As waterfowl season approaches in the United States, hunters all over the country are on the search for a good retriever, a companion that will be just as excited to get into the duck blind as they are.
A properly trained, obedient and trustworthy canine makes a big difference when it comes to hunting waterfowl. Nobody knows this notion better then Marty Roberts, owner of Sporting Life Kennels, located just off Highway 6 in Oxford.
“I just have a passion for dogs,” Roberts said.
Roberts, who started the kennels with his wife in 2008 on a 42-acre farm, has since earned worldwide respect for breeding and training first-class British Labradors.
“When I was 17, I got my first retriever,” Roberts said. “I fell in love with the whole idea of dog training and was already duck hunting a lot. My father was in real estate and homebuilding, so I followed in his footsteps for a bit, but I always knew I wanted to do something in the outdoors, particularly something with dogs.”
Mississippi, while known as a great place to hunt waterfowl, is not seen as a place where top retrievers are bred and trained. Roberts is silencing this preconception. Nowadays, dog owners in Hawaii and Peru purchase dogs from Sporting Life and owners send their retrievers to Oxford for training.
“I try to match trainers with the personalities of the dog,” he said. “We think of ourselves as schoolteachers. We don’t have just one method — we consider ourselves balanced trainers. So when we get a new puppy or dog, we use food as a reward then slowly get off of that and go to leash training. Then we go from there. It’s all different, and no two dogs are alike.”
Sporting Life has grown its brand and business tremendously since Roberts first started the kennel, and garnered the spotlight within the world-class retriever breeding and training scene. This fall, Roberts and the dogs will even have their own TV show on the Pursuit Channel. Sporting Life Retriever TV will follow Roberts throughout the hunting season as well as the other owners of what are considered the finest gun dogs from the South.
“The first year I was in business, I did not make a salary,” he said. “I went from doing everything to having a 10-person staff made up mostly of Ole Miss students and a television show.”
John McCay, a senior at Ole Miss and an avid outdoorsman himself, has been an employee at Sporting Life Kennels for more than a year.
“I love the outdoors, particularly hunting and fishing,” McCay said. “This job gives me an opportunity to be in the fresh air and learn more about the sport every day.”
While working outside is a plus, McCay said he finds the relationship he develops with the dogs and their owners to be most rewarding.
“There’s no bond like the bond between a man and his dog,” he said. “It’s really special for us to be able to make that bond happen for dog owners and hunters all over the country.”
One thing that makes Roberts stand out among trainers is the real-life experience he gives his dogs. Each year, he places some of his best dogs in the homes of field guides around the United States and Canada to get them out in the field before they come back to Oxford to be sold.
While waterfowl season starts in November for Mississippi hunters, the season has already begun in Canada. Preacher, one of Marty’s “stud dogs,” has already picked up a few hundred ducks and geese within the last three weeks working with a guide in Saskatchewan, Canada.
For guides and hunters alike, having a good retriever can make or break a hunt. Finding his passion in this important market, Roberts and Sporting Life Kennels have put themselves on the map; and with the season getting closer, more of the Oxford-trained retrievers will be sold and shipped off to get out in the field with their new owners this fall.