Using coaching experience to train dogs

CorrespondentJuly 3, 2013 

Alex Elam with his whistle in the ready position, prepares to send his Lab on a retrieve.

JIM LASLEY

Lake Country Retrievers, 60 miles north of Raleigh in Warren County, operates like a football team.

Jim Elam, who grew up in this farming countryside, brings 21 years as a teacher and coach to this dog enterprise. He credits his years in education for his success as a professional retriever trainer and kennel operator.

“Training is so much like coaching,” he said. “We’re teaching retrievers skills, holding them to a standard and encouraging an attitude of teamwork between the handler and dog.”

In 1998 Elam decided to shift his focus. In addition to coaching football and teaching health, he’d been training retrievers in his spare time.

“I decided to give training dogs a shot for a year with the understanding from my superintendent if it didn’t work out I could come back to education.”

It did not take long for Elam’s venture to thrive. He sent one the first retrievers he trained to a veteran trainer who in short order turned him into a field champion. During his first year, Elam saw another one of his dogs earn several prestigious hunt test and field trial titles.

“One of the first dogs I trained was so good that I sold it for $4,000,” he said. “I didn’t realize I had something that valuable.”

Now with a full-time staff of two trainers [one also a retired teacher and coach] and two part-time apprentices, Elam has about 30 dogs learning to hunt and compete in the field.

Perhaps Elam’s most exciting prospect is his 11-year-old nephew, Alex, who has become a regular visitor since moving to the Raleigh area with his mother after losing his father to lung cancer.

Alex grew up in Kentucky where his parents were horse trainers, and he rode saddle seat on the horse show circuit.

Now retrievers are Alex’s passion and he said he’d rather have a four wheeler than a horse.

“We could see early on that Alex has a natural talent. He can watch and then step up and duplicate what we do,” Elam said. “We’re molding him and he loves it. He’s being introduced to all we do from chores to training. He retains so much; it’s remarkable. He’ll be able to take the experience as far as he wants to go.”

So far Alex has handled a couple of Elam’s more talented dogs to hunt test titles.

Luke, a one-year-old black lab, has captured Alex’s heart. This is the dog he trains five days per week.

Alex carries an AKC junior showmanship number which will entitle him to a certificate of achievement when he reaches a certain level of handling.

The AKC started the junior showmanship program in 1949 to encourage youngsters to participate in the sport of pure-bred dogs and to learn good sportsmanship. The AKC awards college scholarships to the top handlers in the program.

Alex joins his uncle and crew at 6:30 a.m. to feed the dogs and clean kennels. By 8 a.m. they are on the way to the field for training. After lunch they work the retrievers in water. At 5 p.m. it is time to start the hour-long process of feeding the dogs.

This occurs five days per week in the summer. Alex starts sixth grade this fall.

On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, it’s family time for Elam and his wife, Lou, who have two grown daughters. They often go boating in nearby Kerr Lake or work in the yard.

Elam’s love of dogs came about many years ago when he went into the field with his dad and bird dogs.

“I don’t ever remember my Dad putting a dog in the truck,” he said. “We’d go out the back door and make a big circle hunting quail on our property and neighbors’.”

Elam, who runs hunt tests 16 weekends per year, draws most of his clients from Raleigh, Wilmington and Richmond.

His training philosophy? “Patience, having a plan and sticking to it,” he said. “Give the dogs as fair an education as possible and make sure every correction is not the result of malice or frustration.”

Elam says this is where the fine art of dog training lies – knowing when to correct.

“It’s (a) fine line between lack of effort and confusion from not understanding the task at hand,” he said.

Most of the training takes place at the Elam home and at nearby fields and ponds. Located several miles away from I-85, the Elam property includes a two-story home built in 1895, a barn, and many well-trained retrievers.

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