Tom Ness owns and operates Oahe Kennels near Menoken, N.D., and has been training dogs professionally since the early 1980s.
Ness, 59, became a full-time dog trainer in 1994.
Ness, who also guided pheasant hunts for several years, specializes in springer spaniels and cocker spaniels — flushing dogs — and has trained some 20 field trial champions.
Herald outdoors writer Brad Dokken recently talked to Ness about dogs, training and getting dogs ready for hunting season. Here’s an edited transcript of that conversation:
Q. How did you get started in dog training?
A. A couple buddies of mine in college, we started going out west pheasant hunting. We’d shoot a few here and there and most of the time wouldn’t find them. I thought, “I’ve got to get a dog.” I was mostly hunting pheasants, and I settled on a springer and spent a number of years with springer spaniels. I started looking into other breeds and types, and I’ve had all kinds. They’re all kind of specialists; that’s the thing about dogs that I think people sometimes don’t realize – they have a niche they evolved out of.
Q. How does one go about becoming a professional trainer?
A. When I graduated from [the University of North Dakota] I moved out to Wyoming. It’s not really bird country and so I started thinking about, “What am I going to do with this dog?” So I got involved with training. I got wind of field trials and started going to those. One day, someone asked me if I would train their dog, and away it went.
Q. When should training begin?
A. I start them when they’re babies, when I bring a puppy home at 8 weeks old. If it’s a retrieving breed, I start playing little retrieving games to get them proficient at retrieving short distances, and then longer and longer. The best dogs — I won the national cocker championship in 2010 — all the best dogs have been in the house and were pets. They get more stimulation.
Q. Walk me through the program you offer when you receive a dog for training.
A. I like to get them, plus or minus a couple of months, at about a year old so they’ve been well socialized and play trained so the natural instincts are kind of instilled in them, those natural things with no real control.
If they’re a retrieving breed, I want the owner to be playing those retrieving games, play training, when they’re little. If they’re pointing dogs, try to get them out and get them into game and scent.
When I get them at that age, I’ve got them for about three months. I start with basic obedience and then take them into the field and teach them the mechanics of hunting — things like stop on command and change directions on command.
Q. What is the best hunting dog?
A. It depends on what you like to hunt the most. If you like to hunt waterfowl, a retriever breed of some kind; they also double as a flushing dog if you want a pheasant dog. Pointing dogs can also do a decent job, although they don’t do as well (on pheasants). They point the pheasant and the pheasant runs away. They get defeated more often than not. They’re not as efficient as a flushing dog, I find.
Q. You specialize in spaniels and retrievers. Any particular reason?
A. I mainly was hunting pheasants and ducks and so those were the two breeds that kind of fit what I like to do. The pointers I got because I love to hunt sharptails, and that’s kind of their thing — they get out and cover the prairies at a distance and find those birds in a sea of grass.
Q. How does the training regimen differ between flushing and pointing dogs?
A. The flushing dog, you’re trying to teach that dog to stay with you.
The best ones find the bird, accelerate to the scent and flush it.
The pointing dog, you’re trying to get it to go away from you and find scent and you go to it.
The whole approach is different — you’re teaching one to stay back and look for the handler and one to range out and find game.
Q. Can every dog be trained?
A. You can take a dog that doesn’t retrieve and force it to retrieve, but if you take a dog that doesn’t want to hunt, it’s pretty tough. It’s much, much easier to train dogs that have been bred for that specific task you’re going to do. It just makes it so much easier to get one that’s well-bred. They can have no training at all, you put a little obedience in them and you’ve got a pretty good dog.
Q. Watching a dog develop must be rewarding.
A. It’s a thrill. I just love watching them do stuff and think, “How the heck did they do that?”
Q. With hunting seasons approaching, what should hunters be doing to get their dogs ready for fall?
A. You need to be conditioning them. When I was guiding, those dogs were really working hard so I spent a lot of time conditioning them. I’d run them with a mountain bike and train them every day.
Beware of heat; heat kills dogs. A few years ago, we had an opening weekend [for pheasants] with temperatures in the 80s and between the two Dakotas, hundreds of dogs died. You’ve got to be careful with them.
You’ve got to treat them like athletes. You’ve got to whip them into shape.
Q. What are some things to watch for in hot weather?
A. If they get panting or wobbly. Always carry water. A dog does most of the cooling through his mouth. Stop and give them water regularly, and every so often, stop and take a look at them.
Q. What are some common mistakes people make in trying to train a dog?
A. I think they try to go too fast. Everybody wants to see their dog flush a bird and have the bird shot or point a bird and bring it back.
They don’t realize most of the training happens in the yard — to stay and come when you call them. You add distractions and make the dog focus on you and not the other things around him so when you go to the field you’ve got this relationship, “When I say come, you do it no matter what else is happening.” I try never to be harsh or cruel but I insist when it’s a command, it’s no longer a suggestion.
Q. What are your thoughts on shock collars as a tool for training and discipline?
A. I’m not a big shock collar trainer. The new wave of trainers go almost cradle to grave with electricity. In the retriever world, field trials, all the dogs are electronically trained, and I think people have forgotten you can train a dog without an electronic collar. It’s an incredibly effective tool when used right. … Before you start off with it, you really want to learn how to use it.
There’s lots of ways to train a dog, good and bad, and most of the time if you’re punishing them, it’s not that good.
© 2012 Grand Forks Herald (Grand Forks, N.D.)
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