Gone to the Dogs

Four-legged friends come first at Sporting Life Kennels, a family-run Oxford business that breeds British Labrador retrievers and trains all types of dogs for clients from around the world.

Written by Leslie Criss | Photographed by Joe Worthem

On his 16th Christmas, Marty Roberts received a gift from his parents that changed his life: a 5-week-old yellow lab he named Jimbob. The two immediately became inseparable.

“He went everywhere with me,” said Roberts, a native of Memphis. “He went to the drive-in with me on dates, fishing; he was with me all the time. He’s the reason I fell in love with training. If not for him, none of this would be here.”

The “this” Roberts referred to is Sporting Life Kennels.

It’s situated nine miles east of Oxford off Highway 6 on an idyllic bit of acreage that also serves as the setting for the home where Roberts and his wife, Mollie, raised their three daughters.

In his office, flanked by Oak, Henry and Cody — three impeccably behaved dogs — Roberts comments tongue-in-cheek about the kennels.

“We have a nationwide following,” he said. “But hardly anyone locally knows we’re even out here.”

The British Labrador retriever puppies bred at Sporting Life — past and future — are often spoken for long before they are born. The puppies have found homes across the United States and in faraway places like British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Peru.

Breeding puppies and training dogs is a far cry from Roberts’ initial career: He was in home building for two decades. He liked it but found it to be up and down. In 2005 he was in Oxford building condos and decided to relocate to Oxford and make a career change.

“So, at the age of 42, I sat down with my wife and said, ‘Hey, I got an idea,’” he said.

Puppy Love

The breeding program developed by Roberts is called the Care Program, and it’s what sets Sporting Life Kennels apart from many other more traditional breeders.

“We don’t keep dogs on site,” Roberts said. “Through the Care Program our dams go to a family living within two hours of our kennels — she gets a family and isn’t stuck in a kennel. And the family gets an exceptionally well-bred and trained British Labrador for free.”

When a dam has her heat cycle, she returns to Sporting Life where she is bred and cared for until time to deliver her litter.

“It’s a win-win,” Roberts said. “It’s all about balance. And it helps us provide very healthy, balanced puppies for our customers.”

There’s a puppy nursery with playrooms where the puppies learn socialization skills and have fun on ramps, swings and tunnels. They’re introduced to new sounds and new textures.

“By the time they leave, they are like little stuntmen,” Roberts said. “It’s cute and fun to watch. What happens is we have really bold puppies ready for their new homes and to take on the world.”

Train up a Dog

When talk turns to training, it’s quickly clear this is where Roberts’ love lies. Much of his process was learned through reading, and trial and error, and practiced first on Jimbob. Through the years, Roberts’ training techniques have become tried and true. His favorite part of training is when they are young.

“Taking puppies through basic training is great,” he said. “Their minds are like a sponge. It’s exciting to see them learning so quickly.”

In 2017, Roberts launched a two-season television show, “Sporting Life Retriever TV.” The show was based on Roberts’ belief that “behind every great water-fowler is a good dog, and behind every good dog is a story.” To watch, visit sportinglifekennels.com and click the link to the show. It’s on Waypoint TV.

On Sporting Life Kennels’ 42 acres, signs abound that it’s all about the dogs. There are three training lakes, peppered with decoys; two large hay fields; and plenty of woods for training. On staff are dog-loving humans, including trainers who’ve learned from Roberts.

A crew of eight or nine people, in addition to Roberts and his wife, Molly, keep things running smoothly.

“And the university has been a very strong support for us,” Roberts said. “Most of our workers are college students, and when they graduate, they usually have a friend that’s ready to take their place. We’ve been blessed.”

The gun dog training for retrievers is board and train, meaning dog owners leave their dogs with Roberts for four months of training or longer, depending on the level of training. There’s also obedience training, which Roberts and his staff trainers do for medium and large dogs of any breed. This is about a six-week process.

“We often have as many as 40 dogs in training with five of us training,” Roberts said. “There’s also an online training course we developed that’s at retrieveruniversity.com.”

Not only are the prized retrievers trained for the hunt, but also for after the hunt.

“Our mantra is, ‘calm but ready,’” Roberts said, glancing at the three dogs still napping in his office. “They are trained to be intense in the field but then they can turn the intensity down when they’re not hunting.”

Roberts, a lifelong hunter, definitely has a heart for the dogs he breeds, the resulting puppies and the dogs of others he trains. He won’t sell a dog or puppy to anyone who won’t keep it in the house — or allow it to sleep inside, at the very least.

“The connection between dog and human is too relational for the dog to be stuck outside in a pen,” he said. “It’s almost like they have a s