Local man shines at Master Nationals

Dogs scrambled out of their cages in the back of the pickup truck, leaping, running, barking and gamboling across the field.

Their exuberance ended quickly, however, when Thad Simmons called to them. They obeyed immediately, coming to his side, sitting, and waiting for his next command.

Simmons has been training Labrador retrievers for 15 years. His expertise was proven in the recent Master Nationals held in the Forever Wild acreage near Greensboro when three of the seven dogs he ran earned enough points to pass. That 43 percent success ratio is far above the 27 percent average of most dogs that compete in the trials.

At the event here, 216 of the 717 dogs entered were passed, or just over 30 percent.

Three of the dogs he trained for the trials have gone home with owners. He has four with him now, including his own Piper, a five-year-old black Lab female.

Bully, another three-year-old black Lab whose owner is in Dallas, Texas, and Hammer, a three-year-old yellow Lab from Satsuma, both have a chance to qualify for the next Master Nationals in Kansas, said Simmons.

A native of West Monroe, La., Simmons has been an avid duck hunter all his life.  When he expressed an interest in getting a dog for his son Bradley, now 17, his twin brother Chad gave him a black Lab that Simmons and his son named Bradley’s Chocolate Babe

“Everything Thad learned pertaining to training dogs was for this dog,” said his wife, Robin. “Babe is the reason he began training at all, and he would never have this business if it weren’t for her. All of his business came from people watching him as a handler while running her in tests.”

Simmons began learning how to work with Babe by attending training groups, consulting with other trainers and running hunt tests. At the time of her death in 2011, Babe had earned 655 points and one International Grand Pass. Watching Simmons work Babe, friends began asking him for help with their dogs.

“The next thing you know it’s a call from this one and a call from that one,” he grinned.

The Simmons’ dog Piper is Babe’s granddaughter. Bradley Simmons still has an interest in dogs, as does their daughter Elliot, 7, and Simmons’ stepson Trace, also 17.

Although Simmons is an employee of Rock-Tenn Paper Company, his interest in training Labs became a business – Twin Rivers Kennels out of Thomaston.

Simmons likes to begin training when a dog is about six months old. He spends up to six hours each day with all the dogs under his care, and 12-14 hours on weekends, training them to respond to verbal commands as well as those given through gestures or whistles.

He not only trains the dogs, but he trains their owners.

At the Master Nationals held in October, the dogs are judged both by how well they retrieve when they see where the target goes down and with commands that the handlers give them.

Robin Simmons said that first-time spectators are “amazed at what the dogs can actually do.”

The couple also explained the reason those attending the trials were asked not to wear white. The dogs see in black and white, said Simmons, and “will key in on white in the field.” That can confuse them since the target thrown for them to retrieve is white.

Simmons said the trials sponsored by both the American Kennel Club and Hunting Retriever Club are held throughout the year to keep the dogs in shape for hunting season. He goes to some 20 events each year all over the country and into Canada. To qualify for Master Nationals dogs must earn six master passes in one year.

The biggest challenge in training is to “learn how to read the dog,” said Simmons. “They’re like kids. All dogs are different.”

Simmons gets to start with a new client. He had just picked up a six-month-old Lab and was getting ready to begin training another potential winner.

He welcomes anyone wanting some help training or wanting to learn more about training to join him.