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Elite Retriever Training with Pat Burns By Joshua Sheldon / Writer & Hunt Guide for Deer, Goose & Turkey

    Most think a dog is trained when it is able to sit, shake, play dead, or speak. This is typically the extent of training a house dog receives. As for the avid bird hunter or retriever enthusiast, hundreds of hours of work will be required to produce a finished partner.

    I love how serendipitous life is at times. It seems the path you take can be a paved road and lead you directly into new life experiences. When moments like these arrive, I have learned to take advantage of them and tend to be rewarded for getting involved. I also enjoy helping others and the satisfaction felt when you fulfill the task. Lending a helping hand can open doors and change lives, if you can be selfless enough to do so.

    I was informed by my sister, who works at the Chamber of Commerce, that I would be receiving a call from a woman about dog training. Her name was Donna Williams and she was looking for information on our town’s eateries and attractions for folks involved in an upcoming dog training seminar.  She was explaining the program to my sister and was informed that I also train dogs. As for most serious handlers, when someone talks about training a dog, you envision someone making a dog sit and giving it a cookie for its efforts.  When my sister mentioned that I use whistles and hand signals to direct my dog to downed game, Donna perked up a bit. She told me how surprised she was when told that I train dogs as they do. We are a fairly small group and love being able to connect with other trainers and be able to learn new training strategies and techniques.

    Donna called me a few days after my sister talked to her and asked me if I would like to attend the seminar. The program was being held by a world class trainer named Pat Burns. I had seen Pat on hunting shows working with dogs and was familiar with his status as a trainer of world champion retrievers. Excited was an understatement! I couldn’t wait to see his techniques and apply them to my next dog. I told Donna I would be there for sure and that I would cover the program in this week’s column. The next day Donna called me with an emergency. They were in need of bird boys and asked if there was any way I could locate a couple. I told her it would be no problem and started thinking of friends that had kids that age.

    It wasn’t hard locating a couple young men, being that most of my friends hunt and happen to have sons the right age. About a year ago, my friend, Jim Root, held a fishing seminar for kids out of Cook Park in Greene. He was assisted by our friend Travis Rifanburg’s son, Dylan. Jim raved about what a good job Dylan had done. I contacted Travis and he said he would ask Dylan if he was interested. Dylan got right back to me and said he would like to be involved. One bird boy down, one to go. I then contacted my buddy, Jay Smith, to see if his son, Peyton, would like to join. Peyton said he would, so my work was done and Donna could feel a little relief. I say “a little” because it takes a special kind of person to be a bird boy. All I could do is hope their fathers had instilled the same work ethic into their children, that they carry themselves.

    I joined the group this past Friday in Edmeston. After a quick photo of Pat and the boys, it was right to work setting up blinds and getting positioned to toss birds. I wasn’t familiar with the job of bird boy, so I was unable to tell the guys what their job would include. I wonder if they would have attended had they known the job description. Simply put, the bird boy shoots a blank gun, and then throws a dead duck or retrieving dummy. The dog and handler are positioned one to three hundred yards out. The handler then points the dog in the direction of the bird and gives the command to retrieve. They use real birds for several reasons, the most important being realism. Many of the dogs are work animals, so to reduce confusion and familiarize the dog to feathers in the mouth, they use real ducks.

    When the bird boys were asked what their least favorite part of the job was, it was obviously tossing the wet dead birds. They both also said it was worth the 10 bucks an hour and were happy to have the work. I enjoyed watching the boys learn about dog training, just as much as watching the dogs. They were both complemented several times by everyone involved. I have to thank Dylan and Peyton for making me look good! I also received many complements about the quality of boys selected.

    As I watched Pat work, something dawned on me. He was equally as good a trainer of dogs as he was with the boys. He joked with and involved the guys in what was going on throughout the day over a loud speaker. Upon reflection, I noticed that nearly every good dog trainer I have met is just as good with kids. This may be because a dog is equal to a two to three year old child in intelligence. Understanding how to reward and dissuade inappropriate behaviors is the route of educating a child or dog. I noticed in Pat the exceptional ability to relate to, and what was expected of, the dogs, handlers, and bird boys, equally. Beyond knowing how to train dogs, Pat had to have the people skills to be able to communicate with and teach the handlers. This is why Pat has been said to be one of the best trainers of dogs and humans in the world.

    Thanks to Pat and Donna for inviting me to see retriever training at its best! I highly recommend to the serious bird hunters and trial enthusiasts out there to join Pat and up their game.  If interested in attending a seminar, you may contact Pat by phone at 920-896-2911, or by email at

    Good wishes and remember a dog is only as good as its trainer.

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