To make Gus even more prodigious, U.K. field trial rules prevented his American owner from entering the high-level competitions directly because his Blue Cypress Kennels didn’t have memberships in the various U.K. field trial clubs. Regardless, Gus triumphed with a fresh local handler while overcoming his trans-Atlantic flight from the flat Florida quail plantation where he was raised and trained to the lush hills of Great Britain with their unfamiliar scents of fauna and birds.
Gus, victorious in the U.K.
Gus started competing in Scotland, England and Ireland at 18 months. In just over a year’s worth of competition, he received the President’s Perpetual Award for best retriever in the working test at the Northern Ireland Gundog Club and Field Trial Society competition. He eventually took first place in September 2017 at the Gamekeepers National Association Field Trial in Scotland; he won first place and he ran as part of a three-man County Antrim Team at the British Association of Shooting and Conservation Gundog Northern Ireland Inter-Club Test, where the team Gus was on won first place in the international competition and Gus was in a runoff for top individual dog in the whole competition (approximately 60 dogs). And that doesn’t count the numerous second and third placements in prestigious Northern Ireland and Scotland field trials.
Jeremy Criscoe getting ready for water training with Gus and Finn at Blue Cypress Kennels.
Gus’ exceptional performance stemmed from a 20-year breeding initiative at Rollins Ranch in Vero Beach Florida, where its Labrador Retriever program has recently been renamed Blue Cypress Kennels by Manager Jeremy Criscoe who joined in June 2017. The kennels take their name from Blue Cypress Lake and its tributaries that run through the property and form the headwaters to the St. John’s River.
Blue Cypress Kennels, occupying 7,000 acres of upland and waterfowl habitat, resides on America’s sixth largest cattle operation – the 40,000-acre Rollins Ranch. The family that owns Rollins Ranch and Blue Cypress Kennels has been breeding high-quality beef cattle for 50 years.
The 24 kennels at Blue Cypress Kennels are hosed clean daily.
Across the ranch’s sprawling preserve for quail, doves and pheasants, Blue Cypress Kennels can continually monitor their synthesis of meticulous breeding and British-style, positive-reinforcement training in an expansive living laboratory of groomed pastures, seasonal food plots and Pine Barrens located about an hour west from the pristine beaches of the Atlantic Ocean.
“This land lets us shape and feed the natural genetic makeup of the dog,” said Mr. Criscoe. “We brought the dogs into our world as hunting partners. It’s up to us to help them understand how we want them to live in our world.”
Jeremy Criscoe (left) with Assistant Trainer Noah Stapler working the dogs at Blue Cypress Kennels.
The family’s cattle and dog programs embrace shared values toward the animals. In the Rollins Ranch “Notice to Cattlemen,” O. Wayne Rollins advises “The rule to be applied at all times, toward cattle, young and old, is that of patience and kindness.”
Likewise, at Blue Cypress Kennels “We have daily interaction with our dogs,” said Mr. Criscoe. “You have to sit with them, play with them, bathe them, love them, keep them happy and motivated. You need to love the dog first, then train it.”
Jeremy Criscoe spending some personal quality time with Billy.
In his complementary training regimen, Mr. Criscoe continues the kennel’s British approach of positive reinforcement. Instead of relying on e-collars or choke-collars, their dogs are rewarded for positive performance.
“Praise a dog when it’s doing the right thing and correct it when they do it wrong,” he said. “But you need to make sure that the dog knows when you’re pleased or displeased through your voice inflection and body language – you’re mimicking the pack mentality”
Just about every top bird dog trainer has a closely held trick to make their pooch hunt stronger, hold steadier and retrieve faster. For Mr. Criscoe, it’s a serenade of gospel and soul funk that breezes through the puppy nursery.
From left: Gus, Bart and Finn at Blue Cypress Kennels.
“It’s the secret to raising a champion bird dog,” he said with a smile.
Of course we both knew that’s a bit of hyperbole. Because behind the scenes, the Orvis-endorsed Blue Cypress Kennels team keeps meticulous breeding records, has access to thousands of acres to work their dogs and is empowered by the kennel owners’ passion and experience for raising exceptional animals.
Mr. Criscoe is the hands-on manager. Southern born and raised, he comes from a family of wingshooters and bird-dog men. But it wasn’t until he served in the U.S. Navy as a Rescue Swimmer that he found his calling as a dog handler by reading two seminal books: “Retriever Training: A Back-To-Basics Approach” by Robert Milner and Vic Barlow’s “British Training for American Retrievers: Unleash Your Dog's Natural Talents.”
Jeremy Criscoe with Bart, Gus and Finn.
During the early 2000s, with the publication of their books, both authors played instrumental roles in introducing the British gentle method of training hunting dogs to the U.S. Mr. Criscoe became an early acolyte. During his off time in the Navy, he immersed himself in training Labrador Retrievers for show and American Kennel Club field trials.
Following an honorable discharge, inspired by the principles of Milner and Barlow, he started a career of professional bird dog training and duck hunt guiding in the Mississippi Delta. His work expanded to western states. During this period he realized that British-style training methods applied to a pedigree dog produced more birds in the bag for his clients.
Returning to the South, he advanced his dog-training knowledge with stints at Wildrose Kennels and Blackwater Kennels until launching his own business in 2010 called Whistling Wings Kennels in Union Grove, Alabama – now under the management of his daughter.
Noah Stapler with Murphy at Blue Cypress Kennels.
Noah Stapler saw a new future for himself by following Mr. Criscoe from Whistling Wings Kennels to Blue Cypress Kennels. As Assistant Trainer at Blue Cypress Kennels, Mr. Stapler helps train and socialize the U.K. Retrievers from eight weeks to six months old. He’s also involved in finishing trained dogs.
The third member of the on-site team is Jodi Graves. A former healthcare professional, she’s the Husbandry Assistant in charge of the nursery. She attends to the puppies and their mothers. Her biggest job, though, is starting the newborns on the path to socialization with a blend of tenderness, nutrition, positive-reinforcement conditioning, grooming and loud noises intended to prevent gun shyness in the field.
The training team at Blue Cypress Kennels. From left, Noah Stapler, Jodi Graves and Jeremy Criscoe.
Back-office administration for Blue Cypress Kennels is handled by Deborah Kumpitsch in Atlanta. Ms. Kumpitsch is a client’s first point of contact. She also processes the dogs’ paperwork.
Rounding out the Blue Cypress Kennels team is Callum Macgregor – a native Scotsman who moved to the U.S. when he was three. His uncle was a gamekeeper in Scotland. As the Chief Legal Officer for the Rollins family’s many holding companies, he describes himself as “a guy who likes to bird hunt and train dogs.” One of the dogs he trained happened to be Gus, the U.K. field trial winner.
But Mr. Macgregor, in his own humility, underplays his role at Blue Cypress Kennels. He scours his collection of spreadsheets that track the bloodlines of the winning dogs and their progeny in Great Britain’s field trials for selective breeding at Blue Cypress Kennels.
Noah Stapler (left) and Jeremy Crisco in a retrieve training session at Blue Cypress Kennels.
“Blue Cypress imports semen from top field-trial lines from Wales, England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland, and females for breeding stock from top field trials there,” Mr. Macgregor explained. “The Rollins family has been in the ranching business for 50 years and we know a lot about genetics and breeding that we apply to the dogs.”
What you’ll get, if you choose to become one of their clients, is a fine-looking dog that’s compact and strongly built with a broad skull and strong loins and hindquarters. Like British Labrador Retrievers, the U.K. Labrador Retrievers at Blue Cypress Kennels are described as good-tempered, devoted and kind with a soft mouth and love of water.
Gus in a water retrieve at Blue Cypress Kennels.
“A top priority for the majority of our clients is having a good family dog,” said Mr. Criscoe. “They’ll get on a private plane and probably only hunt seven or eight times a year, but they do spend 365 days a year with the dog.”
Now that Mr. Criscoe is on board, the team at Blue Cypress Kennels is preparing for another sweep in 2019 in the U.K. Field Trials. In addition to the training, they’re filing applications to join more kennel clubs there.
The store at Blue Cypress Kennels is for clients only. It stocks “quality training gear that no one else has,” said Jeremy Criscoe.
“You have to join every club you can,” Mr. Criscoe said. “You may be a member of 40 clubs but you’ll only get runs in five or six trials because they’re over-subscribed. In the U.K., you do an actual shoot, either driven or walk-up. When they do the field trial, it is on an actual hunt so they are looking for the best gundog which is exactly what we are looking for here. .”
With hunting season starting in early November at Rollins Ranch, all eyes will be the contenders for next year’s foray into the U.K.
“We use those dogs on our hunts and propagate them for the type of hunting behavior we’re looking for to prove our genetic programs are working. Our hunts are that litmus test.” said Mr. Macgregor.