continued to develop, Dokken began to focus extra on product growth.

“I used to be at all times simply modifying stuff that we used simply to suit what we would have liked,” says Dokken of the early variations of the Useless Fowl Retriever and different home-made merchandise that cropped up in his act. “Totally different small issues simply to make life a little bit simpler. Like, okay, how can we make this extra environment friendly?”

The Useless Fowl Coach, or DFT, is a foam-injected mildew of a recreation chook’s physique with laborious plastic toes and a tough head that dangles by a string. It’s designed to form a retriever’s correct maintain of a chook: securely however gently across the center, since most canine will keep away from a pair of plastic toes poking them within the palate. He can’t keep in mind precisely when he began tinkering with the DFT, he simply is aware of that Dokken Canine Provide started in 1995, after which the corporate secured a patent and launched the mallard DFT in 2000.

“It was an journey. I at all times say, ‘If I knew what it might’ve taken now, we wouldn’t have gone by all of the complications.’ However you don’t know that if you begin.”

By “we,” Dokken actually means himself, even when he’s reluctant to take credit score for his personal accomplishments. “I’m like, what do you’ve a mouse in your pocket?” his spouse, Tina, likes to joke. “He’s probably the most humble particular person I do know.” Dokken attributes the preliminary success of the DFT to not its usefulness as a coaching device, however to its shelf enchantment.

“I don’t know if folks purchased it initially for the issues it does, aside from the truth that it appeared like a duck. Nicely, and the canine simply love them. I believe it’s the texture of the physique and the truth that the pinnacle strikes—it feels to a canine prefer it’s an actual factor. Then we made totally different species. I keep in mind a man got here as much as me and stated, ‘I actually like your product however I don’t use it.’ And I stated, ‘What do you imply?” The man stated, ‘I’ve a springer spaniel and I hunt pheasants.’ Nicely, it’s a coaching dummy. Nevertheless it sort of instructed you that individuals relate to what they hunt. So our second chook that we got here out with was a pheasant. Then we would have liked to come back out with one thing for a pet as a result of the mallard’s too large.”

The teal, bobwhite quail, and ruffed grouse got here subsequent, then all of the grouse subspecies. DFT gross sales are closely regional in response to Dokken, who says no matter hunters hunt sells finest. Californians demand pintails, whereas Germans purchase purple grouse. The canine don’t a lot care what paint job is on a goose, all of that are comprised of the identical mildew, however hunters positive do.

Dokken dead fowl retreivers.
Only a few of the Useless Fowl Retrievers obtainable. Natalie Krebs

At this time, Dokken Canine Provide gives greater than 30 DFTs in a dozen nations, along with bumpers, examine cords, leashes, and different coaching gear, together with chook scents to inject into the DFT our bodies. (One yr, after Tina’s Chapstick tubes stored disappearing and reappearing half-melted round the home, Dokken Canine Provide launched a line of wax scents.)

“Tom’s primary aim is to make one thing–whether or not it’s a coaching method or a coaching product—straightforward for the canine to know and straightforward for the proprietor to have the ability to prepare the canine with,” says Tina. “His entire aim is that he desires canine homeowners to work with their canine. So what’s the simplest method to make use of for the canine to know, and for the coach or proprietor to have the ability to educate that?”

For those who ask Dokken what it’s about canine that’s led him to commit his profession to them, he talks first concerning the hunters.

“I believe it’s simply the truth that individuals are means into their canine,” says Dokken, pointing to me and Hatchet. We’d had a breakthrough throughout this morning’s coaching session as Hatchet related his recall classes with the enjoyable of retrieves. I couldn’t assist laughing as my canine introduced an actual chook to heel with none instruction. My delight appeared to please Dokken as a lot as Hatchet’s progress. “You might have one thing in frequent with these folks as a result of they love their canine. Canines are an enormous a part of the household now, and that’s modified immensely through the years.”

There’s extra to coaching a canine than a one-and-done transaction for Dokken. He’s all for monitoring a canine’s profession over time and serving to hunters troubleshoot alongside the best way. The persistence and particular person classes Dokken brings to every canine is a trademark of his method.

“That’s fulfilling as a result of lots of instances most canine gained’t have a lot management on them in any respect [when you get them], so by the point you’re accomplished with the coaching course of and then you definately prepare their homeowners, they’re means grateful for it.”

Dog pans designed by Tom Dokken.
Even the feeding pans in Dokken’s kennel have been streamlined for simple use. Invoice Buckley

A Resolution for Every little thing

When the Dokkens mounted up the pre-1900 home that got here with the farm, Tom and Tina stuffed baggies with grime and canine hair to decide on probably the most sensible flooring. At this time, their home is an element looking lodge, half kennel, and half workshop. Company are instructed to not take away their footwear. The largest mistake they made, Dokken likes to say, was not placing a drain contained in the entrance door.

The inventor’s handiwork is obvious all through the home, although nowhere greater than his eight-stall kennel. Years of mucking poorly designed services led Dokken to rethink the standard arrange: Most trainers drop canine beds in the back of stalls, which inspires canine to do their enterprise close to the door and their bowls. This additionally forces whoever has to scrub the stalls to stroll by the mess as they hose from again to entrance, towards the drains.

So Dokken rigged hanging platform beds on the entrance of his kennels and a concrete gutter alongside the again for the uncommon events it’s wanted. There’s a nozzle for recent consuming water, which canine study to make use of with a smear of peanut butter. The entrance of every pen is supplied with a metallic meals pan that snaps into place so it may be stuffed and swiveled beneath doorways with out opening them, then locked again into place as soon as emptied. Even the kibble container has been “Dokkenized,” as Tina calls it: baggage of Purina Professional Plan poured into an hermetic container and seated in a wheeled platform for simple dishing.

Tom Dokken uses drones to help train
Dokken makes an adjustment to his customized coaching drone. Invoice Buckley

The coaching drones Dokken designed are additionally saved within the kennel. Though Dokken must be coerced into utilizing a wise cellphone or a laptop computer, he’s turn out to be an skilled drone pilot due to its usefulness as a coaching device. Dokken rigged a drone to accommodate as much as three dummies, which he can launch over land or water with a distant. He additionally invented bumpers that unspool from the drone, which he’ll drag by the water to simulate an escaping cripple. (After crashing one drone into the lake by his house, Dokken added a pair of pool-noodle pontoons for emergency landings.) Only a few periods with the drone turned my pup right into a devoted cripple hunter who watches the sky for birds.

Hanging close to the kennel’s again door is a picket contraption that appears like a shotgun however accommodates a .22 clean pistol to easy a pup’s transition to louder reviews. Beside that’s Dokken’s battered Browning Citori. A strip of Velcro retains the barrel selector in place; one other on the protection that makes it simpler to control with gloves. Two extra strips run alongside the fore-end for simple e-collar distant entry. (This is useful whereas coaching steadiness to shot or attempting to hunt with a youthful canine.) A pair of large dents have flattened the rib to the barrel.

“Who cares what it seems like?” Dokken says of a philosophy that extends properly past his shotgun. “It really works.”

Wooden decoys carved by Tom Dokken.
Hand-carved canvasback decoys that maintain the ashes of the Dokken’s gun canine. Invoice Buckley

Even his sentimentality is practical. Outdoors his workshop, a desk holds three hand-carved canvasback decoys. They’re not finely formed or all that properly painted, however inside every are the ashes of their outdated canine, with every Lab’s title inscribed on the keel: Sam, Sage, Rookie. Though Dokken leaves out plastic decoys within the sloughs close to the home, he units these with care some mornings so he and his spouse can nonetheless hunt over their canine.

When Tina brings house the pet that can turn out to be her fourth chook canine, Tom doesn’t run to greet them as I do. As a substitute, he sinks to the grass and stretches onto his again. The pup’s shyness dissolves into curiosity as she clambers onto his chest. Inside days there will probably be foam and cut-down DFTs round the home, the scraps of a real pet dummy within the making. However at this time he simply rests within the fall sunshine, his face breaking into a touch of a smile as he welcomes one other canine into the fold.

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