For hunters there may be no moment more perfect than seeing their dog return to them with a pheasant or duck held proudly in the dog's mouth. Kathy and Bill Troutman are using their knowledge and devotion of Labrador retrievers to help provide the next generation of hunting dog memories at Bear Creek Labrador's.
Bill Troutman's passion for bird dogs and bird hunting was passed down from his father.
"I have had a passion for bird hunting all of my life," said Troutman. "My earliest recollections are of my father with his bird dogs."
The Troutmans moved to Northwest Colorado in 1986. After a rewarding but taxing career as director of state prisons for New Jersey, Bill decided to hang it up and pursue his passion for hunting dogs. Kathy explained it was really one of the dogs that inspired them to start the business.
"Raider was such a beautiful specimen," said Kathy. "People were asking to use him as a stud and I got the bright idea, 'Gee, we can do it ourselves.'"
Raider is a well-mannered, male black Labrador that has a head rivaling a bear. His tenacity pushes him to conquer any obstacle to retrieve a bird dummy for his master. To see him work shows the essence of man's age-old bond with the K-9.
The Labrador retriever is the dog of choice for the Troutmans because of its versatility, according to Bill.
"They have a great personality and they are a great companion dog as well as water and gun dogs," said Bill. "You can have a lab that will point quail one day and retrieve a goose from a lake the next."
It's a team effort at Bear Creek Kennels. Bill takes care of most of the training and Kathy socializes the more than 80 puppies the kennel produces each year so they are ready for their new homes. It's a busy time of the year for Kathy. Litters of rambunctious puppies are everywhere at the kennels.
"I like watching them develop and it's very rewarding to help them develop well," said Kathy. "What I try to do is expose them to every situation possible and to teach them that people are good. My job is getting these puppies from point A to point B. It has been a wonderful experience."
Kathy's devotion to her job is demonstrated by nights spent sleeping in the bunk house where the puppies are whelped to make sure the puppies are well.
Kathy's devotion is displayed by the many photo albums and letters from satisfied owners. She pages through them with the affection of a grandmother boasting about her grandchildren.
Her thoughts are distracted as a couple of pups, one yellow and one black, practice their shenanigans with a pheasant wing on the living room floor.
The kennel gets most of its business through word of mouth. The fraternity of bird dog people is close knit, and barring a Web site that lists the different dogs' credentials, a hunting trip with one of the older dogs from the kennel is all the advertising needed. The Troutmans are already taking deposits on puppies for the spring of 2001.
"It's like most good things, when you produce quality, people will find you," said Kathy.
Bear Creek Kennels dogs have left Craig for all areas of the United States and other countries. People from Alaska to Pennsylvania make the trip to Craig to get a dog that has the potential to be an excellent hunter or a national field champion. This summer a man from Honduras is coming to Craig on two separate occasions to pick up two pups. Colorado Rockies second baseman Mike Lansing picked up a pup from the Troutmans this spring.
Bill estimates that 75 percent of the people who purchase puppies from Bear Creek Kennels are looking for a field champion or a hunting dog.
"The finest field champions and national field champions is where we get our dogs from," said Bill. "Our goal is to produce the puppy that people expect to get."
Bear Creek is the permanent home of 14 labs that range in age, color and sex. The one bond they share is they are all excellent hunters and, according to the Troutmans, most come from litters sired or had by national field champions. National field champion is a title that more than 12,000 dogs from Canada and the United States compete for each year. To be named national field champion, the dogs are judged on a series of tests based on hunting scenarios.
Keeping, training and breeding 14 different dogs requires the Troutmans to be everything from veterinarians to laboratory technicians to dog psychologists to researchers to business people.
"It's like any small business; you have to do everything yourself," said Bill. "We each have are own areas that we feel are our own."
Producing the next generation of field champions and hunting dogs takes precision in matching traits and temperament, according to Troutman.
"It's a science in the sense of breeding combinations," said Bill. "We know the temperaments of both sides and we try to make the puppies even better. If you combine a good product with picking the right combination of the very best genes you can get, then you lend yourself in the direction you want to go."
According to the Troutmans, it would be easy to breed the dogs with the intention of producing puppies just to sell, but that isn't their goal.
"It would be easy money, but we don't want to compromise our standards," said Bill. "It's our reputation on the line."
The Troutmans don't consider their dogs "kennel" dogs; they consider them house dogs. There is a rotation that allows each dog to spend time in the house. According to the Troutmans, this ensures each dog retains its own personality and traits. The hope is the combination of knowledge, genetics and hard work will produce puppies that will provide companionship and service to their owners.
As Bill strolled into sight of the kennel with training dummies in hand, the dogs erupted in a crescendo of barks and yelps, each wanting the chance to please their master.
Kathy toyed with a litter of puppies through a chain-link fence. She talked about a letter she received from the owner of a pup born last year.
"The man's wife described the dog as the son he never had," said Kathy.
Bear Creek Kennels may not to be able to give all customers a puppy that takes the place of a child, but the Troutman's devotion to, and love for Labrador retrievers ensures they will continue to produce companions and hunting partners for a long time.