Rome Georgia is home to one of the state’s most outstanding gun dog training teams: Junior and Melissa Dobson of Southern Comfort Gun Dogs. In celebration of National Dog Day on August 26, 2018, Horse Hound and Hunt interviewed Melissa to learn more about the dogs, training, and her and Junior’s love for “man’s best friend.”
“Falling in love with my soul mate led me to dogs,” Melissa stated. “As a child you dream of being a doctor, police man, fireman, veterinarian or some other well-known career path. I do not imagine you long for the day of training dogs. As you grow and learn about life and people, we learn where you perhaps fit best in the career world. Most change college majors once, twice, or even five times until a degree is obtained. Dog training isn’t a degree you earn, it is a skill you learn and possess. It’s a new level of patience no one ever prepared you for in life,” she added. “Through patience and understanding, I watched and listened to Junior talk to dogs, handle dogs, care for dogs, and treat dogs like they were human. I never knew the level of respect that could be shared between dog and human. It was breath taking and so admirable. Little by little I became more and more a part of the dogs’ daily lives, and they became part of mine. Working with and training pointing and upland dogs was such a joy, and the daily improvements were more rewarding than I ever imagined.”
Of course, like most pursuits in life, training hunting dogs was not something that came instantly to Melissa. It’s a skill she developed step-by-step through experience, as well as Junior’s advice and support. Over time it is also something she has become extremely passionate about.
“Training retrieving dogs for hunt test competitions was something I dove into with small goals and baby steps. I had a larger support group in one man than most people have in an entire team. I was pushed and helped daily to become better, and to better understand dogs. A Started Hunting Retriever title turned into a Season Hunting title, and into a Finished Hunting Retriever title. After running HRC events, AKC Hunt tests were discovered, and again a junior title turned into a senior title, then a master title. Gun dog training is an addiction, a passion, and as rewarding of a job I could have ever dreamed of having as a child.”
Those rewards can sometimes feel almost overwhelming. Melissa describes it as an emotional experience going far beyond the feeling of a job well done. Training gun dogs has become a wonderful part of her life, but there are a few moments that really stand out.
“Some of the things I find most fulfilling are when it all comes together with that special dog that may have given you little bits of trouble earlier, or walking away from a hunt test with a dog that just beat the odds and passed a test you have worked so hard together to pass. There have been a few times tears of happiness have come to my eyes while walking away from the line. When you pour your heart and soul into something, the feeling of accomplishment is over whelming.”
It’s little wonder that that sense of accomplishment is so strong. Both Melissa and Junior work hard with every dog they train to ensure that each pup becomes the best he or she can be. We probed further and asked Melissa to describe some of the differences between started and finished gun dogs.
“A started retriever should understand single marks, becoming more patient to wait until his name is called to leave out for the retrieve,” she explained. “The dog should be through a force hold or fetch training and in the very beginning stages of blind work. A started retriever is ready to go hunting, but will need assistance from the owner to keep them still in the duck blind as they are still young and excitable. They have a hard time sitting still with all the excitement. A started dog will also be an obedient dog but will certainly test the patience of the owner with that.”
Melissa went on to describe the behaviors expected from a retriever who has completed training. “A finished retriever understands the concepts of retrieving multiple marks, (doubles and triples,) and the dog should run a nice blind in any area he or she is sent. The dog should also sit patiently and await the command from the owner to go and make the retrieve.” She continued that “a finished dog will be very obedient and sit quietly with the owner.”
In short, it seems that the level of a retriever’s patient, compliant behavior is what differentiates a thoroughly trained pup from one who is still learning. Upland gun dogs are much the same, according to Melissa, although the details, of course, change. Like retrievers, the patience and obedience are two large factors separating started and finished upland dogs, but the addition of pointing makes the training and behaviors a little more complex.
“A started upland dog has been through the basic introductions to birds, and has the understanding that bird scent means stop, but the dog may not be steady enough to stand very long before jumping in on the birds,” Melissa stated. “Therefore the owner must stop the dog from advancing even though the dog understands how to handle and hunt with the owner in the field. A finished upland dog will find and locate birds while standing still on point until the owner commands the dog not to, whether the dog was trained to flush the bird, break on the shot to make the retrieve or stand steady until the bird has been flushed and shot. The dog will then go make the retrieve. A finished dog is ready to go hunting with little to no training devices on hand.”
There are a lot of different experiences, challenges, and rewards to be found in training the dogs, as Melissa explained. “My favorite part of training is when the pup gives you the look of ‘oh, that’s all you want? I got this.’ Each day can pose a new challenge for each dog and trainer, so keeping the focus on the task or goal at hand is important,” she added.
Every dog’s training is a journey of many steps, and Southern Comfort Gun Dogs understands that that is a road each dog has to travel at his or her own pace. According to Melissa, patience and willing to adjust your training to fit the needs of an individual dog are the most important requirements for training. This means it is vital to separate training into a series of smaller goals. No one can learn a new skill all at once, and dogs are no different. Recognizing each dog’s individual needs, patiently working at that dog’s pace, and focusing on one step at a time are all vital.
“Each day, each dog has a goal for training, and once that goal is met for that training session, the session may end,” said Melissa. “We always want to end on a positive note with the feeling that there is a cohesive understanding between dog and trainer. Just when I have thought I had a ‘challenge’ on my hands, a little patience for a day or two made all the lights turn on and everything I have been asking for comes to light for the dog,” she added.
Southern Comfort Gun Dogs offers a variety of training for different breeds, setting them a step above many other trainers. This is possible because of their expertise and in part because of how well Junior and Melissa work as a team. Melissa went on to describe how they work with dogs of varying abilities with both upland and retriever training.
“Upland training allows the dog to run out front and hunt to locate game so the hunter can shoot the birds the dog locates and points,” she explained. “Retriever training requires a dog to be steady and stay by your side, only leaving your side to retrieve birds after you have shot and command [the dogs] to do so.”
“Both types of training involve control of the dog, but at different levels and in different areas. In both upland and retriever training we allow the dog to develop its natural abilities in the field, and we capitalize on their strong points while focusing on building confidence in their weakest areas of hunting. Some trainers solely focus on upland or retriever training; we are able to work and train both skill sets at Southern Comfort Gun Dogs. While Junior does most all the upland training and I do the retriever training, we cross over to help each other as much as needed.”
We went on to ask Melissa to describe a typical day at Southern Comfort Gun Dogs. She mentioned that the first thing is often to transport the pups to Kingston Downs, where training takes place.
“For the retrieving dogs, they all ride the truck out to training in either a field on a pond and depending on the level of the dog to what that dog may participate in that day. Some dogs may only pick up two marks a day, some may retrieve four or more. Blind retrieves can vary from one to four or more as well. We have a variation of marks (retrieves) and blind retrieves. Some days only marks are run, other days perhaps only blinds are run and of course we mix them together as well. The dogs get a day or two off a week, no different than the average person doesn’t get up and go to work 7 days a week, why should the dogs? Honestly, the dogs do not understand having a day off, they live to work and love to go each and every day.”
“Upland hunting requires more time per dog each day than retrieving does,” Melissa continued. “Upland dogs are taken on long walks where they learn to hunt out front and quarter the field to find the game. An upland dog may only find one bird a day, or they may find fifteen. Each dog requires something a little different so no course for an upland dog is typically repeated for the next trainee. A day or two a week of relaxing is giving to the hard-working upland dogs as well as the retrievers.”
The reason for this approach to training is because, as Melissa says, “different dogs and different folks require different strokes.” By recognizing each dog’s natural strengths and weaknesses, she and her husband are able to tailor the training to each individually. Understanding every dog they work with on this level is a part of what has led to their success. Of course, the approach also means that it’s easier to start training gun dogs young when they are more pliable.
“Each dog and each breed are different. No human is like another, and dogs are not either,” explained Melissa. “Junior and I are very flexible in our training skill sets, which allows us to tailor a training program for each dog. We enjoy starting training with dogs between ages 4 months and 6 months, and continue from there. Having dogs come in at an early age allows us to build on the natural abilities and instincts of each dog as they learn what is right, wrong, and expected.”
However, this doesn’t mean that an older dog can’t be trained. Junior and Melissa accept and train dogs of many ages. The old saying about old dogs and new tricks is not exactly true in their field. Specific challenges may differ when working with older dogs, but the dynamic duo at Southern Comfort Gun Dogs understands how to face them!
“It isn’t impossible for an older dog to learn new things,” Melissa stated. “However, the learning curve could increase and the time with the trainer could be a little greater. An older dog may take more time to adjust to a trainer because he or she is very settled in his or her ways with the current owner. Some dogs are not willing to change or adapt to a new way of learning, so as a trainer, you take time to figure out what is the best way to encourage the dog to work for you and with you. Sometimes, the amount of training required to make a complete gun dog isn’t something an owner is willing to do. We are upfront, and let owners know as soon as we see a direction the training is taking, positive or negative.” Training an older dog may also require more time and become more expensive. The differences between individual dogs also means that what the owner can expect may vary. “Each dog is different and the level of training may be completed in 12 months for some, or up to 24 months for others. An owner can easily have $7000 in a finished dog,” Melissa explained.
Indeed, in some ways, Southern Comfort Gun Dogs approach is as much about training people as it is about training pups. After all, a gun dog and its owner should be able to work as a team.
“Once the pup obtains a great understanding of us and we of them, we like to have the owners come out to see the progress, and discuss the pup and its nature,” said Melissa. “As training progresses we encourage owners to participate at least once a month so we can keep them abreast with their pup’s progress and allow them to learn to work together. We do our best to take a few videos of training to share as a reference as well. After a pup leaves us from training and goes back home with its owner, we continue encouraging the owner to come out and train with us as often as they can to keep the dog in check and their minds sharp on all commands.”
This approach to training certainly seems to work! People say you can’t argue with results, and Melissa and Junior can certainly boast numerous awards and titles won since 2013. Watching a gun dog learn, grow, and become a champion is a part of what makes this job so rewarding.
Southern Comfort Gun Dogs has good reason to be proud of its success, as Melissa explained. “We have had an English Pointer that competed in horseback bird dog field trials that won a few stakes in each category he ran, from puppy to derby to shooting dog stakes,” she stated. “With the Labradors we compete in HRC and AKC hunt tests where we have been awarded many titles to many dogs for their achievements in the field to the standard required by the organization. All in all, there are more than 50 titles and awards that have been issued to our dogs in the past 5 years.”
Tests and competitions aren’t the only time gun dogs trained by these two get a chance to shine. Kingston Downs in Rome, Georgia is sometimes the site of guided quail and pheasant hunts, during which the dogs get an opportunity to strut their stuff. Usually, these hunts feature Melissa and Junior’s personal dogs, but many times clients will request their dogs get a chance to work which benefits both owners and their pups. This is also a wonderful time for those interested in having their dogs professionally trained see Melissa and Junior in action.
“During retrieving training, we open our doors to any and all potential and current clients to come and spectate,” Melissa explained. “Before anyone chooses a trainer, they should go spend time watching them handle a lot of different dogs and see if each dog is happy with the situation he or she is in.”
For those interested, Southern Comfort Gun Dogs not only offers guided hunts and training, but also offers puppies for sale on occasion.
“We do raise a couple of litters a year from our personal dogs. These puppies are available for sale at 8 weeks of age or we will offer a few options for different ages,” Melissa explained. “From time to time we have started gun dogs for sale in our program, whether a retriever or an upland dog.”
So, whether you’re looking to train your gun dog, interested in buying a gun dog, or you would simply like a chance to see professionally trained gun dogs at work before you make a decision about either, check out Southern Comfort Gun Dogs in Rome, Georgia. It’s clear that for Junior and Melissa, training and raising gun dogs is far more than a job: it is a life-long passion. Visit Southern Comfort Gun Dogs online to learn more!