The Guiding Power of Instinct and Passion
Neil Copeland was born to train dogs
By Jonathan Scott » Photos by Mollie Tobias
It was a winter day in southeastern Missouri when 24-year old Neil Copeland brought Molly to meet Adolphus Busch IV, scion of the Anheuser Busch family, and owner of one of the largest breweries in the world. Even though Copeland had a pedigree of his own—a fifth generation descendant of Daniel Boone—he felt slightly intimidated by being in the presence of such a renowned corporate figure and very much under the pressure of the circumstances.
Molly was Copeland's young retriever puppy. It was Copeland's and Busch's interest in retriever dogs, as well as a mutual friend, that had brought the two men together that cold day on Busch's farm. Busch was interested in buying Molly, but she and Copeland had to prove themselves first.
The test was what is called a pattern blind. The body of a bird, the prize Molly was being trained to bring back to her owner, had been placed just down the road beside a lake, well out of her sight. The ground was covered by a blanket of snow. To make the test even more difficult and nerve-wracking for both Molly and Copeland, a group of onlookers had assembled to see how well the puppy would perform.
Copeland remembers vividly what happened next. “I looked at the dog and said, 'Okay, Molly, this is it.' She looked back at me, waiting to see what would happen. I gave her the command to begin, 'Back!'
“At first she started toward the lake. I was scared to death, but I blew my whistle and gave her another 'Back!'. I was amazed. She took the command. She kept running and running and came right back with that bird. There and then Adolphus decided to buy her.”
That day was a turbo boost to the long and winding trajectory of Copeland's life. But it certainly wasn't the start. When he was still in his teens, Copeland and his father were such skilled trainers that you can find them in the record books as three-time winners of the National Rabbit Hound Association World Championships. “I grew up with dogs that performed the purposes they were bred for,” says Copeland. What he doesn't add is that he himself had been bred with a purpose. That purpose was to train.
The young Copeland knew he would devote his life to working with animals. The only thing standing in his way was he had no idea how to do that. But the goal remained as a permanent voice in the back of his mind. The voice was still there when he became a respiratory therapist. It was still there when he joined the Army, where he served two tours as a medic with the 25th Infantry Division and the 10th Mountain Division. So insistent was the voice of his real passion that he returned to serve two more tours as a civilian contractor, this time training dogs.
A door had opened for him. On the other side of the door had been a North Carolina company that provides trained dogs to both the military and large private corporations. Working there, he met Lindsey Dixon who had served in the veterinary corps in the British Army. The both knew all too well the need for dogs trained to detect improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which service personnel encounter in modern conflict. The term IED not only includes bombs hidden in the middle of a road, but those that might be carried on the person of a potential terrorist, making the training even more challenging.
The use of dogs also is important outside of the life-saving military service they perform. Once Copeland traveled to Newfoundland at the request of a Canadian environmental agency to test whether his dogs would be able to detect minuscule amounts of sub-surface oil left under a beach by an oil spill. Here he and his canine trainees were put to a test, just like Molly had been by Adolphus Busch. But in this case scientists had put a tiny amount of oil in 100 spots under the sand and rocks of a beach. Copeland's dogs found 98 of them.
Just over a year ago, Copeland left the company he worked for and purchased Seven Lakes Kennels. With him, he brought Dixon, with whom he had developed a deep working relationship, and who is now a lead trainer for the Kennels. Folks who are fortunate enough to bring their dogs for boarding, grooming, daycare, or training receive the benefit, not only of the years of experience that Copeland and Dixon bring to the care of their animals, but of the intense passion that they have for what they do.
Finding this opportunity was no less remarkable than the young dog Molly finding a hidden bird on that snowy day in southeastern Missouri. It was a combination of Copeland's own training and some indefinable guiding instinct. When he describes the hunting dogs he began working with as a boy, he makes a surprising comparison.
“There isn't a ton of training that goes into a hound,” he says. “You set it down and say, 'Find that rabbit,' and by natural talent he runs out there and starts learning the skill. There isn't that eye contact like where, say, a Labrador will look you in the eyes, asking what he should do next. The hound is just doing what comes naturally to him. And in some ways, that's the way I lived my life.
“When you have a passion, you just live it. You might not know where your story is going to take you, but you go with where it's headed. And I haven't ended my story yet.”