Fall is a busy time in the North. There are Oktoberfests to be enjoyed, autumn hikes to traverse, changing leaves to be admired, and—as hunting seasons open—blaze orange to be donned. Many of us are not alone when we answer the call of the great outdoors, stepping out into the woods and prairies. There by our side is our four-legged best friend, eagerly trotting along, ready to take part in whatever adventure may await.
While many dogs love the countryside and make excellent hunting partners, few dogs can match the German shorthaired pointers trained at Willow Creek Kennels in Little Falls, Minnesota, in the art of hunting and companionship. That’s largely thanks to Chad Hines—owner of Willow Creek Kennels, husband, father, sportsman, and life-long dog trainer and owner.
Chad has been training dogs most of his life. He started working with his first hunting dog, a beagle named Running Wrinkles, when he was 11 years old. In 2000, he transformed his sixth-generation family farm in central Minnesota into a sprawling 266-acre kennel and shooting preserve. The two main kennels, surrounded by grass fields and ponds ringed by tall cattail reeds, echo with the sounds of their noisy residents. The natural landscape and the small plots of crops keep the onsite bird population of 100 upland fowl and homing pigeons, used for training, well fed.
The head count at Willow Creek hovers around 80 dogs at a time, with spring and fall litters providing a steady influx of future expert hunters. In addition to the dogs bred here, the kennel opens its doors to 350 dogs and owners who come for training sessions each year. To reach owners who can’t make the trip to central Minnesota for lessons, Chad and his five trainers, whose specialities range from puppy socialization to hunt testing, film training tactics and put them on their website.
In 15 years, the Willow Creek team has trained over 1,000 dogs, of which 60 have been awarded Master Hunter titles from the American Kennel Club. Willow Creek exclusively raises German shorthaired pointers, a breed renowned for its stamina, sense of smell, even temperament, and drive—all of which make the breed a versatile all-purpose gun dog. Following training, each dog is carefully matched with the right owner, from Minnesota, the U.S., or sometimes even around the world.
When it comes to training and breeding, the first thing Chad looks at is a dog’s pedigree. The best German shorthaired pointer hunting dogs often come from lines of award-winning and breed-standard dogs. “We like the master dogs, the higher-end dogs—the dogs that are in the toughest test and doing well,” Chad says. It is from these top-of-the-line sires and dams that he looks to breed, eventually training the puppies into the most successful dogs possible. The second criteria Chad looks for is instinct—puppies that instinctively freeze in the “point” stance at an early age, for example, or meet the proper breed standards.
The first several months are important ones for the puppies that enter into the Willow Creek Kennel training program. First, the puppies are clicker trained with a food reward system to understand the simple commands: stop and stay (“whoa”) and recall (“here”). Next, they are introduced to retrieving. When they master that, usually around the age of 5–6 months, it’s time to learn other basic commands like ‘heel’ and ‘kennel’ in order to maintain a lifetime of skilled and manageable behavior.
Throughout this year of training, Chad and his staff look for temperament issues in the dogs and take considerable measures to ensure that each trainee can handle the field conditions of gunfire and real fowl, as well as respond to their trainer/owner’s commands. By the time the puppies are 10–12 months old, they’ve reached Level One status, meaning they are ready to hunt and almost set to make the transition from the kennel to their new homes.
Placing a puppy with a family doesn’t mean its ties with Willow Creek are cut. Chad and his staff check in with the new owners two weeks following adoption. During the follow-up, they ask about the dog’s behavior and remind the owner to keep using the basic commands learned in training with their new family members. Not only does this make for a better relationship between owner and dog, but it builds the solid base of skills necessary for the dogs to participate in the kennel’s one-month gun dog program—a refresher course of sorts that ensures the dogs are ready for the field.
This dedication to each dog, from birth to adoption and beyond, keeps Willow Creek Kennel plenty busy year-round. Every spring and fall brings with it a new set of puppies ready to be trained and adopted, ensuring that hunters in Minnesota and beyond are matched with the best hunting partner and companion possible.