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Thread: An article I wrote about my Father- Part 1

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Aug 2009

    Default An article I wrote about my Father- Part 1

    Back to the Original- Robert Milner and the Labrador Retriever

    By Robert R. Milner, III

    "Iíve heard of your father, he is a famous man" were the excited words from an elderly lady at the International Gundog Championship in England in 2010. I laughed when she said that because I never think of him as "famous"; I never realized others thought of him as famous until I got older. These British gundog trials and their breeding is what inspired my father's training styles and writings which helped him to become a "famous man".

    I was very fortunate to be able to attend the championship when the trials were hosted at Sandringham, the Norfolk estate of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. The stone-built manor houses, the well-dressed shooters and handlers, and the double guns made me feel like I had taken a trip back in time to the early 1800ís when the British aristocracy began to breed sporting dogs to complement their shooting.

    In fact the very first retriever trial was held on a similar estate in England in 1899. Later on my trip, I was able to meet the Queen's estate keeper, Bill Meldrum, who had been a mentor to my father. A similar trip by my father in the early 80's changed his entire perspective on dog training and breeding; it launched his "gundog revolution" in the US. It was a great treat and honor to experience everything that inspired my father's career and to actually see what convinced him to return to the origins of the British Labrador and the trials that made them.

    In 1972 my father left active duty service in the Air Force. He decided he didn't want an ďordinaryĒ job so he followed his passion and founded the kennel he made internationally famous, Wildrose Kennels. Having grown up training bird dogs with his father for quail hunting on a small West Tennessee holding, and eventually running field trials with his own Labradors, Dad recognized that he had a talent for understanding canine behavior and for developing a relationship with his own retrievers. This started a long, successful journey that changed the gundog culture in the US.

    After a few years in the late 70ís of trying to justify the training techniques used with a lead-lined whip and the electric shock collar, the introduction to the British way was a God-send. My parents were given a trip to England before I was born, where they were introduced through Tim Treadwell, a friend of my grandfatherís, to a friend of his, Major Morty Turner-Cooke. Morty was, at the time, actively involved in the British field trials and took my father under his wing. The electric collar was not something discussed with pride at any of these events and Mortyís training techniques were a real eye-opener. My father had never seen a group of retrievers sitting quietly at shoots and receiving instruction to retrieve one at a time by name!

    Dad soon realized that the combination of a superior selective breeding program and gentle, patient training techniques had far greater results in successful retriever training. As my father has said for many years, "A testament to the success of the British field trial as a driver of a superior selective breeding program lies in the scarcity of electric collars in the hands of British trainers. You rarely ever encounter an electric collar in the British retriever field trial community. A great model already exists for field trials that drive a breeding selection process that produces calm tractable dogs that are good family dogs and that excel in the field." The Brits breed out behavioral problems in the retriever breeds. If a Lab is a very hyper or hard-mouthed, for example, the line is not used for breeding.

    In 1983 he published his first book, Retriever Training for the Duck Hunter. His methods, which were well accepted in the hunting community, were considered to be very gentle at that time in the US. Norman Strung, the famous outdoor writer, described my dad's training in the early 80's as "a humanistic approach to dog training that dispels myths and encourages a partnership between you and your hunting companion. Above all else, Bob Milner cares about people he cares about their dogs, and it shows in the end product of his education."

    My dad became known as the "father" of the British movement in the US. He made the British Labrador breed popular in the US when he started importing British labs in 1983. Today youíll find at least 4 or 5 ads in hunting magazines of breeders selling British labs.

    In his research of the history of the Labrador retriever, my dad imported a British Labrador that can be traced all the way back to the original strain. Created in the early 1800's by the Duke of Buccleuch, Milner is the only breeder in the US that has breeding stock from the original strain of the Labrador. My dad has also documented the history of the breed; an excerpt from one of his recent articles on the history of the Labrador Retriever, published in the Ducks Unlimited magazine:

    "In the 1830's the 5th Duke of Buccleuch imported the first ancestral Labradors from Newfoundland and developed the beginnings of the Labrador breed. The Dukes of Buccleuch have subsequently maintained this original strain of Labrador Retriever and have bred over many years a superb game finding dog to supply the needs of their gamekeepers for their vast estates in Scotland. The Duke of Buccleuch's kennels are the only Labrador breeding kennel which has been in continuous operation since the introduction of Labradors to England in early 1800's."

    There is an article on my dad's site if you would like to know more about this subject:

    Constantly researching and experimenting with new ways to train and breed Labs, my dad has trained a couple thousand dogs in his 40 year career. His training style has evolved since Ducks Unlimited published his second book in 2000. Having spent the past 10 years developing protocols for positive-only training, he delivers a comprehensive, scientifically based, training program to enable dog owners to produce an excellent gundog. The training principles and protocols are based on B. F. Skinner's principles of operant conditioning.

    As he became involved in an industrial real estate business, my dad sold Wildrose Kennels in 1995 after owning it for 23 years. I half expected he would soon retire especially after a successful, but tough, battle with throat cancer. But he received a call after 9/11 to help with an Urban Search and Rescue dog program in Memphis. The Federal Urban Search and Rescue Task Force had just gotten back from the Pentagon and realized they needed some highly trained dogs. Being a retired Lt. Colonel from the Air Force, he had been trying to re-enlist but they said he was too old. He couldn't resist this opportunity to help and be involved.

    After developing one of the best Federal Urban Search and Rescue K-9 teams in the nation, he decided that 100% positive reinforcement is the best training method for novice or average trainers. He was able to drastically reduce the average training time for search dogs from over a year to just 6 months. He did this by getting his trainers to focus on positive reinforcement training techniques - simply rewarding the dogs instead of forcing or punishing them.

    As he said in 2007 about his new kennel operation, "I established Duckhill Kennels to breed better dogs for gundog work, scent detection work, and disaster search work. I also established and designed Duckhill Kennels to serve as a laboratory in which to develop and improve the training processes for the above three functions . A primary goal of this training exploration is to remove as much force as possible from the training process and replace it with operant conditioning/positive reinforcement training techniques." Duckhill Kennels has a cutting edge puppy headstart program that has 16 week old puppies beginning to perform a variety of behaviors some of which include obedience, retrieving and directional casts.

    At 67, my dad is still training, writing, researching and experimenting. He has partnered with a local university to research dog training methods and breeding. His training philosophies and methods are almost completely opposite to what they were 40 years ago. Most gundog trainers want customers to pay them to train their dogs but my father likes to train people to train their own dogs. A novice trainer can have a good hunting dog by only spending a few effective minutes training each week. As my dad says, "Retrievers are remarkably easy to train if one follows the basic rules of animal learning and uses a little common sense. Over the past 40 years, the U.S. Navy has developed leading-edge training methods for dolphins engaged in military duties. This program has developed many of the major applications and training protocols of operant conditioning and reward training." He has found these principles to be vastly superior to traditional gundog training

    People come from all over the world to attend his seminars and he has recently received an Honorary Alumnus from the University of Memphis. He will soon publish his 3rd book and it will be about 100% positive training.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Aug 2009

    Default Part 2

    Robert Milner's Roots-

    It is often said that owners and their dogs are very similar. My father is a perfect example. He is very loyal and trusting and has a gentle side. But he definitely has the drive of a gundog chasing a crippled pheasant. He always jokes that dogs are a lot friendlier than people and that is why he got back in the dog business! I think his seriousness and discipline comes from the Air Force and obviously I might have hated that sometimes! I feel very lucky to brag about my father but I think it is very clear that he deserves these accolades. He is not just famous but he is respected as well. He has friends in high and low places all over the world. He has had cocktails with the Queen of England and many duck hunts with country boys. Treating everybody with respect and dignity, he is a true Southern Gentleman.

    My dad is a very patriotic person having served in Vietnam and Desert Storm. Both sides of his family have strong military and political associations dating back to the early 1800's. I would say he is a mixture of Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and General Patton! He is a disciplined romantic that is very patriotic. If he were to be reincarnated, I believe he would choose to come back as a Spitfire fighter pilot serving in World War II in England.

    His parents and family had a huge influence in his life. His father Bob and his mother Fay were an extraordinary couple. Bob served in the Air Force during World War II designing and testing bombs. He was awarded the Legion of Merit for creating a way to load the atomic bomb on the B-29 bomber. They had never loaded a bomb that big so he came up with the idea of digging a pit and driving the plane over it so the bomb could be loaded from the bottom. Fay is still living today. She is a 7th generation Tennessean and has three relatives that were Memphis mayors in the 1800's and her great grandfather was a general in the civil war, General Pillow.

    I was fortunate to be able to get to know my grandfather before he died when I was 13. I learned a lot from him and have very fond memories of quail hunting and horseback riding with him. Bob liked bird dogs and we would ride on horseback to find coveys of quail. We would hunt just down the road from where they host the National Bird Dog Field Trials in Grand Junction, TN. Nash Buckingham, the famous author, used to borrow his bird dogs. Bob taught me and my father a lot about hunting and life.

    Having been hunting with my dad since I could walk, I feel I am a very lucky son. Intrigued with the historical associations of Beaver Dam hunting club in Tunica, MS, my dad joined when I was a kid. Being the historian that my father is, he joined Beaverdam hunting club in Tunica, MS when I was a kid. Beaver Dam was the oldest hunting club in the US and was founded in 1882. It was the favorite hunting spot of Nash Buckingham. I never will forget when I went duck hunting there for the first time. Again, making me a part of his living history, my dad only hunts with old British hammer guns(and, I might add, is a very god shot!) and chose to give me a 100 year old Holland & Holland Dominion as a graduation present. What more could a son ask for?

    More information:

  3. #3
    Join Date
    May 2008
    Southern IL


    Fantastic article, Robert. Because of your father's vision, we are all blessed with these wonderful British-bred retrievers that are available to the duck hunter here in the USA.
    "If you train a young dog for momentum, precision will arrive. If you train for precision, demanding perfection, momentum will depart."
    ~Rex Carr

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