Words are wasted on trying to describe the relationship between bird dog and owner. From the euphoria of lifting a mallard out of your retriever’s trained mouth for the first time, to the grief that comes with their inevitable passing years later, the journey must be experienced to be known. The first few years of a hunting dog’s life are without a doubt the most critical. It’s in this time where expectations are set and groundwork is laid for transforming a puppy into a functional member of both the household and the duck blind. Training a puppy into a working bird dog is an undertaking that many don’t have the time, knowledge, or patience for. Instead, sending your dog to a capable trainer is the logical choice — an investment that shows perpetual returns, or rather, retrieves, for years to come.
Over three decades ago, Toxey Haas set out to revolutionize the outdoor world. He accomplished exactly that. Founder and CEO of Mossy Oak, Toxey literally built his company from the ground by using his surroundings in Mississippi’s wild lands to modernize the camouflage industry. While Mossy Oak is now considered the king of camouflage, they’re beginning to make some noise in another industry as well — dog breeding and training. Priding themselves on being “dedicated to breeding and training a hunter’s best friend for life,” the Mossy Oak GameKeeper Kennel is just a short drive across West Point, Mississippi from its parent company headquarters. The kennel and subsequent training ground was founded in 2015, and specializes in molding British Labradors for hunting and outdoor companionship. While the kennel is relatively new, its' master trainer, Bill Gibson, is well versed in the art of training and cultivating first-rate bloodlines.
There aren’t many folks that have been training four-legged hunting companions longer than Bill Gibson. Bill trained his first Labrador Retriever in 1965, and has been refining his approach ever since. A lifelong romantic when it comes to bird dogs, and having trained several dogs for his friend Toxey Haas, Bill was the obvious choice for master trainer when the outdoor empire announced its plan to open a kennel. Bill has always been a staunch supporter of traditional English training methods. He’s never used an electric collar on a dog, which is a rarity in today’s modernized hunting world. Bill frequently travels to the U.K. and Ireland to purchase dogs to maintain strong genetics at the kennel and to compete in hunting tests.
The kennels other full-time employee is Riley Pierce. Bill’s 23-year-old protégé and assistant director of gundog operations, Riley is just as ardent about each training session as the dogs he’s working with. Bill and Riley are advocates of their own work, personally owning eleven bird dogs between them.
“I’d rather be here, doing this right now, than anything else I can think of,” Bill says as he wipes sweat from his forehead during an early morning training session. Summer is technically fading in Mississippi, but its swelter doesn’t appear to be retiring anytime soon. It’s only half past seven and the humidity is already heavy in the air. Bill and Riley have been arriving earlier than normal in an attempt to work dogs before the day’s heat reaches its climax.
With up to 30 dogs being boarded at the kennel at one time, the training duo stays plenty busy. Both men agree the only downside of their profession is the bittersweet moment when a dog finishes their program and returns home. “Whenever someone comes to pick up their dog, we always let them know we would happily pay for the shipping on any returns.” Riley said jokingly. “We get thank you letters and emails about every day from past clients. We must be doing something right.”
Toxey and his son Daniel — whose dog Fitz was born and trained at the kennel — occasionally stop by to check in on things and catch up with the trainers. Toxey gave a big grin when asked about the kennel’s early success, “We have the right personnel running the kennel. Bill and Riley control the only thing you can when training a dog; your attitude.” Bill and Riley know the importance of the work they’re doing. With each training session that passes, their clients are one day closer to acquiring a new member of their family. When a dog’s journey ends at the GameKeeper Kennel, it’s really setting out to begin the life it was meant for — chasing wild game as a family’s bird dog.
Photography and story by Sam Raetz