On a dewdrop morning, Susanna Love stepped out the back door of the house, kicked her bootheels on the sill, and led her daughter Reagan out into the sun. She propped the little girl on a chair, helped her tie her hair, and then stood up to look across the pasture. From that vantage point, she could see the sweep of the training field where it gave way to farmstead fencerows, the patchwork plots of new grass sparkling to the horizon. Following much the same path as they’d taken the day before, Susanna and Reagan walked through the broken shadows of the shade trees, past the tornado shelter, and off toward the kennels. Noting their progress, a sentinel bird dog alerted the masses, and a groundswell of setters, pointers, and Brittanys spilled from their boxes and into the chain-link runs.
Susanna’s husband, Ronnie Smith, Jr., was not far behind. He and Reagan’s brother, Gage, sat together on the back stoop and pulled on their high boots. Gage, his shirt tucked in and his hair parted just so, followed his dad to the barn. His little legs moved double quick, and he swung along with his body pitched forward, leaning into the prospect of the day. With a passing word, Ronnie quieted the dogs, and Gage followed his dad through the sliding barn door. There they saddled the four-wheeler and eased out toward the back pasture. Ronnie propped the gate, and the present and future of Ronnie Smith Kennels bumped off down the two-track to where the pigeon coop rose from the pasture grass, listing gently on its posts.
Thus began a day in the life of a family whose preeminence in pointing-dog circles has spanned near a century. From that piece of Cherokee allotment ground in Big Cabin, Oklahoma, several generations of Smiths harvested a lean and honest living, hardening their hands and shedding some boot leather with every passing year. The spreading branches of their family tree span a time when bird dogs and bird-dog trainers were things of essential value, when a man adept with dogs and horses could achieve a certain social prominence, if not celebrity. On that May morning at Ronnie Smith Kennels, the bark and whine of 50-some bird dogs on the old Smith homestead became the reverberating history of thousands more, and the folks who’d worked them. On that storied piece of Oklahoma prairie, bird-dog training was defined, refined, rethought, and made nearly perfect, or as perfect as a craft can be. Perhaps even as the morning rose, that craft was becoming more perfect still…but by then Ronnie and little Gage had caught a bagful of pigeons, the May morning wasn’t getting any cooler, and the running end of an almanac of bird dogs needed work. As Ronnie, Susanna, Gage, and Reagan converged at the pasture gate to lay a course for the day, they too were teasing a tradition of fine bird dogs out of a rich past and into an unfolding future.
It’s safe to say that the story of Ronnie Smith Kennels began well before Ronnie and Susanna had ever been considered. That story began in 1901, when Dr. J.C.W. Bland and Dr. Fred S. Clinton struck oil near modern-day Red Fork, Oklahoma. Their first well brought national attention to the territory around the frontier settlement of Tulsa. Back then, Oklahoma was still some years from statehood. In the decades before the turn of the 20th Century, the area had been divided into a collage of prairie, pineland, and scrub allotted to the displaced Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole nations, who’d been marched overland from their ancestral homes on more desirable ground to the south and east. The oil that was discovered around Tulsa drew wildcatters who began to take notice of the region’s untended fencerows and edges, and the coveys of quail and chickens that sifted among them. The oilmen, many of whom had hunted quail from horseback through the plantation belt of the American Southeast, soon brought walking horses, pointing dogs, and double guns to their homes around Tulsa and Bartlesville. As the wells sprang up, the new moguls of Oklahoma were happy to run their pointing dogs over the pasture and prairie.
As the early years of the 20th Century wore on, farmers and ranchers from the Eastern allotments turned their talents to the wants of the city sportsmen. Eastern Oklahoma became a center for the bird-dog community, a breeding ground for bird dogs and their trainers, and a regular stopover for legendary handlers. It was then, when a gentleman put a high priority on good dogs, good horses, and men known to have a steady hand with both, that Delmar Smith and Ronnie Smith, Sr., began a legacy that would shape the future of bird dogs, bird-dog training, and the family that would follow in their bootprints. Delmar and Ronnie, Sr., were blue-eyed Cherokee who were born in the eastern Oklahoma town of Big Cabin in the 1920s. Their father, Fate, squeezed a living out of the eastern prairie, running beef cattle on the outlying pastureland and leaning on his five sons to pitch in. Animals of all sorts were central to the Smith childhood. Legend has it that, as a boy, Delmar would not allow any animal onto the Smith place without “contesting it.” He took it as his purpose to either “ride, rope, or make a pet out of” any animal that came across his path, and this practice led to a rapid, if occasionally bloody, education in the alchemy of animals. Delmar and Ronnie, Sr., had a knack for catching and training, or at least “contesting,” everything from crows and quail to recalcitrant raccoons. It soon became known around Big Cabin that the Smith boys were a real hand with creatures great and small, and that their patience and curiosity were something special indeed.
Throughout Delmar’s and Ronnie, Sr.’s, boyhoods, bird-dog trainers, like Dutch Epperson, Jake Bishop, and Chesley Harris, came to command a degree of fame both in eastern Oklahoma and across the nation. The respect for these men and their ability with dogs made a lasting impression on the Smith boys. Delmar and Ronnie, Sr., determined early on that they wanted nothing more than to spend a life training horses and bird dogs, and somewhere in their stars was nestled the wherewithal to become very, very good at it. By the time Delmar had moved to Edmund, Oklahoma, in his early 20s, he’d achieved a degree of notoriety on the field-trial circuit. As Delmar’s reputation grew, so did that of Ronnie, Sr., who remained on the family property in Big Cabin, training, trialing, and competing in good fashion with his brother and building the kennel that bore his name. From the kennel, the same one where his son and grandchildren would later make bird dogs of their own, he trained dogs for private clients, while also training some of Delmar’s field-trial prospects when time permitted. All the while, the Smith name became an increasingly common one in national bird-dog circles. Through the 1960s and 1970s, generations of pointing dogs moved through the hands of Delmar and Ronnie, Sr., and later through the hands of their sons. Building on the work and reputation of their predecessors, the younger Smith generation developed a knack for being able to take “problem” dogs that were gun-shy, man-shy, or otherwise unable to live up to their breeding, and to get them to work.
What emerged from this inculcation in bird dogs was a belief that a dog was a sentient being, one requiring respect and consideration, lessons, and boundaries. This awareness of dogs was delivered to Ronnie Smith, Jr., almost osmotically through the hours he spent, as his father had spent, tending to the animals that occupied the Smith homestead. Ronnie received a rake and a shovel at age five and was directed out toward his dad’s kennels. From that tender age, he spent as much time in the company of bird dogs as he did with men. He trained his first bird dog for pay at 14, and therein learned the delight of teasing the most from a quivering mass of nose, tail, and hard muscle. But underpinning that pleasure was a pride of craft and quality so essential as to go unannounced. The Smiths, for all their generosity and grace, know what excellence is, and in their ethos, there is no room for shortcutting. Ronnie Smith, Jr., grew up in the shadow of giants, and it’s fair to say that hard-earned perfection was about the only benchmark he ever knew.
My first meeting with the Smiths occurred on the prairies of eastern Montana, where they still run dogs on wild birds through the month of October. In the chill of the morning, he moved dogs out of the crates and into the dog boxes on the side-by-side vehicle. He settled the dogs with a firm hand on the withers and walked them one at a time across the ranch road on loose lead, each dog at heel on his left. He spotted me, turned from his work, and smiled his broad smile, his eyes creasing at the corners. He extended a hand and introduced himself in an unwavering Okie twang. “Pleased to meet you,” he said. “I’m Ronnie Smith.” But, like legions of bird-dog folks, I knew just who he was already.
That day turned into one we will talk about for years, as we lost count of the coveys that seemed to fill the eastern Montana sky. Ronnie set down dogs in ones and twos, steering them wordlessly, correcting them, by all accounts, telepathically. What struck me most was his even calm and quiet; from his axis in the middle of the line of guns, Ronnie seemed connected to each dog by an invisible string. He never appeared to disconnect and remained wholly captivated by the nuance of the game, the subtleties of the dogs’ actions and reactions, the gentle, if almost extrasensory, steering that he provided from 100 yards behind. It was as though Ronnie Smith used the dogs as a vehicle by which he carved off slices of the prairie, assessing the whole choreography as it unfolded, and sculpting our steps and the quartering of the dogs into something of quiet beauty. The gunshots, and occasional fleshy thumps of falling birds, punctuated the crescendo of dogs slamming onto point, quivering among the seed heads with nostrils flared wide. It clearly wasn’t about a full bag, but about the dog work that got us there.
There was a bird that day that I won’t soon forget, a crippled bird, in fact, that I clipped in the wing tip, that wobbled over a draw to light in a patch of buffaloberry. It was a mature sharptail that we marked down, and Ronnie turned to me as if to see if I was game for what may have become a good long walk. I was already on my way. He turned to the young pointer who’d marked and released her with a tap and a quiet “Okay, Sis.” That young pointer swung and quartered across the draw, gained the far side while we were still a few hundred yards off, and stood steady on point with her chest heaving and her tail whip straight. As I remember it, Ronnie walked the high side, while I was just below, and that bird blew out with more steam than either of us had credited it with. The shot was long and dropping downhill. Again I only did fractional damage, and that bird soared clear back to where our day had started. When Ronnie released the pointer, I imagined the bird dead and lost. In my heart I imagined the dog making a line for a couple hundred yards and then slowly losing focus and gumption. That dog ran clear out of sight while Ronnie just kneeled and quietly waited, and time perhaps stood still. When at length and out of the draw came a world-full of dog and a mouthful of sharptail, I could not have been more surprised, and Ronnie could not have been more certain that what he’d put in place was good and right.
Ronnie and Susanna set about their training day back in Big Cabin with Reagan and Gage at their heels. They led dogs from the stake-out and worked them one by one, calming the nervous ones, stretching the confident ones, and holding each accountable to their ability and potential for greatness. As the morning wore on, Gage and Reagan retired to the shade and watched their parents work. Out in the pasture, dogs were quartering into planted pigeons, their senses and breeding introduced to a generations-old call and response communicated on the Oklahoma breeze. The dogs pointed and sometimes tried creeping, broke on the flush, and slowly stopped the chase. With each, Ronnie Smith, Jr., and Susanna Love stopped to calmly watch and assess, to take a tradition of fine bird dogs and apply it all to the morning’s lessons. There was a legacy unfolding with each cue of the check cord, each recognition of scent, and each gentle and unspoken correction. To the north and east a summer storm was slowly gathering, threatening to rumble and to break up the May heat. By day’s end a solid rain might soak the pasture and prairie, the rainwater saturating the red, dusty soil of the Smith homestead just as the lessons of the day might seep into the dogs. All of this seemed right.