Rip Shively’s mantelpiece at home is packed with numerous ribbons his dogs have won over the years. First place, first place, second place, first place — it’s hard to keep track of all the blue and red.
He says he hasn’t gotten around to hanging up his youngest dog Ruthie’s awards quite yet, but she shows a lot of promise.
From the Columbia River to Columbia, Missouri, Shively’s interest in animals and wildlife has bred success in two completely different fields: fisheries biology and dog training.
The current director of the Columbia Environmental Research Center knew he wanted a career in natural resources when he was just 12 years old.
In Pennsylvania, where he grew up, 12 was the minimum age for anyone to legally hunt and carry a gun under adult supervision. Once he was old enough, Shively did just that with his dad.
That career aspiration solidified a year or two later. Shively’s uncle gave him an application form for a weekend conservation school for kids across Pennsylvania. Only 25 to 30 kids would be selected to be part of it — and Shively was one of them.
Natural resource professionals from around the state came to speak, and hearing from ones like the head of the Pennsylvania Fish Commission confirmed to Shively that he wanted to pursue the same kind of career.
“From there on out, I knew what I wanted to do,” he said.
Working with fish
At Pennsylvania State University, Shively took a fisheries management class as an elective in the wildlife program, and he loved it. He already knew he enjoyed fishing, but that class showed him how much he would relish working around fish.
Through the rest of college and then graduate school at Colorado State University, he continued to work on projects involving fish, eventually getting his graduate degree in fisheries.
Most of his work in the beginning of his career centered on predator-prey interactions in the Columbia River on the border of Washington and Oregon.
Shively found that excessive predation often occurred after fish injured themselves swimming through hydroelectric dams, leaving them susceptible to native and non-native predators. He developed alternate ways fish could bypass dams, then left to run a field research station in Klamath Falls, Oregon.
That’s where he met his wife and started a family.
When Shively, now 57, moved to the Columbia River Basin, he was invited to go duck hunting by a friend with a “somewhat-trained” Labrador retriever. That trip sparked what has become a 30-year love for training dogs.
After shooting a few ducks, his companion sent the dog out to fetch the birds.
“I thought that was just one of the coolest things I’d ever seen in my life,” Shively said.
He was inspired to get a Labrador to train for hunting waterfowl, so he acquired a puppy.
His father sent him a book by Richard A. Wolters, a dog training expert, which Shively followed closely when training his own dog.
“I was very diligent,” he said. “I’d work this dog every day, you know, twice a day, following different things with it, and really liked it. It’s fun teaching a dog to learn things.”
He started entering his Lab in competitions called hunt tests, pass-fail examinations of a retriever’s ability to locate and retrieve a bird, simulating the conditions of a normal hunt.
Shively’s Lab passed her first hunt tests, and Shively decided to push her training to the next level. He found a retriever club in Portland and quickly discovered that he didn’t know as much as other guys did.
He began attending seminars, learning about the skills of dog training beyond the teaching in Wolters’ books. He got another puppy and sent her to a professional for training. Every weekend when he was available, Shively spent time with the trainer, absorbing as much as he could.
Today, his two dogs, Katie and Ruthie, are fifth-generation descendants of the dog that had been professionally trained.
More than fetch
When Shively moved to Columbia in 2008, he began training with someone who ran field trials, which are similar to hunt tests but over longer distances and judged by comparison to other dogs. Since then, Shively has trained his dogs for the trials, which he says are more complex.
For field trials, he trains his dogs four to six times a week, depending on his work and family schedule.
Once a week, he performs drills, working on specific skills with each dog for about 20 minutes. The other sessions are usually spent training along with other people, using more complicated setups on properties an hour’s drive away.
It becomes a pretty significant time commitment; he sometimes doesn’t get home until six hours later.
It can be frustrating, Shively said, but if a dog is struggling with a particular task, he avoids placing blame.
“As humans, we don’t always want to acknowledge the fact that maybe we’re the ones who don’t know what we’re doing,” he said. “It’s easy to blame the dog. But in many cases, we haven’t done our jobs from a training standpoint.”
The retrieving community, he says, is very supportive. He finds training partners through several clubs in the area, including the Missouri River Retrieving Club of which he is president.
“I think the biggest thing that I appreciate about Rip is that he holds himself and his dogs to a higher standard,” Jeff Stetzenbach, one of Shively’s training partners, said.
Shively’s older dog, Katie, is an amateur field champion as designated by the American Kennel Club, his proudest accolade to date.
According to the AKC website, that title is “the pinnacle accomplishment for any dog running in field trials” in the amateur division, which means Katie hasn’t spent any time training with a professional.
In June, Shively will be traveling with Katie to Montana to run in the National Amateur Retriever Championship. Only 100 dogs or so qualify for the event each year, and Katie is competing for the third year in a row.
Shively’s favorite part of dog training, he says, is watching them progress, seeing all the hours of effort put into them realized.
“I’m still amazed at what we ask these dogs to do. And how well they can do it,” he said.