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The Hunter’s Left Hand: How to Raise a Self-Reliant Hunting Dog

Photo: Isaac Neale

The sun begins to set as J.J. Gustafson turns off the pavement and into the bush. Gravel crackles beneath rubber as the final stretch of a long journey unwinds. They’ve been driving north for days, putting over 1300 miles between home in Texas and tonight’s camp in Minnesota. The door slams shut as J.J. finally gets out of his truck, stretching his road legs. He walks to the back and pulls open his BedSlide, revealing a careful Tetris grid of tightly packed gear. Nestled within is a large kennel. Calm and alive. 

The tip of a sleek wet nose peeks through an air vent, sniffing at the dusk. J.J. unlatches the door, and out emerges a sleek, black Labrador retriever. Reign knows not to rush out at J.J. and jump out of the truck when he opens the door. Instead, she walks to the edge of the tailgate and waits. When he’s ready, J.J. lifts her up and sets her carefully on the ground. (A practice intended to avoid shoulder or hip wear — common issues with labs.) She uses the bathroom nearby. She does not need a leash or a collar. Reign knows not to roam too far. 

And if you met her, you’d maybe wonder: what doesn’t Reign know?

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Photos: J.J. Gustafson

She Knows the Drill

J.J. begins to unpack and set up camp, going through processes and motions he knows by heart. Reign knows them too. Like so many moments in their lives, they have practiced this choreography before, as this is just one of the hundreds of nights they’ll spend on the road this year. In most situations, Reign knows where she needs to be now and where she needs to be next. From one end of a hunting excursion to the other, she knows the drill. 

“We travel a lot, and we move very quickly, so everything — from the gear I use to the people I work with — has to be dialed. When it's time to get to work, I can't have any piece of the system slowing me down. Not faulty gear. Not weak tires. And not a confused dog. A well-trained dog is like a well-organized truck. An integral part of the system. Reign is my buddy, and she’s family. But she’s also here to perform a duty. She’s a part of the team. And she knows the drill.” – J.J. Gustafson

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Photo: Aaron Davis

Going Pro

Once J.J. puts his boat in the water, Reign knows the drill there, too. Out in the field, she has a myriad of hand signals that she responds to. No words, just hands. She has even more verbal commands, but it’s important to master some nonverbal cues when hunting out in the wild. Hunting with a professional sporting dog is a special experience. When you get it, you get it. Even J.J. found it tough to describe. Things clicked for him when he had the privilege of hunting with Amy, Reign’s mother, years ago. Amy was professionally bred and trained at Southern Oak Kennels, and working with her changed J.J.’s perspective on hunting dogs. 

“Sportsmen don’t have dogs just because they’re cute and fun. We have dogs to retrieve game. If you're hunting in a scenario where you cannot retrieve your game, you have no business being there. There is no more gut-wrenching feeling than having taken a life and not being able to recover the bird. Amy helped me understand why you hunt with a dog. With a dog by your side, your success becomes extra sweet because it’s also their success. You play as a team.” 

Buckling Up

When he heard that Amy was pregnant with her last litter of puppies, J.J. pounced on the opportunity to raise one. He went with a smaller female, knowing that his dog would be kenneled a lot. J.J. is a proud resident of the state of Texas, where over 95% of the land is privately owned — three times as many acres as any other state. There are very few public hunting opportunities in Texas. So, when he hunts, he has to drive. A lot.

“I drive around 50,000 miles every duck season. So when it came time to choose a dog, I went with a smaller puppy who would be as comfortable as possible in a kennel. She comes with me on every single trip, and she always rides in a kennel. It’s the only way to give your dog any semblance of a seatbelt.” 

Reign rides safe and secure in the bed of J.J.’s Ford F-250. Optimized for rugged, long-distance travel deep into the wild wetlands of North America, J.J’s truck is outfitted with an extended S&B fuel tank, a subtle, mileage-saving 2.5-inch lift, aftermarket sprayed-in bed liner, a BedSlide, a camper shell with windows that slide or flip up (so Reign can stay cool), and 35-inch BFGoodrich® Tires All-Terrain T/A® KO2 tires. Whether they’re on a hunting excursion or just headed out on a fun weekend with friends, the truck and J.J.’s whole system is ready to go.

“The reason I built my truck the way I did is so that Reign and I can chase our innate, ingrained passions. We love to hunt. But as soon as hunting season is over, you bet that next weekend, we’re out fly fishing, going to the beach, riding dirt bikes, or something interesting. Fun has no off-season. We just go and do. And my truck is the key to it all.

There is never a question in anyone's mind ever. If we're on the road, we’re taking my truck. We're going somewhere cool with amazing people, and we're gonna cook, drink, listen to music, maybe haul a toy behind us, and we’re definitely bringing the dogs along. If my truck's involved, we are gonna have a blast.”

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Photo: Isaac Neale

Nature and Nurture

Reign is coming up on two years of age, but she’s felt mature for a while. It didn’t take J.J. long to work out puppy tendencies because they treated every interaction as a learning opportunity. Part of Reign’s good behavior is her pedigree. She comes from a long line of British dogs, each chosen for their instincts, intelligence, and athletic abilities. But that’s not the full story.

“Don’t get me wrong, bloodline matters. If you want an excellent sporting dog, absolutely do your research and buy a puppy from a reputable kennel. A strong bloodline will set you up for success, but it’s not a guarantee. Your commitment to understanding your dog is the guarantee.” 

Reign was built to retrieve. It’s in her blood. But on top of her nature, she and J.J. have nurtured one another. They have a rapport. Built on their bond, their experiences with one another, and a series of skills, drills, and exercises that have established a shared language between the two of them — a feat that goes way beyond bloodline. 

Aside from Reign’s good genetics, it’s clear that her success does not lie solely in her mind but in J.J.’s. Inspired no doubt by the perspective-shifting experiences he had while hunting with Reign’s mother and other dog trainers, J.J’s attitude — toward Reign, toward training, and toward hunting dogs in general — is the cornerstone of Reign’s success. It’s an attitude of generosity, experimentation, and a healthy dose of patience.

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Photo: Keaton Rowe

Experimenting in the Lab

Everyone has an opinion about how a dog should be trained and what to teach them at what point in time. When J.J. first got Reign, he heard many opinions from friends and sought out even more online. But rather than treating anyone’s opinion as creed, he thought of it all rather scientifically — like a long list of hypotheses to be tested in the lab. His lab.

“What all the advice offers you are examples of techniques that have worked with other dogs. That’s great! Try those things. But the real task at hand is to find out what works for your dog. Instead of setting out to follow some program to a tee, set out to figure out your dog’s psychology. Every time you introduce a new training tactic, pay attention to how your dog responds. Ask yourself ‘ what’s working and what’s not working? How does this animal learn best?’”

It’s a dog-first approach to training. One that acknowledges that — although breeding produces animals who share many characteristics — dogs are still individuals. And much like humans, they have quirks and preferences in the classroom. Some methods work better than others, without any of them necessarily being “correct” or “incorrect.” There isn’t always a definitive right or wrong. 

The best part of this approach to training is that it recontextualizes failure. When you invest time working on a skill with your dog, and then they fail to reproduce the desired behavior, that can be a huge letdown. It can feel like a waste of time, but if you think about training as J.J. does, nothing is a total waste. Even when something failed, you still got data out of the experience. And having more data about your dog is always a good thing.

“Every single interaction, every experience, every moment you share with your dog is a learning opportunity — both for you and your dog.” 

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Photos: Aaron Davis

A La Carte

We could also call this the “a la carte” approach to training. You pick and choose the skills and training techniques that you think will suit your dog — and you make sure that every day, those decisions become more and more informed.

One technique that worked well for J.J. and Reign during the first six months of Reign’s life was an a la carte approach to her meals. Rather than eating one bowl in the morning and one bowl at night, J.J. kept two servings of kibble in his pockets, using each piece of food as a learning experience during the morning and evening hours.

“When I had time throughout the day, we would walk around and work on ‘heel,’ and then ‘sit,’ and then we moved on to ‘fetch’ and so on. For every single good thing she did, she got a piece of kibble. By the end of the day, she’d eaten her two meals.”

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Photo: Aaron Davis

Five Lessons in Dog Training 

Lesson One: Hit the Town 
One of the most important things to do for a hunting dog is to socialize them around other dogs and people during training. Find the places in town that welcome dogs, and take your dog out when you can. Reward good behavior and correct unwanted behavior. 

Lesson Two: No Blame Games
When something isn’t working, it can be easy to blame your dog. Don’t. When you’re in training mode, it’s important not to get frustrated with your dog. All that does is teach them to associate training with negative feelings. Perhaps there was something off about the way you communicated with them, or maybe you just haven’t instilled enough confidence in them yet to do that thing yet. Either way, failure to perform a task isn’t always on your dog.

Lesson Three: Reign in the Love
When they receive a lot of praise and excitement from you, a dog can get so excited about the praise they completely forget what it was they did to earn it. When training your dog, don’t overwhelm them with praise, a simple ‘good’ and a pat is sufficient. Secondly, there’s no need to praise tasks that your dog naturally enjoys doing – like a retrieve. That retrieve is the reward in and of itself. 

Lesson Four: Do the Twist 
Training is largely a project of bridging the language barrier between you and your dog. This happens in many ways, like hand signals, vocal signals, or food. One way to gently communicate a correction for a dog that is continuously reluctant to a task (as Reign was loading into the truck bed the first few times) is to twist your dog’s ear slightly. This shouldn’t hurt, but it will make your dog slightly uncomfortable. When they perform the task you’re looking for, immediately release their ear. This allows the dog to think: “Hmm, every time I do X, the pressure releases, I’d rather just do X on my own and avoid the pressure.”

Lesson Five: Normalize the Abnormal 
One lesson J.J. learned the hard way was during a winter hunt. Reign had never encountered ice before and was asked to retrieve a bird in an icy river. J.J.’s thought was: why get the dog cold and wet before I have to? The answer is: to familiarize Reign with ice and make ice a condition under which she can confidently retrieve. On that hunt, the conditions weren’t normal. So, her behavior wasn’t normal. She was confused by the ice, and they struggled as a result. A few practice runs likely would have saved them a lost bird when game time arrived.

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Photo: Keaton Rowe

A Life of Passion

Perhaps you’re thinking: I only get out to bird hunt a few weekends a year; do I really need to dedicate so much time and effort to train my dog? Maybe not. J.J. is quick to admit that few people need to go to the lengths that he has with Reign. They are in the field constantly, and they get a lot of reps in. But on the other hand, if you’re a hunter who only gets out a few times a year, you still wanna make those trips count. You want to come home with each bird. That requires a capable dog. 

There’s a little more to the story than the hunt. According to J.J., a properly-trained dog isn’t just capable in the field, well-behaved around strangers and pleasant at home. They’re also happier. 

“The untrained dog lives a very dispassionate life. Their lows are lower, and their highs aren’t as high. Reign’s role in my hunting life has given her the gift of purpose. And that purpose is linked with mine, bonding us even closer.

To pursue and eat are fundamental things that dogs and men have always done. It’s in our blood. When we’re in sync in the field, we’re at our best. It’s why the effort to train is worth it. It’s why I have my truck and why I live so much of my life on the road. I drive the miles it takes to bring Reign and me to the places where we feel the most fulfilled.”  

Here’s to taking the capable, passionate road. We’ll see you out there.

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Photo: J. J. Gustafson

To keep up with J.J. Gustafson, follow him on Instagram or check out his hunting gear brand HEYDAY.

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