The two ladies and new owners of DuckHill Kennels in Somerville, Tennessee, Mauri Jourdan and Heather Vazquez, filled some big shoes in January 2023, when they acquired the business from legendary dog trainer and handler, Robert Milner. Having trained and worked under Milner for several years, the transition into co-owning DuckHill was a natural one for these ladies. More than qualified to step up to the challenge, these women of the Gun Dog World are continuing Milner’s tradition and vision of achieving British Labrador excellence through their breeding and training programs.
Only after retiring from the first kennel Robert established in 1972, Wildrose Kennels, was he introduced to a game-changing, innovative way of training his labs: positive training. Robert was so enticed by these new and exciting positive methods that he felt compelled to come out of retirement and try these techniques himself; he founded DuckHill Kennels in 2007 for that sole purpose. Realizing how successful these positive methods were, Robert recruited an industrious team to pass his knowledge, drills, and methods onto as he approached his second retirement from the dog training industry. His work is still carried on today.
Mauri, Heather, and their two other trainers, Cayley Garland and Courtney Baker (also the kennel’s photographer), work together in a joint effort to continue Robert’s training techniques daily at DuckHill. It is an all positive training facility: no coercion, no force. Positive training is a part of operant conditioning, which means the dog learns to associate its behavior with positive actions. With this type of training, dogs increase the frequency of behaviors with pleasant consequences (a treat, pat on the head, praise from the trainer) and decrease the frequency of behaviors with negative consequences (no treat, no pat or rub, no praise).
In contrast to most kennels, no e-collars (electric collars) are used. “We use the dog’s natural instincts, rather than force, to train,” Mauri states. The ladies of DuckHill believe the e-collar is simply not needed. “These dogs have the natural instinct to retrieve- it’s what they were bred to do. There’s no reason to force them. I feel like the e-collar takes the fun away for the dog. He already knows what to do- we just have to positively reinforce it,” Mauri explains.
Traveling to England in 1983 in search of examples of original English labs, Robert imported the first British Labradors, whose pedigrees trace back to 1837 with the Duke of Buccleuch (one of the last St. John’s Water Dogs that became the foundation of the British lab breed), to Wildrose. He was intrigued by their great hunting initiative and trainability. The breeding program continues today with these bloodlines and focuses on breeding for good drive, trainability, calm temperament, natural delivery to hand, and, for DuckHill canoe labs, compactness.
A canoe lab is one bred to be a smaller size, typically 35-50 pounds. As Mauri explains, this means a smaller lab with all the same qualities you would expect to find in a British lab that can jump in and out of a canoe without risk of capsizing it. Also due to their smaller size, less water is brought back into the canoe on the return.
Besides breeding, DuckHill Kennels also offers a Head Start program for their puppies, Search and Rescue training, Good K-9 Citizen program, and, of course, the Gun Dog program. The facility includes an agility obstacle course and a recreated disaster scene, complete with tunnels for the handlers to hide in, to aid in the Search and Rescue training.
Heather mostly works with the puppies and outside client dogs. DuckHill puppies do not leave the kennel until they are 10-12 weeks old. This allows the dam to wean them on her own schedule and decreases separation anxiety. At 8 weeks DuckHill puppies begin formal training. Heather uses clicker training and placeboarding to teach them to sit. This is an important foundational skill as they begin drills and methods in steadiness, an attribute that is imperative in the blind. Duck dogs must be reliably steady as they are asked to sit for long periods of time while other dogs are worked, calls are blown, shots are fired, and ducks are dropped.
The puppies are worked in ten minute increments about three times a week, and progress notes are taken. Client dogs are worked with every day. With both, consistency is key, and Heather always ends on a positive note. She says, “You can never have too much repetition in training.” In fact, 150 successful repetitions are needed for a skill like deliver-to-hand to be considered concrete.
Although it’s not duck season, “Training-wise, there is no off season,” Mauri states. “These dogs are athletes, and it’s similar to a marathoner who really never stops running,” she explains. Although they can’t work as hard with the intense southern heat and humidity, the DuckHill trainers continue to drill year-round. Building muscle memory is just one specific skill that can be strengthened in the summer months.
Another reason DuckHill Kennels stands out in the Gun and Duck Dog industry is these ladies do not market “finished” gun dogs. Instead, the goal of the Gun Dog Program is to give the dogs the foundation and skills they need to enable them to go back to their owner (or to their new home) and begin the journey of working together. Once trust is established with the owner, the process of working towards a truly finished gun dog can begin. DuckHill wants the average novice trainer to be able to successfully work with his or her dog using the gentle positive training methods the dog has already become accustomed to while at the kennel.
Building on this continuation of training, the women of DuckHill believe in sharing their training methods with dog owners and other trainers as well. Mauri states, “We aren’t training to be the best; we’re training to be our personal best.” Mauri, Heather, Cayley, and Courtney believe that sharing training “secrets” doesn’t take away their strengths as trainers. “The more positive dog trainers we have out there, the better these dogs’ lives are,” Mauri adds.
*Females in the Field are special features of highlighting ladies leading in their sport.