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No paws for alarm
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No paws for alarm

Alumnus Robert Milner’s “pupils” aren’t your typical students — they are four-legged, furry and possess terrible table manners — but they might just save your life one day.

By Greg Russell

Call it puppy love.

When Robert Milner took to training dogs 40 years ago, he noticed that many trainers resorted to what he terms “harsh and brutal” methods.

“You might see electric collars and other negative reinforcement techniques forcing the dogs to do things instead of building from their natural behaviors,” said Milner (BS ’67).

Instead, the U of M alumnus began employing gentle training techniques that not only a puppy could love, but techniques that disaster and anti-terrorism management teams across the country now rave about. He is widely considered one of the best dog trainers in the nation.

Milner co-owns and operates Duckhill Kennels, located in Laconia, Tenn., about an hours drive east of Memphis off of Highway 64. He trains urban disaster search dogs, bomb detection dogs and sport gun dogs.

Under his guidance, the state’s search and rescue program Tennessee Task Force 1 is currently the No. 1 rated such program in the entire Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Task Force is one of 28 national urban search and rescue teams.

On a national level, Milner was called on to help with recovery efforts after the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy in 2003, and again two years later after Katrina left New Orleans in shambles. His bomb-sniffing dogs were part of the anti-terrorism efforts during the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. He has also worked as dog handler and search team manager after Hurricanes Francis, Ophelia, Ivan and Rita.

He owes much of his success to a psychology class he took as an undergraduate at the University in 1967.

“I had a minor in psychology. One of the people we studied was B.F. Skinner who used positive reinforcement in operant conditioning.

“Using Skinner’s principals, I have found that dogs do what pays; they don’t do what doesn’t pay. The trainer controls the reward.”

For example, in Milner’s approach, a puppy in an obedience exercise is taught to ignore several bouncing balls and concentrate on the mission at hand, which might be focusing on the trainer. If the puppy ignores the balls — something undoubtedly difficult for a playful puppy — the dog is rewarded with a treat. With positive reinforcement, the dog in time learns to ignore distractions of many kinds.

Milner’s puppies — he exclusively uses Labradors — learn obedience from an early age.

“The best time in a dog’s life to learn is in the first six months,” he says. “This is when the puppy learns the fastest and can quickly master new skills.

“At age 6 weeks, we begin using positive reinforcement to develop some basic obedience skills in the puppies and to teach them to remain steady in an environment that has an increasing level of distraction.”

The training takes a puppy through graduated stages, which in the end produces a well-disciplined dog capable of finding explosives and saving lives.

His dogs are trained to obey hand signals and whistles. At his kennels, a visitor might see his puppies running an obstacle course that includes stairs, ramps and tight tunnels before being rewarded with food.

Dogs are vital in the aftermath of disasters, Milner says.

“There is no technological substitute for a dog in a search and rescue operation,” Milner says. “The important function in search and rescue is to find lives — that’s where your resources have to be. If there had been more search and rescue dogs in Haiti, more lives would have been saved.”

In a building collapse, Milner’s “pupils” are trained to find and then report the location of trapped victims.

“They find a strong scent and then bark and remain at the site until a handler arrives,” Milner says.

In bomb detection, Milner’s Labradors are more passive — an active dog around a potential explosive can be deadly.

“The dogs are pre-programmed to offer a ‘sit-alert,’” Milner says.

When a dog detects the smell of gunpowder, he or she will sit near the odor until a handler arrives.

He models this scent-detection training after the British Army Arms and Explosive Search Dog program.

“Our dogs are programmed for boldness and obedience in new and difficult environments,” Milner said.

His puppies learn to “sit” early on: they must sit before a handler who has a bowl of food will lower the bowl to the ground, again a demonstration of positive reinforcement.

Duckhill Kennels also breeds gun or hunting dogs as well as family dogs. Two of the dogs he has trained have won Field Championships.

Milner established his first kennel, Wildrose Kennels, in Grand Junction, Tenn., in 1972. Duckhill Kennels has been in existence since 2005. It also serves as a laboratory in which to develop and improve training processes involved in search and rescue and in scent detection.

Milner’s kennel trains about 300 puppies a year and at any one point, 100 dogs of different ages might be at his kennel. He has trained more than 2,000 Labradors since the early 1970s. He also trains handlers from around the world — he recently trained handlers from Sweden and Mexico — and offers seminars at home and around the U.S.

Duckhill Kennels uses only the highest breed of Labrador Retrievers, some of which have bloodlines that literally stretch to royalty.

He has introduced to his kennel British Labradors whose bloodlines date to the 1700s and to such breeders as the 5th Duke of Buccleuch in Scotland and the 2nd Earl of Malmesbury in southern England.

“These dogs have great hunting initiative and trainability,” Milner says of the Labradors many consider the “cream of the crop.”

Milner spends time in England attending and occasionally judging field trials. He has even rubbed elbows with the Queen of England — Milner is good friends with the Queen’s former dog trainer  — and sends the Queen 10 dog leashes each Christmas. She has responded with well wishes for Milner and his family and frequently invites them to field trials in the UK, including some this winter.

Milner sells young Labradors to government and law enforcement agencies across the United States to enter into their own explosive detection dog training programs. He has also trained drug dogs for police and security services.

 But Milner has also left his mark

on society in many other ways. Friends describe him as one of the most interesting men in the world.

“Robert is a writer, an entrepreneur, a logistics expert, a businessman and a visionary,” says longtime friend Elizabeth Walker. “He is a man who excels at everything he attempts.”

Fresh out of school, Milner joined the U.S. Air Force where he served on active and reserve duty for 26 years before retiring as a lieutenant colonel. Milner also spent a year working logistics in Desert Storm.

He was the driving force behind the SuperTerminal Memphis, a major transportation hub, which includes a 1,000-acre intermodal rail terminal that houses several of Memphis’ railroads. The Department of Commerce estimates the 20-year national economic impact of the hub will be $2.7 trillion.

Milner, who was recently named a U of M College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Alumnus, has also written three books on dog training, including A Disaster Search Dog Training Manual for FEMA. He taught dog obedience classes at then-Memphis State University from 1982 to 1990.

His latest venture — not helped along by the summer’s drought — is to establish a permanent duck population on some wetlands near his kennels in Laconia.

Dogs, though, remain the love of his life.

“There is nothing as fine in life as a good dog,” he says.

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