Meet the Pros: Jim Keller, Wildwind Kennels, Knox, Maine

Jim Keller, Wildwind Kennels, Knox, Maine

Please introduce yourself and explain what you do in the sporting world. 

My name is Jim Keller. I'm with Wildwind Kennels out of Knox, Maine. We train upland bird dogs, basically spaniels and retrievers, for field trials and for hunting. 

Can you give us a little backstory? How long have you been doing this and what got you started? 

Well, my wife and I moved from Ohio out to Utah, I'd never been out west before, saw a bunch of different things, and I saw pheasants – never had hunted pheasants before. Having been from Maine, grouse hunting up there was the king, but not a lot of people use dogs. So we moved to Utah and now, all of a sudden, we got all these upland game birds and I had to go check it out. We got a dog, and a good friend of mine, Gary Riddle out of Utah, invited me to do some training and it started from there.  

Can you talk a little bit about some of your proudest achievements? 

Sure. As funny as it may sound, some of my proudest achievements are just something between me and a dog, meaning it wasn't necessarily some of the real high accolades in the trial world. It actually was taking that same dog and taking them hunting, and some of the incredible things I would see him do.  
There's a dog, Annie, that I trained. She's in the Bird Dog Hall of Fame. She's the most pointed dog in spaniel history, beautiful dog. One of the proudest moments with her that sticks to my mind is when we were hunting out in Kansas and, all of a sudden, she kicked up this prairie grouse and I shot at it and I'm thinking, "Boy, did I get that? Didn't I get that?" And it dropped, had to be close to 200 yards away, just fell out of the sky. I sent her to go retrieve it, and watching all the training come together was beautiful. 

Why dogs? What is it about dogs? 

Dogs, to me, it takes a special skill set to bring out different things. It's not as easy as talking to people and figuring out maybe what their story is but you've got to communicate to that animal and teach it, and some of the incredible things that you do, that the dogs learn, is amazing to me. And I like the challenge. I think it's fun. It's intriguing. Just when you think you've seen it all, you see something different. 

How important do you think nutrition is? 

I look at it as a piece of the pie. You got nutrition, you got training, genetics, and environment. And I think all of those things, plus activity and conditioning, contributes to that pie. If you don't have it, it's not going to work. 

And how do you see that nutrition affects your dog's performance? 

Nutrition affects the dog's performance in a lot of different ways. If they aren't on a good diet, then they don't have the proper recovery from exercise. If they don't have a proper diet, they don't have the proper VO2 max. When the dog is working, there's a certain amount of volume of oxygen that they're taking in, and good nutrition helps obviously with that, with VO2 max. The other stuff, as far as coat and skin, gives you indications as to how that dog's health is. If the dog's health is off from nutrition, it's not going to be very good as well. The whole picture revolves around key components, and nutrition is incredibly important. 

Can you talk a little bit about what you feed and why? 

We feed Purina Pro Plan Sport Performance 30/20. We use salmon and rice. I just found the coat was a little bit better. We do a lot of travel. I'll leave home in January and I'll return at the end of April. And then, again in the fall, we're spending anywhere from four to six weeks away as well. With all that travel, if you don't have consistency in the dog food, it doesn't work. The stools are off and what have you. We found, with the Purina Pro Plan Performance Salmon and Rice, we seem to have better consistency on our stool. And we don't seem to lose weight, like they do typically when they're under stress. 

Can you talk about your clients and how you talk to them about nutrition? 

Well, you lead by example, obviously. And so a lot of our clients, number one, if they get a dog from us or get a puppy, they see the results in their dogs and they want to continue that trend. It's not a hard sell because it's a product that they're already seeing the results on. It's a great food. They support the industry of what we do in a lot of ways, in research, and also support of the trials and field trial games, as well as the hunting aspects.  

What motivates you to do what you do? 

What motivates me to do what I do is the satisfaction I get from doing an exceptional job, and also watching the dogs that we train going to the owners and seeing their face light up when they watch their dog doing really cool stuff. It's like opening a Christmas present. 

I see you specialize in spaniels. Can you talk a little bit about them and why they're your breed of choice? 

We specialize with spaniels primarily because, when I first started getting involved with bird dogs, I found the spaniels' style of hunting was the one that I enjoyed the most. I've trained all different types of breeds over the years and I enjoy working with all different types of breeds, but the spaniels' hunting is very interactive. They're busy and they love heavy cover, and I like working that type of cover. And they're just a lot of fun. They're a very versatile dog.  

I understand your dogs hold a ton of titles. Can you talk a little bit about the field trials and national championships that you participate in? 

Sure. Our dogs have achieved some really cool stuff which we would not have been able to achieve without having a lot of different venues, good clients, good support from Purina products and Purina Pro Plan, of course. But we've been very, very fortunate to have achieved over 150 Field Championships, nine National Championships. One dog, Annie, is the highest pointed spaniel of all time, and she was inducted this year to the Bird Dog Hall of Fame. I think we have, counting Annie, three spaniels in the Bird Dog Hall of Fame. 

We have had a pretty good run and I hope we have some more too. My daughter is a very strong, active participant in the sport now, and I wouldn't hire her on until she finished college. She finished college and she came working with us for a break and now she's guns blazing and running all-age trials and actually has placed in two all-age trials, which is a big achievement. And so, yeah, we're looking forward to the next generation, too. 

I would love to hear you speak on what it feels like to have your daughter come into the business, and not only as a father, but as a fellow hunter and trainer. What has that been like for you? 

It’s great to see her growing up and it's great to see her taking on the passion of what we do and how we do it. She's very well-educated and she's science-based, so she looks at things similar to how I do.  

It's her second year as a professional trainer and she won an open stake this year in both Canada and in the United States with a very young animal, which is where she's competing against professional handlers. That's an achievement. She took a puppy all the way up to those stakes, and it's very satisfying to see. She's probably going to be better than me. 

What qualities make a dog a champion or a title holder? 

There’s different levels of champion for spaniels. There's obviously a Field Champion, Amateur Field Champion, Canadian Field Champion, a National Champion. I believe, to be a champion, the dog has to excel at a lot of things: bird-finding, retrieving has to be at above-average, pace, and style. In order for a dog to be an exceptional trial dog, which is what I consider more of the national quality-type trial dogs, they have to be exceptional at all of those things. 

What are you looking for when you're picking a dog that you want to compete, and how are you bringing out that best in them? 

If you pick a really good breeding and you talk to the breeder or the person who's taking care of the puppies, my goal is to have a nice middle-of-the- road personality. I don't want to have highs and lows, if I can help it, and so I try to go with what the breeder's recommendations may be. And then you got to expose them to things. You got to do proper exercise and nutrition and what have you. Probably the biggest thing that I think is really important, too, is getting the puppies to where they are learning to learn. They should have to have some structure. 

As far as evaluating talent as to whether an animal can become a really, really good dog, that tends to come as you're progressing. As the dog's getting older, you're evaluating the retrieve, drive, desire. You're evaluating, on these spaniels, to hunt. When you're going out for walks, are they getting into the cover and aggressively hunting, or are they just content to be beside you? Most of the time, the natural instincts come out and you can evaluate to see how good they are. 

The “It Factor” is probably what you're talking about, too. It's hard to describe, but when you see it, it's easy. They have a lot of heart and drive, they really are out there just really wanting to work, but at the same time they have a calm mind. You can have them in the house and they can relax. A dog that is totally wired up all the time is not as easy to train. I want to have a calm mind. All of those things have to be at a really good level, but at the end of the day, they have to be able to use their nose and find birds, and one of the traits that's really important for a good bird dog is bird finding.  

What role do you have in helping them realize that potential? 

My job is to teach them, to allow the natural talents to come out and give them an environment in which they can flourish and learn. We want them to develop their nose, as an example, we get them exposed to birds. But then we also have to make sure that we train them to stay within range. Your role as a trainer is to allow dogs to do great things, teach them how to do it within good control for hunting, and be good citizens doing it.  

How important is mentorship in your line of work? 

Without mentorship, you're not going to do anything. You're not going to be as good as you'd like to be because, in this type of industry, or in this type of work, it's the relationships, the people. It's to know who to call. You can't go to school to learn how to do what we do. You have to do it through mentorship and having other people.  

Can you talk a little bit about the mentors that you've had and how they've impacted your life? 

Three different people have had a major impact on my life, but I have a theory that if you surround yourself with people who challenge you and challenge your thinking, you'll be better because of it. And we've had several people who were very, very important mentors to me.  
Gary Riddle was the first person I ever trained with, out in Utah, and he's a professional now, actually, and he's a very dear friend. And him and the group out there took me under their wing and showed me how to start things and to train.  

Dan Langas who is actually from Illinois. He's since passed away. He was the type of person that you wanted to emulate how to handle in a trial. You never saw him sweat, so to speak. He's like Clint Eastwood. He said, "Luck's got nothing to do with it. Hard work does." And he was a great, great handler.  
Pat Burns is a retriever person, probably one of the best coaches I've ever met. Pat taught me how to think at a different level and how to challenge animals to do great things. Those, along with a lot of other people, but those three are probably some of the biggest mentors I've had.