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Top dog

Lavinia’s Greg Todd transitions lifelong dog-training hobby into full-time venture with help from Co-op
Story and photos by Sarah Geyer 9/29/2017

 

When Carroll County’s Greg Todd shifted his duck dog training focus from typical bird dogs to labs nearly a decade ago, his spare-time business and reputation as a handler grew exponentially in just a few short years. In 2014, when Greg decided to pursue his passion as a full-time career, the long-time Co-op customer turned to Johnathon Jackson, manager at Benton Farmers Cooperative, for help. “With Johnathon and his team behind me,” says Greg, pictured above with Abi.
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For most of his adult life, Greg Todd has been told he should be a full-time duck dog trainer. It’s a career the Lavinia resident says he’s always dreamed about but felt like he needed to work a “real” job to provide a steady income for his family, and train dogs in his spare time.   

That was until nearly four years ago, when, with daughter Ellie out of school and on her own, Greg says he and wife Suzann agreed it was time to talk about full-time dog training, so they put together a five-year plan.

He soon completed the plan’s first task: to convert a barn the previous owners used to house their horses. Within a few months, he had gutted the structure, poured a concrete floor, and installed his three kennels, with plans to add a few more each year.

But all that changed after a typical drive home from his outside sales job turned frightening.

“I started having chest pains while I was behind the wheel,” the 49-year-old explains. “Luckily, I made it safely to the hospital, but I wasn’t ready for what the doctor told me.”

The physician diagnosed Greg with a heart condition and suggested his patient consider finding a less stressful career.

“Suzann and I talked it over and decided we’d make it work,” says Greg. “And, just like that, our plan went from five years to six weeks.”

That’s when he turned to Benton Farmers Cooperative and manager Johnathon Jackson.

“I immediately called Johnathon and told him I needed more kennels,” says Greg. “And he didn’t hesitate. His response was ‘when do you want them?’ I told him, ‘Now, actually. I’ve already got people contacting me, and I’m having to turn them away.’”

Johnathon worked with the soon-to-be full-time entrepreneur to choose kennels that not only met his needs but also his budget. Within two weeks, Benton Farmers employee Jacob Cunningham delivered 14 kennels to Greg’s door.

“Then Jacob and his wife spent two February nights in the bitter cold helping me unload and put the kennels together so I could take on new clients,” he says. “I couldn’t have done it without them.”

Greg says he first met Johnathon and Jacob at Carroll Farmers Co-op’s Trezevant location. As a regular customer in their hunting section, the three quickly bonded over hunting and dogs, so when Johnathon and Jacob transferred to Camden, Greg says he did, too. Not only has he purchased kennels from Co-op, he’s also bought all of his dog houses and training supplies from Benton, as well as his SPORTMiX CanineX dog food.

“At first, I guess I thought they did more for me because we were friends,” Greg admits. “But I’ve seen them with enough customers to know that going the extra mile is just what they do. I knew I could depend on them to help me get up and running quickly. And, now, three years later, they’re still taking care of me.”

Today, Dogwood Retriever Kennels can hold 17 — enough room, for now, to house his four dogs, too. His future plans include concrete walkways and eventually a separate, smaller kennel for his personal dogs.

For the last 20 years, Greg has specialized in training Labradors for duck hunting and field test training, but he also offers basic obedience training of any large dog breeds for those owners who “just want him to sit,” as well as boarding services.

Greg, who grew up in Memphis, says dog training has always been a part of his life.

“My dad, Jerry, trained bird dogs as a hobby, too,” he explains. “He says I started messing with them as soon as I could walk.”

During his teenage years, Greg began running hunting trials with his dad during fall and spring. That’s where he met Illinois-based trainer Jim Holman.

“The summer after I graduated, he asked me if I wanted to head north and help him with his bird dogs,” Greg says. “Of course, I said yes. It was an opportunity of a lifetime. I learned so much from him, and that experience really shaped my training philosophies.”

Just a few months after returning from that training stint, Greg was offered another opportunity to hone his dog-handling skills. His uncle, Jack Lewis, had just opened a shooting preserve in Camden, and he asked his nephew to help train dogs and guide hunting and fishing trips. It was during a trip to Hulm Sporting Goods store in Paris when he noticed a flier promoting a hunt and field test nearby — an event that would completely upend his perspective on training.

“I had buddies and cousins who hunted with labs, but I had never seen one in this environment,” says Greg. “What these trainers had the dogs doing was incredible.”

With bird dogs, he explains, the trainers are trying to manage the dogs’ instincts, to build on their natural hunting tendencies. A lab, because it is a companion breed, is trained to be managed by and work with the handler.

Greg says that before the trials had finished, he knew he wanted to learn to train Labs, too. The problem, he adds, is that 20 years ago, there was very little information about training labs as duck dogs.

“There were no DVDs to rent, no internet to search, no seminars to attend,” he says. “But finally I found one book, “Water Dogs” by Richard Walters, and it became my Bible.”

Greg says he bought a lab puppy and trained her literally page by page from Walters’ book.

“It was a really unique approach for me, and one I fell in love with,” he says. “As a rule of thumb, you develop a partnership with labs, something I didn’t have with the other hunting breeds.”

The proud owner/trainer took his lab along for trips around town, and the pair often received public admiration.

“I can’t tell you how many times someone would stop me and say, ‘Dude, that’s a really nice dog – did you train her?’” he says. “I ended up selling her and that’s how I got into training labs for duck hunting.”

Within five years, Greg had 12 dogs under his tutelage; he credits much of that growth to the flexibility of his “real” job at a sporting goods store in Jackson, where he worked as the closing assistant manager.

“That job and training worked really well together because I had those morning hours to run the dogs,” he says. “That’s when I started training the labs for hunting tests, too.”

When the store closed and Greg lost his job, his friends suggested he try dog training full time.

“It just wasn’t something I felt like I could swing with my daughter still at home,” says Greg, who began working as an outside salesman for Fuggitt Rubber. “We needed the insurance and steady income, but that’s when I started kicking around the idea of a five-year plan.”

But Greg is convinced that throwing out this plan and just jumping in has been the best career decision of his life.

“To me, I’ve got the greatest job in the world,” he says. “I get up every morning at 5 a.m., I’m doing exactly what I love to do, and I’m able to make a living at it.”

His growing client list is a testament to his methods. For gun dogs, he asks the owners to commit to at least four months of training.

“It takes that long to make a good duck dog,” he says. “That’s me working with the dog at least once a day, six days a week. I take Sundays off from training and go to church. I believe it’s important for both me and the dogs to have a day to rest, rejuvenate, and be ready for a new week. But it’s really not a day ‘off’ for me because I’ve got more than a dozen dogs out there that have to be fed and aired every day, twice a day.”

All the dogs he’s training this summer are 10 months old or younger. And, much like a typical group of kindergartners, he says they all learn at different paces.

“It’s not how quickly they learn a skill that’s important,” he says. “It’s that when they do learn it, it’s perfection. If it takes six months to do it correctly, what difference does it make? That’s my training philosophy.”

Another important part of Greg’s training approach is owner participation. As part of the process, Greg takes time to train the client, too.

“I want them to watch me work with their dog and learn to use the commands just like I do,” he explains, adding that his Saturdays are usually filled with dog owners dropping by for a training session. “That way, when it’s time for them to take over, the transition will be seamless.”

As for the dogs being prepared for hunt and field test trials, Jacob says Greg is known for the steadiest dogs in the game.

“When Greg brings a dog to the line, that dog is under control,” he says. “It watches its marks and it won’t move.”

One of the dogs Greg trains has qualified to compete in the American Kennel Club’s nine-day master nationals retriever event in October. Competing at that level isn’t for every hunting dog, says Greg, but participating in hunt and field test trials should be.

“When a guy tells me, ‘Man, I just want a hunting dog. I don’t care about the ribbons and everything else,’ I tell him to consider this: hunting season is 18 weekends, and realistically, most guys might make half of those,” says Greg. “That’s not much practice for your dog. If you were willing to put in the money, time, and effort to train your hunting dog, why not give him extra experience through test trials? Putting your dog in that environment will only make him a better hunting dog, which is what you wanted anyway.”

For more information about Dogwood Retriever Kennels, contact Greg Todd at 731-217-5968. To learn more about hunting and dog supplies available through Co-op, contact your local store.

 
 
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