By Jeff Fuller
If someone would have told me 20 years ago that I was going to hunt and breed dogs for a living, I would have laughed. If they would have told me I also would own a lodge and a TV show, I probably would have had them drug tested. (I was a police sergeant, after all.) My life has been an interesting ride, to say the least, and probably the most frequent thing I get asked, is how I got where I am today. Apparently, it’s an uncommon career move to go from working undercover in the drug unit, to laying under corn cover while filming snow goose episodes. I do appreciate that a lot of people consider what I do their dream job. If you are interested in how one makes this transition, read on. And don’t worry, I already checked, and there aren’t any super-hot chicks in camo in the pages after my article – so you’re not missing anything.
I knew from early on that I wanted a career in law enforcement. While I enjoyed hunting the abundance of public land in Northern Wisconsin growing up as a kid, I never contemplated hunting as a possible career option. After all, who hunts for a living? The Native Americans did of course, but that was over a hundred years before, and the hipsters pretending to eat termites on Naked and Afraid do, but that was 30 years in the future. I also certainly didn’t know anyone that bred dogs for a living (the Queen’s Corgis don’t come close to covering her living expenses). So I managed to con the University of Wisconsin – Madison into granting me admission, and made my way through college and then the police academy. With a degree in psychology, I was ready to enter the exciting world of law enforcement. (And let’s face it, what else can you possibly do with a degree in psychology?)
One thing people probably don’t realize is that some of the most awful jobs in law enforcement are also some of the lowest paying. Working at the Milwaukee County Jail fresh out of police academy not only was an awful job, it also made sure that I needed to continue my college job as a pizza delivery driver. Putting myself through college with the Army Reserve was one of my first big life lessons in responsibility; working a second job out of college, as a pizza delivery driver, was my first big life lesson in humility.
When I wasn’t tossing rolls of TP to inmates or dip deep pizzas to working moms, I was writing for advancements in my department or for jobs in other municipalities. Eventually time, experience, and persistence paid off, and I was given a chance as a 3rd shift officer at the Muskego Police Department, a suburb about 15 minutes south of Milwaukee. I worked hard and was the youngest person ever promoted to sergeant. I got married and got my first Chocolate Lab, Lily Belle, as a wedding gift. Before I knew it, we had three kids to boot too. I bought a small log cabin in Northern Wisconsin and continued my passion for hunting, although most years I saw more carpenter ants there than I ever saw deer or ducks. I started training Lily Belle and did a litter or two of pups with her. Life was good, as those t-shirts say.
They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, so by now I’m sure I could take Cain Velasquez or any of his friends in a townie bar fight. At the ripe old age of 35, my career in law enforcement unceremoniously ended after a squad accident that left me with crushed discs in my back and neck, vision problems, disconnected ligaments in my arm, and a concussion that would haunt me years later. Without a career and with limited options due to my reoccurring health problems, it was time to come up with a Plan B. Laying on the couch recovering, I looked into the big brown eyes of my Lily Belle and had the crazy thought, “What if I could make a career out of dogs?” And so the experiment began.
One litter and one Lab soon became two, which became ten, until Soggy Acres Retrievers became one of the premier names in the Labrador Retriever business. My “Soggy Dog” concept is a Lab with a solid pedigree, but one that also excels year-round as a companion in the home, not just in the field. The advent of social media provided me with an incredible new outlet to share the pictures, stories, and videos of the dogs that we were breeding, training, and hunting over. Sport show appearances helped too, with larger shows drawing in 25,000 people each – and how many people can walk by a booth with a dog in it and not stop? Not many!
It was at the sport shows that I was invited to start doing seminars on dogs and training related topics. One of these seminars caught the attention of the folks at the long-running, highly regarded PBS television show Outdoor Wisconsin. I was honored – if not a little nervous – to share my knowledge and love of working with dogs in the field on that show. More television appearances and radio shows followed, until one day I got the even crazier idea of “What if I tried this TV thing for myself?” The show would feature our Soggy Dogs huntin’ it up from coast to coast, with outdoor-lifestyle themed content in between. I connected with a local film editor and a cameraman and we made a sizzle reel and sent it off to the hunting networks. I didn’t really hold my breath that anyone was going to be interested in the wannabe TV skills of an ex-cop turned dog farmer in Wisconsin. To my amazement, we got a call from a network willing to take a chance on us – which probably made them crazier than me! And just like that, SportingDog Adventures the show was born.
Another thing people probably don’t realize is that most of us don’t get paid to be on TV. Sure, your Lee & Tiffany types do, but the bulk of us actually buy our airtime and have to raise sponsorship money to cover it. Then there’s raising the money to pay your editor and to cover your massive travel expenses as you chase down birds from Saskatchewan to Louisiana. It takes more business sense than hunting sense to be successful in outdoor TV. Talk about a challenging first season: my budget fell short, my partner opted out, and my marriage began its descent. Season One of SportingDog Adventures barely made it on the air. But you live and learn, and the biggest things I’ve learned in TV is to always keep pushing and don’t hesitate to get creative. As we begin editing Season 8, I’d like to think I’m doing something right. The Soggy Acres Retrievers of SportingDog Adventures now entertain in 200 million households on 9 networks in 3 countries. Not too shabby for an ex-cop with a background in Domino’s Pizza and a degree in psych.
The brutal travel schedule of being on hunting TV can take a toll, and I began to brainstorm ways to cut it back without compromising the quality of our programming. The answer was developing a hunting lodge not too far from home where we could film multiple episodes each season. The Soggy Acres Signature Lodge hosted its inaugural hunt in fall of 2017 in Central Wisconsin. The duck and pheasant hunts that our groups engage in are filmed for the show. Let me tell you, if you’ve ever wanted to be on a hunting TV show, this is your chance, and it’s a heck of a lot easier than raising sponsorships!
Change really is the only certainty in life, and I have had my share of it personally and professionally. One marriage ended and another one has begun. My little boys that started out on the show in the “Kid’s Corner” segment are now giant brutes of men. My trusty black Lab Rommel, who’s featured in our theme song for the show, now sports gray “eyebrows” and is too old to hunt ‘em up anymore. Me, I had a brain aneurysm that nearly killed me in November of 2016, and would have killed the show if it weren’t for the superhuman efforts of my family, friends, and even sponsors to keep it going. The hunting TV industry continues to change as well, with fewer and fewer wingshooting shows on TV and more and more shows switching over to digital platforms. I’ll continue to chase my original dreams – of producing amazing Labrador Retrievers and sharing their stories on TV – but I’ll continue to change with the times as I need to. Some things will never change though, like my love of the hunt and my love of Labs.
Just be careful about looking into those deep, dark eyes of a Lab…you never know what they might talk you into doing.
SportingDog Adventures TV
Soggy Acres Retrievers