Talking with Johnnie Burnett sends you on a nostalgic trip through the retriever and bird dog worlds spanning some 50 years from the deep South to North Carolina. This was the era when the habitat for Bobwhite Quail began to disappear and the bird dogs reign as king started to slip, to be replaced by retrievers.
It also was the start of Burnetts lifelong passion for sporting dogs. One of his early ventures in the dog business came when he was a savvy youngster of 14. He discovered a knack for buying retrievers up North, flying them to his home in Jackson, Miss., where he raised puppies and honed their natural skills to the point they fetched a tidy profit.
I was working for my godfather back then; he was a contractor and taught me how to lay concrete and he paid me good. Thats how I got money to buy dogs, Burnett said. I was sitting in the school library one day reading Field & Stream magazine and I saw the advertisement about retrievers for sale so I bought my first dog.
Soon professional handlers took a liking to Burnett and brought him along to field trials and training sessions to throw birds. He met many renowned dog trainers including the late Cotton Pershall and Billy Voight. Burnetts love of the dog game shot to a new level and he was offered a chance to travel the field trial circuit through Memphis, Mobile, Ala., New Orleans and Jackson, Miss.
I turned em down. I ran it by mama and she wanted me to stay in school and I didnt want to leave my family, he said.
During his 20s Burnett maintained an interest in bird dog field trials. He rode scout on a Tennessee Walking Horse rounding pointers and setters back on course. But the retriever world was his real love.
I love bird dogs but I prefer retrievers, Burnett said. I just love to see em hit the water and pick up ducks. Im intrigued by the handling when a retriever will go right or left or back when you tell em so with a hand signal. Bird dogs have got to run big when you turn em lose; youd better be ready to walk. But a retriever is more laid back, more sophisticated.
Burnett guesses that during his 62 years he has touched 400 dogs or more, raising, buying, selling and training. In addition to his career as a professional trainer, he has worked in a hospital, cotton mill, computer chip plant and owned a landscape business.
He left Mississippi in 1999, relocating in Warren County, 60 miles north of Raleigh when his wife was recruited to manage the practice of a heart specialist.
I love it here, he said. I do something with dogs every day even if its only reading about them in Field Trial News. It keeps me motivated.
Burnett dropped out of the retriever sport two years ago to take care of his ailing wife.
I was her primary caregiver until she passed a year ago this January, he said.
Now Burnett is making a comeback, looking for a new retriever and traveling to field trials and hunt tests with Jim Elam, a professional dog trainer and handler in Warren County. The two met in 2000 when Burnett answered an ad in the local newspaper for someone with dog experience.
I was taken aback with his understanding and hands on experience with retrievers, Elam said.
The two became fast friends and, with the death of their brothers under similar circumstances and at about the same time, the relationship moved to a higher level.
We look on each other as brothers, Elam said. Hes like a family member. I rarely leave home without him.
I dont consider him a friend; hes my brother. His wifes the same way; shes my sister, Burnett said. Theres nothing that Jim wouldnt do for me and me for him.
Get the two talking about retrievers and you are in for a treat. They like to recall great dogs they have owned and their experiences at hunt tests and field trials. These tales will warm your heart, bring a tear to your eye and make you laugh. You will hear about Slick Nick, a hard running, high rolling dog. And Toby, a monster who once sat on honor for 15 minutes and didnt move even when another dog growled in his face.
Wed like to have some of the great ones back, Burnett said. Theyd run anything, never give up. They never let us down. They had the desire. They were duck crazy.
So what makes a good retriever in Burnetts mind?
Theyll retrieve until they drop. They love the water. Theyre saying get out of my way, let me go. Ive got it and just like anything else theyve got to have desire.
In the meantime, Burnett continues the hunt for the special pup that will put him back on the field trial and hunt test circuits.
I love it so much that Im going to get another pup, he said. Im looking now for a yellow male about six to nine months old. One with a lot of energy who will look out in the field and will go in the water. Hes got to be a willing dog and not turn away from me, and the key element is the desire to retrieve whatever I throw out there, even a sock.