In October of that year, I had just finished reading my father’s most recent book, Absolutely Positively Gundog Training, and I called him on the phone. I told him I did not believe that it was really as easy to train a gundog as he made it sound in the book. He assured me it was. Like any spirited father-daughter relationship we decided to make it interesting and made a bet. If I trained Goose to be a gundog and brought her home for a duck hunt the last weekend of the season in January my father would buy me a shotgun. I told him we had a deal. When I hung up the phone and thought a bit more about what I had agreed to I wasn’t so sure I would win that bet.
Behind her, Lee Lee's father, Robert Milner, scans the sky for ducks. (Photo: John David Santi)
Goose had been raised in the city, had never seen a bird other than pigeons on the sidewalk, was somewhat gun shy, would not deliver to hand, and had no idea in general what hunting was. I had gotten this dog for her ability to snuggle, not for her ability to retrieve a duck in freezing water. Like I said, I wasn’t so sure I would win that bet. But when you’re recovering from a breakup you need a plan, and I had a plan.
I found a trainer in upstate New York who had access to birds, and who also was wise enough to know that I needed to train Goose on my own. He let me decide what we would work on and he provided the location, the birds and quiet company. He became the coach and cheerleader that I needed at the time.
Goose and I slowly made progress. As she grew more confident, I got more confident. As she grew stronger, I grew stronger. Together, we were getting better little by little everyday; and over time, I began to think that we actually might win that bet.
That last weekend in January seemed to take forever to arrive. However, Goose and I made it home to Tennessee just in time to make it to our hunt in an oxbow of flooded timber in Tunica, Mississippi. I was too distracted and worried about the dog to shoot a bird, but my brother hit a perfect mallard drake that fell 40 yards from us, and Goose saw it fall. She was confused and unsure of what to do, so I got out of the boat with her and started wading a few feet towards the bird. When I sent her from the water, she suddenly realized what I was asking her to do, swam forward, saw the mallard, and made a beeline for it. In that moment everything stood still. Watching her swim back towards me with a bird in her mouth after all those weeks of uncertainty and doubt—I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Lee Lee explains clicker training at a Girls With Gundogs Retreat while Quail, her English Field Bred Cocker Spaniel, looks on.
(Photo: Pepper Taylor)
Now, two years later, I am no longer living in New York City. I am living in Tennessee in a small log cabin on my father’s farm. In between that move, I spent time out west and I spent a lot of time driving, writing, and thinking. One day I was driving through South Dakota, looking at the wide-open skies and suddenly had an idea. What if I could take what I had gone through with Goose and offer it to other women? Was there some way to do that? Training a hunting dog can get you through a lot of life’s difficult transitions. How could I offer this to others?
What I came up with is Girls With Gundogs. Our mission is to empower women through relationships with their dogs and through experiences in the outdoors. I have started with hosting two-day weekend dog training retreats where I teach women how to train their own gundogs. My goal is to show women that they can train hunting dogs too; that it’s not as complicated as you think it is.
Participants of a Girls With Gundogs Retreat watch Lee Lee give a placeboard training demonstration.
(Photo: Pepper Taylor)
I’ve had three retreats so far and I’ve had at least one woman go home and get her first gundog puppy already. One client just passed her first hunt test. Another has had her lab out dove hunting and quail hunting in Texas. In addition, another client is going on her first bird hunt with her father and his Brittany. They are all doing this on their own; I’m just believing in them and encouraging them. I provide these ladies with resources and give them the freedom to figure out what kind of dog they want, what kind of hunting they want to do (if at all), and where they want to do it. I just tell them that they can.
I’m still figuring out how Girls With Gundogs will take shape and what it will look like in the long term. I frequently remind myself that, in time, Girls With Gundogs will morph into what it is meant to be. I want to do everything all at once, but I have been reminded by many that focusing on one thing and doing it right is the way forward.
This year in addition to the gundog training retreats in Tennessee at Duckhill Kennels, I have two pointing dog training retreats planned in Aiken, South Carolina with one of my mentors, Mark Fulmer of Sarahsetter Kennels. I have talked to Elizabeth Lanier Fennell of Fennell Shooting School about teaming up for dog and wing shooting weekends, which we will start this fall. I’ve also had people ask me to travel to Texas, Colorado, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and even Alaska. I wish I had a few clones of me to go around to all of these places.
Ultimately, I hope that Girls With Gundogs will grow into a sisterhood of support and will lead to women not working so hard, having more fun, and maybe changing their lives for the better because their gundog needed a few more birds to run after.