by Dave Carty
Style is hard to define, but one thing is certain: All of us want our dogs to have it. Including Keith Allison.
"To me, style is subjective," he says. "Your idea of style may be different from mine, but when it comes to retrievers, a stylish dog to me is one that's right on the edge, but under control. Typically, that dog is very focused on its work. It's running hard, it's putting out 100-percent effort, it's persistent when it gets to the area where the bird is ... and it's confident. A confident dog is typically a very stylish dog."
The confidence of which Allison speaks so highly is developed systematically in his training program. Allison and his partners, Johnny Kinzey and Derek Randle, own War Eagle Retrievers, a kennel based in, Pea Ridge, Arkansas, among other locations. Several years ago, the three young men tired of the 9-to-5 world (Allison was a physical therapist, Randle a graphic designer and Kinzey worked at Gates Rubber), so they pooled their talents to form War Eagle.
The stars must have aligned that day, for since then the trio has racked up more than 60 titles in AKC, UKC and NAHRA hunt tests, as well as appearing on ESPN and the Outdoor Channel and in sportsmen's shows across the South.
Intense desire — a dog that lives to hunt and will do almost anything to complete a retrieve — is determined by genetics, Allison says. But if the dog has the intelligence and the genes, everything else is up to the trainer. And what trainers need to do, he says, is give their dog the experience it needs to develop its potential.
Still, no dog is ready for polish until it has thoroughly grasped the fundamentals. Typically, Allison says, that means beginning with a started dog, one that has been collar-conditioned, trained in basic obedience and force-fetch, and is completing single marks in the field and on water.
"The single mark is the key," Allison says. "To polish it, we take that started dog and go out and really work on those singles — increasing the distance, increasing the challenge, adding more cover, making that single mark more and more challenging — but only as long as the dog is performing at a level every step of the way that is showing that confidence."
At this stage, Allison and the War Eagle boys use ducks to excite their dogs and keep their enthusiasm high. It almost always works.
"By doing single marks with birds, we'll typically build that dog's confidence up and allow it to really focus on what it's doing, as opposed to, say, lots of multiple marks, which a dog at that (started) level may not be ready for yet," he says. "What we're trying to do is simplify things. We're trying to simplify the task or the mark or the blind, whatever it is that the dog is lacking style in. And we're going to keep simplifying things until the dog is showing the confidence we're looking for, because confidence equals style. Then and only then, we're going to increase the challenge, but only if the dog has 100-percent confidence in what it's doing, in what it's been trained in so far."
Allison keeps coming back to building confidence because he feels so strongly that it is critical to developing a hard-charging, stylish retriever. But most dogs aren't born with confidence; it has to be developed. And in some cases, the path of development may short circuit the process.
"People get eager, and they want to rush through the training," Allison says. "Human nature gets in the way, and it causes some people to push their dog too fast, too soon. Then what happens is that the dog really doesn't understand the task that's in front of it, and it loses confidence in its handler."
If that is the case, as it sometimes is with dogs trained by inexperienced owners, Allison suggests going back and trying to locate the sticking point.
"What is the problem?" he asks. "What parts of the dog's training aren't yet stylish? And finally, how could it have been prevented? Again, what it invariably comes down to is simplifying things."
Once he's discerned the problem, Allison works with the dog on that particular task until it can perform it reliably. By learning one task thoroughly before moving on to the next, the dog learns to trust itself. Then, when the dog knows what it is doing and is confident in its success, a transformation of sorts takes place, and the real retriever, the kind we all want, begins to emerge. Allison loves that moment.
"When I walk to the line and someone throws a bird, I want that dog to sit there and say to itself, 'Man, I am on auto pilot. I know what I'm supposed to do.' That tells me that the dog is confident. When the dog knows the drill, when it's gone through its training a step at a time and knows its obedience and knows what it means when it's corrected by a collar and knows that it's supposed to hold a bird in its mouth ... when it's got all the yard work down and is able to apply it in a single-mark setting, then it's going to swim hard to that bird or run hard to that bird because of what we've done to build that foundation of confidence."
And that, according to Allison, is style.