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Becoming a Professional Dog Trainer

How three prominent dog trainers went pro—and how you can, too.

Becoming a Professional Dog Trainer

If you’ve been considering ditching your day job for a career as a full-time dog trainer, these inspirational tales may be just enough to give you the gumption to take your own leap of faith. (Photo courtesy of Chris Akin/Webb Footed Kennels)

If you’ve trained up a few of your own gun dogs, then the odds are good that you’ve thought about doing it professionally. A job earns money, a career will leave a mark, but honoring a calling? Now that’s some heady stuff. Sure, there are a number of multi-generational dog training families, but the reality is that most professional dog trainers have worked other jobs. One day they quit, and here are the stories of three leading trainers who don’t miss their old jobs one bit.

Making a Mark

Robert Milner of Duckhill Kennels in Somerville, Tennessee has a way with dogs; it’s called the right way. His books Retriever Training and Absolutely Positively Gun Dog Training, have inspired many young handlers, some of whom have gone on to become pro dog trainers. But Milner wasn’t always a trainer. In fact, prior to starting his kennels, he served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force.

“I received my draft notice to serve in Vietnam in 1967,” Lt. Col. Milner said. “Rather than wait until I got called up, I just went ahead and enlisted. My dad served in the Air Force, so that made for an easy choice. I had five-years of active duty, and my last post was at McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Washington. While there I met Roy Gonia, a breeder, trainer, and trialer. Folks might remember Gonia as the originator of a Mega Whistle dog whistles.” 

Robert Milner of Duckhill Kennels
Robert Milner of Duckhill Kennels (Photo courtesy of Robert Milner/Duckhill Kennels)

“Gonia had a gimpy-shouldered Labrador retriever pup that nobody wanted. The pup’s name was Toni’s Blaine Child, call name Canuck. Every other pup in the litter went to field trial homes, but this sorry little guy didn’t look like he was going to amount to much of anything. I bought him, took him home, and worked with him every day. He racked up several Open places before his derby year, and I sold him to one of Tommy Sorenson’s clients. Tommy got his FC and made him a finalist in three National Opens.”    


“My active duty ended in 1972, and I moved to Grand Junction, Tennessee. I bought a farm and started Wildrose Kennels. I bred, trained, and competed American Labs during that time. But on a trip to England in 1980 I met up with my British Army friend, Major Morty Turner-Cook. Morty fought at Dunkirk, and when he retired, he got into dog training and field trialing. Over the next few weeks, I went to a number of field trials with him, and those dogs and trials made quite an impression on me. The biggest difference between British and American Labrador breeding programs comes from the vastly different values that are favored. One isn’t better than the other, but they truly are different.”

Shortly thereafter, Milner began importing British Labrador retrievers to the United States. He sourced impeccable bloodlines and traveled abroad every year to scout for up-and-coming champions. The British positive training method equally appealed to him. It was a deliberate way to bring out the best in a dog which is quite different from forcing a dog to follow a command. These days, UK Labs and positive training methods are accepted stateside, and Milner has introduced both.

Mastering the Craft

How do you know that Chris Akin, of Webb Footed Kennels in Bono, Arkansas, is honoring his calling? He’s trained over 4,000 dogs and produced more than 350 Hunting Retriever Champions, 175 Master Hunters, and 35 Grand Hunting Retriever Champions, that’s how. But prior to a career training and campaigning dogs, the pro trainer had a mundane job. Akin was a traveling window salesman. 

“Back in the ‘80s I was living with my dad in Memphis,” he said. “I started working for Jordan Aluminum Windows selling windows to family-owned lumber yards. The construction and home improvement market wasn’t as strong then as it is now, so it was really tough for a new guy like me to break in. Every time I’d show up at a yard, the employees muttered ‘salesman’ and the buyers suddenly were too busy to talk.” 


Chris Akin of Webb Footed Kennels
Chris Akin of Webb Footed Kennels (Photo courtesy of Chris Akin/Webb Footed Kennels)

Momma didn’t raise a quitter, and Akin sort of stumbled into an ice breaker. It was with a black Labrador retriever he got from Robert Milner. “I had a young dog that wasn’t coming together, and I went to see Robert about a dog,” Akin said. “He had one I really wanted, but I couldn’t afford him. Robert realized I was pretty serious about dogs and training, and when I was about to leave he gave me that dog. I’ve never forgotten that, because it really was how I got into the training business. That pup was my buddy, and I’d take him on my sales calls. In the summer I’d leave him in the truck with the engine running and the air conditioner on. One day a customer asked me why I left my truck running. 

‘I’m training a Lab and he’s in there. The AC’s on to keep him cool.’ 

‘Well bring him on out, let’s see what he’s got.” 

“So, I brought out the dog and we walked through some obedience drills. A crowd started to gather for this as well-trained dogs were few and far between at the time. I moved on to throw some bumpers, and the folks loved watching him retrieve. They kinda lost it when we ran some marks and blinds. Before long, everyone was looking forward to seeing my dog and the progress we were making. I started selling windows, so many that I soon became the company’s top salesman.” 

“Along the way, folks started asking me about training their dogs. I picked up a few dogs to offset my duck hunting expenses, then a few more so I could buy a new duck boat. Before long I had 16 dogs in my kennel and a client ran some numbers and showed me that I could make a living training professionally. I thought about it for two straight days, and on the third day I handed in my notice. Four decades later, and we’re still training dogs. I feel incredibly blessed.” 

A Dog’s Life in the Sweet Sunny South

To get to a life of bird dogs, Mark Fulmer, of Sarahsetter Kennel in Aikin, South Carolina, went around his elbow to kiss his thumb. “My Grandpa was a quail hunter, and he had a pointer and a setter,” Fulmer said. “He didn’t want anyone bothering his dogs, so he’d tell me all the time that they’d bite me. Hell, I stuck my hand through their cages every day and all I got was licked. Some years later my brother was dating a girl named Anna, and he gave her an Irish setter. Anna already had five dogs of her own, and her momma sent the pup back. I took her and named her Sarah, which kinda evolved into my kennel’s name.  

“In the 1980s I was working as the Assistant Greens Superintendent at the Houndslake Country Club. I was field trialing then as well, running mostly in American Field, NBHA, AKC and NSTRA events in the walking and horseback shooting dog trials. The best part of working at the country club was that it was a big property with 27 holes. Late in the afternoons I’d drive my Land Cruiser down the middle of the fairway while my dogs ran the edges. There also were wild birds on the edges of the property, so my dogs would get contacts on Bobwhite quail and seasonal woodcock.”

Mark Fulmer of Sarahsetter Kennel
Mark Fulmer of Sarahsetter Kennel (Photo courtesy of Mark Fulmer/Sarahsetter Kennel)

“Over time, things just sort of came together. Folks learned that I was good with dogs, and they started bringing me their pups to train. Along the way I realized that I liked working for myself more than for someone else, so I just quit and focused on training and trialing. I have averaged raising about three litters per year for 31 years of English and Red setters. I’ve been training full time since 1991. No matter how hard the day or season, how hot the temperatures or rainy the weather, there’s nothing I’d rather be doing than training dogs.”

Leaving behind the security of a job with lots of benefits isn’t always easy, especially if you’re married or have a family. For some, throwing caution to the wind comes with the territory. It’s a dog’s life, one that isn’t a job or a career but a calling. It all becomes clear with a walk through the kennel. Those tails beating a happy tune makes the hardest, most challenging day fade away.  

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