SI Vault
Robert H. Boyle
August 18, 1969
A tiny trout launched Dick Wolters on a wildly successful subcareer of fly tying, bird shooting, dog training, sailplaning—and authorship
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August 18, 1969

The Obsessions Of A Late-bloomer

A tiny trout launched Dick Wolters on a wildly successful subcareer of fly tying, bird shooting, dog training, sailplaning—and authorship

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It was Randolph who, perhaps in an attempt to get even, suggested that Wolters go bird shooting. Wolters accepted the challenge, figuring he might be able to get some feathers for fly tying. On the trip Wolters fired three shots and hit three grouse, the only member of a party of six to get a bird. Randolph was stunned. Wolters was elated, and to improve his shooting he took up skeet, setting the private goal of winning the Outdoor Editors Shoot the next spring, a competition that he figured was within his class. He won it, all right, while giving a little bow toward Randolph.

Wolters enjoyed bird shooting, but what really intrigued him was watching a dog work in the field. He just had to have a dog, and he bought an English setter pup. It died of distemper, and he bought another, which he named Beau. He began training Beau when the dog was only seven weeks old. Gun dogs, so tradition has it, are not to be trained until they are at least six months to a year old, and they are then supposed to be approached with a spiked collar and whip. Oldtime handlers also have maintained that teaching a dog when he's a pup is supposed to take something out of the dog. But, as Wolters later wrote in Beau, he was able to take a fresh tack, because "I came to dog training late in life. I didn't have the advantage, or what I might now call the disadvantage, of having a father or a grandfather to teach mc how to raise a hunting dog. Traditional dog training is an art that's based on too many old wives' tales. Like the one about never keeping a hunting dog in the house, it will ruin his nose for game. That was written by an old woman who hated dogs and her husband."

By the age of three months Beau sat, stayed and came on command. Wolters took daily walks with the setter, and whenever the pup would start to walk behind, Wolters would turn around so that the dog was in front. Beau quickly learned his place was out front, but when he got too far out, beyond what would be shotgun range, Wolters whistled to bring him in closer. At five months Beau could quarter a field following hand signals. The dog learned to hold point on a bird in the front yard through an unusual trick. Wolters rigged a grouse wing on the end of a line on a fly rod. As he swung the rod, Beau would get excited seeing the "bird" in flight. Suddenly Wolters would lower the rod and drop the wing on the ground. Beau instantly would freeze on point. In the field Beau proved to have a good nose to go with his eyes.

When Beau was eight months old Wolters received an invitation to lecture at North Carolina State College, where Dr. Frederick Barkalow Jr. of the zoology department was teaching an adult education course in hunting. Dr. Barkalow had read in Randolph's columns in the Times about Wolters' training of Beau, and he offered Wolters some fine quail shooting if he would come down with Beau and lecture. Wolters went, and Beau did very well indeed, earning glory in the field on the final day when, as a substitute for older dogs that failed, he stood on point 28 times for the excited class.

Wolters had no idea that he had been doing anything revolutionary in dog training, but after returning from Carolina he happened to hear about a study on dogs being done at the Animal Behavior Laboratory at Hamilton Station, a division of the Roscoe B. Jackson Memorial Laboratory in Maine. Wolters, his wife and Beau drove to Bar Harbor, where they met Dr. J. Paul Scott, a former Rhodes scholar, who was heading a scientific investigation of the behavior of dogs in the hope that it might shed light on the behavior of men. Olive Wolters, then doing graduate work in psychology, was able to translate some of the research to her husband, and it was immediately apparent to him that he not only had been right in starting Beau so young, but that Dr. Scott and his colleagues had made some truly important findings for dog owners everywhere.

These discoveries were fodder for Wolters, and he immediately began work on a training book, Gun Dog, which was published in 1961. "I had never written, I was a poor speller, but I told myself I was going to do the book," Wolters says. "There is no use making excuses for yourself." The book got rave reviews and it is now in its 12th printing.

By now Wolters was hooked on dogs. Unfortunately, the training fields he had used for Beau were giving way to shopping centers and housing developments, and there was a dearth of grouse and pheasant next to the Wolters home. He decided to switch to Labrador retrievers, a breed he very much admired and which did not necessarily need a ready supply of live birds. Using Labs and what Dutton, his publisher, calls the Revolutionary Rapid Training Method, Wolters wrote two books, Family Dog, which deals with the dog as a house pet, and Water Dog, for the amateur retriever owner-handler. Both books have done well. His latest book, Instant Dog, is a humorous work done in collaboration with Cartoonist Roy Doty. There is some sound advice in the book, but most of it is broad satire, such as how to teach a dog to sit by stepping on his tail or how to feed a dog from the dinner table. There is even an elaborately long recipe, "Instant Supper," for dogs that calls for a dressed three-pound pheasant, green pepper, fresh asparagus, heavy cream and rice. To Wolters' great delight, some reviewers have taken Instant Dog as a serious work.

By the early 1960s Wolters was moving in pretty doggy circles, and doggy people can be bitchy. "He had the gall to own one setter and to write a book about training gun dogs," says one doggy critic. "Just who the hell is he?" Another doggy acquaintance says, "When Dick moved into Labs he irritated some people, especially in the rich Long Island crowd. Dick is not the most self-effacing guy in the world, and a lot of people resented him." Wolters says. "Part of the resentment may have been caused by my books. New ideas go down hard, and there are people who just didn't agree with my theories, so they didn't like me. I wasn't in Labs for more than a few months when I saw they didn't have adequate training equipment. I went to a field trial when I first had my young Tar, and a woman said her dog couldn't compete because he didn't know how to work far enough. She said, I can't throw the dummy that far in training.' She was like most of us. She couldn't afford bird boys or raise live birds or hire a trainer. So that night I got to thinking, and some people couldn't take the results of my thinking."

What Wolters thought up was a sort of Rube Goldberg rocket device that could propel a dummy farther than any human could fling it. He worked out a rough idea and then got in touch with Arthur Johnson, a ballistics expert in Washington. Together they co-designed the finished product, the Retriev-R-Trainer, a hand-held device that can shoot a dummy 100 yards. Twenty-two blank cartridges serve as the propellant, and the charges can be changed to vary the distance. For some time Wolters took delight in visiting field trials to hear gasps of amazement from some of his critics. The Retriev-R-Trainer is sold nationally, and Wolters collects a small, but ego-pleasing, annual royalty. The Retriev-R-Trainer has since proved to have a number of other uses. It can be adapted to hurl a fishing lure 250 yards, throw a line 100 yards and fire a flare, among other things. Once Wolters loaded up with a magnum charge and shot a golf ball out of sight. "This business of trying to come up with new things, with new ideas, innovations, this is really a lot of a sport to me," he says. "To me, the sport of a sport is going in and giving it everything you can and coming up with something new."

In 1962 Wolters became president of the Westchester Retriever Club, and he approached the job with characteristic zest. Until then the club had been somewhat loosely organized, holding only "fun" or "picnic" trials. Wolters set out to make the club more attractive and more effective by getting American Kennel Club recognition and permission to hold sanctioned trials.

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