By Tom Davis
On an early morning in the smoky, droughty summer of 2021, we are standing on top of a grassy mound on Dave Rorem's 330-acre northern Minnesota property, just a hop and a jump from the Rainy River and the Canadian border. Studded here and there with mature hardwoods and festooned with ponds, the property reminds me of a lovingly tended nature park.
A lightweight canopy tent stands atop the mound. It's there not so much for the shade—a smoky haze blunts the sun—but because tents like this are fixtures at retriever field trials. And because these are field trial retrievers, it's important to duplicate, as nearly as possible, the visual environment they'll be operating in when they look to Rorem for a hand signal.
Rorem is wearing a bright white shirt to make himself more visible to dogs working at distances that routinely exceed 200 yards. Along with a high-volume whistle, it's the standard uniform of anyone who handles retrievers in field trials. A wide-brimmed straw hat, dark sunglasses, khaki pants, and low-top hikers complete the ensemble.
Others in our group include Rorem's 12-year-old granddaughter, Gracen, already an experienced bird girl; a teenage helper named Reed Hultman; and Jim Horneck, a field-trialer from southern Wisconsin who's come to have Rorem evaluate his talented but problematic young Lab, Lumpy. Rorem's daughter and training/handling partner, Ty, is working another group of dogs on a different part of the property.
Reed and Gracen are deployed to the deep left and the center of the field of play, respectively, and a remote-controlled launcher sits at about two o'clock, ready to launch two bumpers—one to the left and one to the right. Rorem has already put a couple of Labs on a tie-out chain so that they can "air." He unhooks one, snugs an e-collar around the dog's neck, and heels him to the line.
"This is Shooter," he says. "He's an Amateur Field Champion and he has National Championship potential, but he's been in a bit of a sophomore slump. I'm trying to figure out what makes him tick and get him out of his funk."
At the line, Rorem says sit. The command is delivered quietly but firmly, and Shooter, who's on Rorem's left side, complies. Rorem makes some small adjustments to Shooter's orientation toward the launcher. When Rorem is satisfied, he says mark, using that same calm, business-as-usual tone. With that he triggers the launcher. Shooter stares down the bumpers, first one and then the other, as if he's trying to burn holes in them.
Rorem pivots slightly, turning Shooter in the direction of Gracen. Mark. He raises his right hand—the signal for Gracen to throw her bird. As the duck arcs to the ground, she fires a blank round, then sits down. Again, Shooter locks on like a laser beam.
Pivoting once more, Rorem says mark for the final time and signals Reed to throw his bird. He's a good 300 yards away, with a wall of tall, leafy trees behind him. Were it not for his white handler's jacket, he'd be all but impossible to see. The duck he tosses is, to my limited human vision, only a flickering shadow.
But Labrador retrievers are made of different stuff than we are, and it's clear from Shooter's focused gaze and the ratcheted-up intensity of his body language that he's got it zeroed in. He's like a coiled spring, a vessel seething with energy that's explosively unleashed when Rorem, more emphatic now, utters, Shooter!
A streak of black lightning sizzles through the grass, and another day's work at Rorem Retrievers has begun. As the veterans say to the rookies upon their arrival at training camp, "Welcome to the big leagues, Busher."
I'd put in a call to Mary Howley of Candlewood Kennels, the way I always do when I have a question about the world of retriever field trials—a world that Mary has inhabited for more than 60 years. I told her that I wanted to profile a professional field trial trainer—someone who's enjoyed tremendous success in the sport, is highly respected within the community, and has been at it long enough to have attained a measure of perspective. "It has to be someone who's still doing it too," I added. "Competing at a high level in field trials, I mean."
"You've just described Dave Rorem," Mary said. "He's a great trainer who's won everything there is to win in field trials. He was voted into the Retriever Field Trial Hall of Fame a few years ago and he's still going great guns. There's no trainer more respected than Dave."
Dave Rorem grew up in Appleton, a small town in west-central Minnesota. His love affair with retrievers began at the age of six, when his parents bought a Labrador pup sired by Cork of Oakwood Lane, the 1955 National Retriever Champion.
Rorem's love of duck hunting took root at an early age too. A star linebacker who was heavily recruited coming out of high school, he ultimately chose to attend the University of North Dakota because, he says, "I thought it had the best duck hunting opportunities."
His studies completed, in 1977 he hired on as a game warden for the state of Minnesota, patrolling out of International Falls. He and his wife, Paulette, never left, and he continued to serve as a warden for 27 years.
It was also in 1977 that Rorem hung out his shingle as a professional trainer. At first he trained retrievers for hunting, but it wasn't long before he began specializing in field trial dogs. He handled several dogs to Field Championships, and he won the Canadian National Open in 1989, but he felt like he could do better. That's when he made the career- and even life-changing decision to pick up the phone and call Rex Carr.
You can make a compelling argument that Rex Carr was the most influential retriever trainer of all time. He pioneered the use of the electronic collar—an innovation that revolutionized retriever training. Carr didn't just train dogs, though. He trained their owners as well, including several who went on to win the National Retriever Championship.
Although he was resistant to the idea at first, Carr agreed to let Rorem come out to his place in Escalon, California, to train with him. There was only one condition: that Rorem pay it forward and be as generous about passing on his knowledge to other retriever people—amateur or professional—as Carr would be to him.
"I said 'Done!'" Rorem recalls when I ask him about it. "I've always tried to live up to that promise and give advice to anybody who asks for it."
From January 1990 until Carr's death in 2002, Rorem spent a portion of every year training with him. "I realized within the first 20 minutes of being around Rex," Rorem muses, "that I knew very little about dog training. Rex was by far the best dog person I've ever been around. I was fortunate to spend time with a lot of really good trainers, but nobody, nobody, had the dog sense that Rex had."
Over the years, Rorem gained a reputation for fixing problem dogs, even dogs that other pros had given up on. His abilities in this respect prompted the late Charlie Hays, a fellow hall of famer, to dub him "The Doctor."
I witness this for myself as he works with Jim Horneck and Lumpy. Lumpy is what Rorem calls a high-octane dog, and as Horneck brings Lumpy to the line it's easy to see why. His sit is more of a squat, he creeps, he whines—the classic symptoms of a surplus of desire.
"Soften your commands and slow them down," Rorem tells Horneck. "You're reacting; letting him run the show. He needs to learn to respect you and also to develop self-discipline. To a dog like Lumpy that mark is an addiction—like sex, booze, and drugs all rolled into one. He has to learn to think and to remember."
By the time Horneck and Lumpy leave for Wisconsin the following day, you can see Rorem's lessons beginning to take effect—on both ends of the leash. There's still a long way to go, but now Horneck has a clear idea of how to get there.
What amounts to just another day at the office for Rorem is an immersive experience for me. I'm struggling to stay afloat, overwhelmed by everything I've seen and tried to absorb: the performance qualities of the individual dogs, the different retrieving tests, the sometimes elusive concepts on which these tests are based. The sheer distances are staggering. "If you're coming from a duck hunting or hunt-test background, everything we do in field trials is long," Rorem says. "By our standards, a long retrieve means something over 200 yards."
I learn the importance of controlling both the volume and inflection of voice commands. I learn the importance of correcting a poor initial line ASAP, and that one of Rorem's maxims is: "Train the dog to do it right, not to prevent him from doing it wrong." I learn about strategies for dealing with "poison" birds, what it means to take a line "under the arc," and that while there are times when a handler needs to intercede and assert control, there are other times when the best course of action is to swallow the whistle and let the dog figure things out for himself.
"I really don't view myself as a dog trainer," Rorem explains. "I view myself as a coach. I have 30 dogs with 30 different personalities, and it's my job to get inside the head of every single one of them and maximize his or her ability."
As dizzying as it all is, one takeaway that I feel pretty confident about emerges from the swirl: even among Rorem's roster of all-stars, a black Lab named Croc stands out. He's eager, intense, but totally in control. His marks are spot-on, his lines are crisp, he takes his commands happily, he hits the water hard, he's fast and stylish. He's everything you could want in a working retriever.
When I share this observation with Rorem, he smiles and says: "That's very perceptive of you. Croc's owner, Monte Wulf, won the 2018 National Amateur Retriever Championship with him, and he's earned something like 100 all-age points. He's one of the top field trial retrievers in the country.
"I've been training dogs for almost 50 years," Rorem continues, "and hunting ducks for more than 60 years, and I'll tell you this: You couldn't get a better duck dog, ever, than Croc. He's got a great personality, he'd retrieve every bird that you ever shot no matter where it fell, and he'd lie by your fireplace at night. He's the complete package—and that, to me, is the kind of dog that can come from the genetics that field trials select for."
A few weeks later, on a warm, sunny weekend in September, I catch up with Rorem at the fall trial of the Minnesota Field Trial Association. The trial grounds are a mosaic of ponds, grassy fields, and woodlots east of St. Cloud.
Monte Wulf, a likable, high-energy guy, has driven up from his home near Omaha to handle Croc in both the Open and Amateur All-Age. The competition is fierce, and the tests created by the judges border on diabolical. This is notably true of the final series in the Open—a quadruple retrieve that includes a pair of marks so long they could be in a different zip code, a flyer, and a blind. The shortest of the four, the flyer, is 179 yards from the line.
Wulf and Croc are up to the challenge, though. By the time the smoke clears, they've taken first place in the Amateur and third in the Open, while Rorem has taken second in the Open with another of his top dogs—a black Lab named Woody.
There are handshakes and congratulations, expressions of thanks to the judges and club officials, and then, as he's done countless times before, Dave Rorem loads his truck and points it for home. He has dogs to train in the morning.
Field Trial Lessons for Hunting Retrievers
Dave Rorem is the first to admit that the tests retrievers are expected to complete in field trials bear only a superficial resemblance to real-world waterfowl hunting. But there are two areas, he says, in which the average retriever owner would be well served to emulate the example set by field trial handlers and their dogs.
"The first and foremost thing is discipline," Rorem says. "Your dog needs to understand that he'll be held accountable to his training. It's a key element, and one that a lot of duck hunters don't address. It's also a safety issue. At the very minimum a dog should be trained to sit quietly in the blind and remain steady until sent to retrieve. I saw that a lot when I was a game warden: out-of-control dogs that broke whenever someone shot, knocking over guns, people, coolers. It's a dangerous situation that's entirely avoidable.
"The second thing," he continues, "is to push the envelope and not settle for 'good enough' in your training. Fear of failure is a real sticking point for a lot of owner-trainers, but if they'd just train their dogs to stop on a whistle and take simple hand signals, they'd be in a position to pick up just about any bird that falls. And that's huge for a hunting dog. It may take 20 whistles, but who cares? As long as your dog comes up with the bird, it's a win."