WHERE DEDICATION MEETS DOG TRAINING
After being critically injured while serving in the line of duty, Jeff Fuller didn't simply pick himself up again. This self-starter created a renowned hunting dog training program from the ground up, drawing on empirical data to breed and train high-quality labs that are ideal hunting companions.
Delavan, Wisconsin - In the face of a seemingly insurmountable challenge, one can either fall under the pressure, or decide right then and there to refocus their vision and push forward in a new direction. It all comes down to a choice.
Jeff Fuller, owner of the American Labrador breeding and training center, Soggy Acres, knows this well. Fuller's Wisconsin-based company, located near Janesville, was born out of the loss of his former career as a patrol sergeant and defense and arrest tactics instructor for the Muskego Police Department.
Prior to his retirement, the now 49-year-old was the youngest officer ever to be promoted in his department, until an on-duty squad car accident in 2005 left Fuller with three herniations in his neck and one in his back, and necessitated surgery on the trainer's eye, elbow, neck and back. The injuries ultimately led to two separate brain aneurysms that rendered Fuller unable to continue his police work.
"It was a pretty solid accident. I got rear-ended, whiplashed. It meant that my career was at an end, and I had to retire," said Fuller."But the question for me was: What do you do when you're 33 years old and you don't have anything to do? I'm not the personality to just sit around."
After Fuller's first brain aneurysm following the accident, which occurred after returning from a hunting expedition in Montana, Fuller's doctors at the University of Wisconsin (UW) Health Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin, claimed he had a 10% chance to live and a 0% chance of fully recovering. Armed with an ever-positive spirit and commitment to actualizing his goals, Fuller looked in the face of those statistics and said,"Absolutely not."
"My mentality was, I'm getting the hell out of here," said Fuller."It's funny, my wife and I used to go back to the hospital every Christmas to visit, and the staff would always laugh and say, ‘You're the only person in our neuro ward whoever did sit-ups in bed.' In life, everyone is met with challenges. Hopefully, you have that human spirit that just wants to drive you to push forward…to do more."
And Fuller did just that.
In no time at all, Fuller redirected his vision to something new. He officially started Soggy Acres in 2006, though the trainer had begun nurturing the hobby five years prior, breeding his first litter in 2001 after becoming enamored with his chocolate lab Lily Bell, which he received as a wedding gift in 1998.
Named after the swampy marshes that the training center sits on, Fuller actualized his vision of Soggy Acres with nothing in his toolbox except a contagious and ruthlessly positive outlook, a stack of dog training DVDs by Mike Lardy, and the book, Tri-Tronics Retriever Training.
Seventeen years later, Fuller's work has captivated the minds of so many, that he now also runs two podcasts, named Sporting Dog Adventures and The Hunting Guy, an active YouTube channel, and popular social media accounts. He also spent time as the host of the national TV show, Sporting Dog Adventures (nine seasons), as well as the host of the National Bird Dog Circuit Show (two seasons).
"The hardest part is having to look in a mirror and realize that what you worked so hard for is no longer available. For me, it was all about making a decision, figuring out what I wanted to do, pointing in a direction and going with it," said Fuller, who works with 40 to 50 dogs every year."I never would've thought that I'd end up where I am now."
DEDICATION AND DIGGING IN
Fuller will be the first to admit: Once one decides to start a new chapter, the work has only just begun. It is crucial to rededicate oneself to a goal every single day - especially if that day is as long as Fuller's.
"I always say I have my own business, so I work part-time. I only work 12-hour days, seven days a week," laughed Fuller. "The biggest lesson I've learned is that no day is going to be the same, because no dog is the same."
Fuller's practice has a heavy emphasis on reading every dog individually.
"The key to being a good trainer is really learning how to read the dog. I don't think you can really be a great dog trainer until you actually work with dogs, and at this point, I've worked with enough dogs where I've seen almost everything," said Fuller."You quickly learn that they're not all the same. Some dogs are softer, some have natural drive, some are absolutely wild, and others don't take pressure well. You have to be able to meet a dog where they are at, read the signs, and go from there."
Though Fuller can make miles of progress by training a hunting dog himself, he notes that one of the most critical aspects of training is forming that unique relationship between the dog and its owner. To do this, Fuller has the owners come out to the training center to teach them how to run their dogs. The challenge here, is that Fuller doesn't only have to train the dog, but, in a way, he is training the owners as well.
"My favorite thing about this job is that you can help people succeed, and the real success is making the owner and the dog a team, although it can be challenging," said Fuller."I had a dog the other day that would run and do things for me and then the minute the owner ran her, the dog would come back and spit at his feet. It's about helping the owner learn the cues, so the dog respects them and wants to run for them. I want to educate owners so that when I'm not there, they're still well-equipped to work through a problem with the dog."
Hi, my name's Jeff Fuller of Soggy Acres Retrievers. We have a kennel in Southern Wisconsin where we breed Labrador Retrievers, as well as train dogs. In 1998 I got my first dog as a wedding gift. I just wanted a dog that would fetch a ball, and just be a companion, and little did I know I would end up eventually where I'm at today. I had my career end at 33 years old. I was waiting at a stop light at about five o'clock in the afternoon, and someone did not see me stopped, and they ran into me at about 50 miles an hour. I was knocked unconscious. I ended up in the hospital where I lost my memory for a few days. I had surgery on my neck, my back, my elbow, and my eye. I also had a brain aneurysm five years ago. I was actually given a 10% chance to live, and a 0% chance to recover. At that time, I always had said I wanted to breed dogs and train dogs in my retirement. I just never thought my retirement would come in my early 30s. And then the plan was to have one to two litters a year. Then it turned into, "Okay, I need something to do." So we've gradually grown to the point now where we're doing 12 to 15 litters a year. Your day starts at 5:30 when you have dogs. You have to go out. You've gotta feed 'em. You gotta clean kennels. Gotta get your day planned. You're letting dogs out throughout the day, as well as training 'em, and you're feeding 'em twice, you're cleaning kennels twice, and then your day basically ends at eight o'clock at night, when you go out and let 'em out for the last time. When you're doing dog training, you have your electric collar, you've got your leads, you've got your kennels, you've got your bowls, you've got your food. But what is most important is your feet. You have to have something that can keep you going. I walk somewhere between seven and 10 miles a day, and if you don't have good footwear, that's what's gonna kill you. We've obviously worn other brands as well, but we've always gone back to Irish Setter, just because they have such a quality product. There's nothing better than selling a person a dream. Dogs are such a big part of my life. I couldn't imagine being without 'em, and it's fun providing that to other people. It comes down to, I always tell people, you never know where a dog can take you.
ONE STEP AT A TIME
Fuller racks up quite a step count tending to three properties, training dogs in every atmosphere possible, and hunting on his own time. The trainer recognizes that, in order to keep pushing ahead, one needs the right tools to do so.
"I absolutely consider sturdy footwear a necessary tool," said Fuller."It's no different than having warm hunting clothes. If you can't get around and you're getting blisters or you've got foot issues, you're not going to be able to do your job. Irish Setter boots are damn comfortable for hiking, dog training, as well as for upland hunting. Your feet take you where you want to go. You don't want to take any chances on that front."
Looking back at everything he has overcome throughout his life, and looking toward the future, Fuller is propelled forward by the same unwavering ethic that has gotten him to where he is today.
"You're not going to get anywhere without incredible hard work. Nothing's given to you," said Fuller."If bad things happen, I always give myself one day to feel sorry for myself. Then, you have to change your mindset and ultimately, just keep moving forward."