By Sullivan Valaer
To tell my story of Yukon and myself I will start with the basics. What is Yukon? Yukon is a black Labrador Retriever with the AKC name Queen of Hearts. For my thirteenth birthday my parents gave me a dog bowl and some dog toys. I wondered, “Why are you giving me dog toys”? “The youngest dog in our house is fourteen years old (obliviously, he doesn’t play much.) Then the thought began to formulate in my mind that I could be receiving my own dog. Now that was a thrilling thought. My father then said I was going to pick it out and train it myself for a “learning experience”. Wow! I now know that he wasn’t joking when he said it was for a learning experience. What a time it has been!
First, I went to a dog show and examined many different breeders’ dogs and puppies. There were many different choices; frankly, I was overwhelmed by all the choices that could exist in just one breed. For instance, I had to decide whether I wanted a puppy or a pre-trained dog. I chose a puppy; the reason for my choice was that I wanted to train the dog all by myself and when people asked me, “Who trained your dog,” I wanted to say “I trained it myself.” As we were walking out of the show, a man by the name of Dan Mar stopped us and told us of a dog kennel that possessed very good Labradors. He then led us to the stand for the Canine Country Club. The owner of the company, Mr. Jim Cochran, was very courteous and didn’t try to force us to buy a puppy like some other kennels had done, but told us the truth of their dogs vs. some other kennels, and he also told us what to look for in a Labrador.
After a few days of thought we went to the Canine Country Club talk to the owner again about purchasing a dog. At the time he had two six-month-old dogs that he thought had some potential. So he took us out and said, “Both dogs are the same price; the first dog I am going to release will be a great hunting dog and will do great in hunt tests, but it may not be a field trial dog.” He freed the first dog from the kennel and it ran straight up to me wanting to be loved, its entire body wagging with the beat of its tail. When the breeder threw the pigeon the dog ran out into the field and grabbed the bird and brought it to Jim. Then he said “The second dog I am going to let loose will be a field champion given the right training, but this dog will probably not be a family dog.” He then unlocked the other dogs kennel door to let out the dog and it was as if he freed the wind; that dog could have care less about me or any of my family. It had just dashed off looking for birds and whatever else a half a mile away. I chose the first dog, naming her “Yukon” for the trip that I had made driving from Homer, Alaska to Portland, Oregon with my grandfather. At that time I didn’t know it, but I had bought myself into hundreds of hours of training.
Shortly after finalizing the paperwork and purchasing the dog, I called Dan Mar, who placed me in one of his training seminars. At the training seminar I learned the basics of training a dog. After the seminar all of the people attending the seminar demonstrated what they had learned on their dogs. Little did I know that Dan Mar was looking for a young person to take to his pointer training camp to work and to assist him in training pointers. He took my dad and I aside and said that he wanted me to help train pointers at his camp. Needless to say I took his offer.
At the camp I learned how to strengthen dogs, what things to feed them when they work hard, how to train a pointing dog to point like the pros that they were to become, and many other valuable training tools. After my workday was over I would take the training techniques that work with all dogs (not just pointers) and train my dog. One of the main things that I had learned from Dan Mar was to not have a long training session but to keep it under approximately ten minutes. This time was a great experience for Yukon and I because I learned how to train her, and she learned and had fun at the same time.
In the next ten months I trained Yukon with help from my dad to get me going. To start with, I taught the basic commands with the information that I had learned for Dan Mar and the book Water Dog, such as “Sit,” “Here,” and “Heel.” During this time the dummy was used for play only and after training sessions as a spool down for the dog. After that the training became much more taxing for the dog (and for me). On walks I would have her follow basic commands with cars, bikes, and other dogs running past us. These training sessions were repeated over and over again until I could trust her without the leash in noisy and busy environments. At this time I started moving her into working with dummies and the basic commands in one training session.
Finally, I went to see Matt at Sunnyview Labradors to have him teach Yukon force fetching. Matt at Sunnyview Labradors trained Yukon from October to December for force fetch and polish up. Dad and I went down almost every week so that we would know how to handle Yukon after she came back home (and to see her, of course!) Towards the end of her time at Sunnyview Labradors, there was a mock trial. I’m going to be truthful; we were awful. We didn’t know how to handle Yukon and she didn’t want to obey us. It was then that we really started working with Matt on Yukon’s focus and obedience. He gave us basic, but very important pointers, such as Yukon looking up at me when she was sitting and heeling.
After this finishing work, Matt thought that we were ready for the Junior Hunt Test. We signed up for our first hunt test on 5-21-06. We went expecting it to be one hundred yard retrieves, but found that they were more like 25 yards. I was the first one to the line and Yukon was ready to rumble. The gun shot, the bird dropped, and I sent Yukon. This was what we had practiced over a thousand times and Yukon was performing perfectly; she acquire the bird, brought it back, and delivered it to hand, just as rehearsed. The last run of the day went the same way and at the end I was ranked in the top 10 in total points by getting a perfect score.
The next two hunt tests (from 5-27- 06 to 5-28- 06) also went as rehearsed with two more ribbons and two more perfect scores. This was a double-header hunt test and was much harder competition that the first test that I had been to. The retrieves were a little longer but still not the one hundred to two hundred yard retrieves that I had trained for. The competition consisted of many more people than the previous three hunts and numerous very good handlers. The water in the water retrieve, being full of cattails which obscured the dog’s vision, made the terrain more difficult in this test. In this particular water test there was a man that owned a Standard Poodle, which after being sent on the water retrieve, would not even go near the water. He failed the test without making a single retrieve.
The very last hunt test did not go as well because Yukon didn’t make a totally straight line to the mark and I was unsure if I would get my final ribbon to qualify. Finally the time came for the ribbons to be given and my name was called, Yukon had acquired Junior Hunter status in only two months and had never missed a mark or dropped a bird. I was ecstatic
As for me, I plan to take Yukon onto the senor hunt trials, hopefully attaining more ribbons and earning her the title of senior hunter. The whole training experience was a huge success in my young life. The thousands of hours of training that dad, Matt, and I did on Yukon were hard at times but hugely beneficial. It showed me that I could accomplish things that men and professional trainers could, and at a comparable level of quality. It was a growing experience for Yukon and me - a time of fun and hard work, proving that you can have fun at work.