Officially, the record books know the dog as SRSC SRS GRHRCH Barley’s Yankee Thunder MH. Those who knew him best simply called him Boomer, a black male Labrador retriever trained and owned by Chris Akin of Bono.
They traveled together, hunted together, competed together and just plain spent time together. Boomer passed away in the spring of 2012, leaving a legacy that would be hard for any dog to duplicate and a place in Akin’s heart forever.
Akin owns and operates Webb Footed Kennels and has developed a solid reputation for training outstanding animals. His list of accomplishments is impressive: more than 4,000 retrievers trained, 300-plus United Kennel Club Hunting Retriever Champions, 150 American Kennel Club Master Hunters and 32 Grand Hunting Retriever champions to date.
With credentials like this, it would be easy to believe Akin started out as a young boy with dreams of training professionally. That assumption would be completely wrong.
In the late 1980’s Akin worked for Jordan Aluminum Window Company, rising from customer service to outside sales. He traveled northeast Arkansas calling on lumber yards.
“I had gotten in the habit of taking my black Labrador female named Dixie with me every day on my sales calls. I would leave her in the car with it running. One day I was walking outside with an owner and he noticed my car and asked why I didn’t shut it off. I told him it was because my dog was inside.”
The owner asked Akin to let Dixie out so he could see her.
“Dixie was nothing special by today’s standards but she was obedient and she knew basic handling that I had taught her,” Akin said. “I put on a little show for him, just throwing out a few bumpers and stopping her on a whistle and casting her. He was amazed and soon I was showing his employees what she could do.”
It wasn’t long before Akin and his dog had become famous.
“Pretty soon I was carrying her inside places with me; everybody wanted to see her perform,” Akin said. “Sometimes I didn’t even bring bumpers in, I would use paint rollers off the shelf. The great thing about Dixie is that she would work for anyone, so people loved to take turns running her. She became my best sales tool.”
One day one of his customers asked Akin if he could train a dog for him.
“I said ‘Sure’ and trained the dog,” Akin said. “Then another guy wanted his dog trained and then another. The next thing I knew I had 15 dogs to train and a full-time job to work. ”
Then a friend asked if Akin had considered training full time.
“Two weeks later I quit my job and became a professional trainer,” Akin said.
Webb Footed Kennels is now one of the largest gun dog training facilities in the country.
“I trained Boomer’s sire and dam and decided to marry them, so to speak,” Akin said. “The pups were born and they all sold quickly. Boomer came back to me at 6 months of age to start his training and I knew immediately that he was something special.”
Akin tried to buy Boomer back, but at the time the owner wasn’t selling. Akin was persistent, however, and after having Boomer in training for a year the owner changed his mind, yet even then Akin thought he might sell the dog after completing his training.
“The deals kept falling through so I decided to keep him,” Akin said.
The pair started to work together and the titles came easily and often to the young dog.
They participated in hunting tests under the sanction of the UKC and the AKC, and Boomer always was up to the challenge.
“Boomer was never the most talented dog in the field,” Akin said. “He just wanted it more than they did.”
Akin also runs a prestigious duck hunting club and hunts every day of the season. Anyone who has hunted ducks at all knows the value that a trained retriever has in the fields and woods.
Boomer soon became a hunting dog as well, but at first Akin was not impressed.
“But once the light came on and he got the hang of it there was no better dog to hunt with,” Akin said. “He never broke, took every whistle and every cast and picked up thousands of ducks.”
Akin said Boomer even had a favorite spot to hunt.
“We would start out early in the morning heading for a spot and you could hear him in his crate moving around,” Akin said. “When I would slow down to make the turn that leads to that blind he would get real still. Once the truck rounded the curve he would start spinning around in excitement and making all sorts of noise.
“My favorite photo of him is leaning out of that blind waiting to be sent on a retrieve.”
In the early 2000s ESPN debuted the Great Outdoor Games, an outdoor version of the Olympic Games. Events included fishing, shooting, timber sports, and dog competitions.
The best dogs from around the country came to the games through qualifying events.
Akin and Boomer would face some stiff competition in the 2003 games. But the dog, 4 at the time and competing against 10- and 11-year-olds, surprised everyone by winning the gold.
Boomer also won the Crown Championship at that year’s Super Retriever series.
“That year was the peak of a great career,” Akin said. “His personality came through so well on camera and you could see how much he loved it all.”
The pair continued to go everywhere together in the years to come and they developed a very close bond.
“Boomer was with me from coast to coast and tip to tip,” Akin said. “We went to Canada many times and visited many a hunting lodge all over that country and this one as well. We were together 24 hours a day, seven days a week until the day he died.”
Akin tried to put their friendship in words.
“I don’t miss him as a hunting dog; I have many of those around,” Akin said. “It was more like losing a brother, a best friend. Every time I think about Boomer all I can see is his intensity, and the fact I never had to worry about him in the field.”
Boomer sired many litters — his daughter Hottie is Akin’s current hunting dog — and he has trained many Boomer pups, estimating half his kennel is full of Boomer’s offspring.
Akin misses Boomer but knows things happened the way they were supposed to.
“I thought that if I ever had a chance to meet with God and renegotiate the life span of a dog I would change the length of time,” Akin said. “Then I though about what would be the right amount of years, 25?
“No, if you can love a dog so much in 13, the pain would be that much greater years later. Forty? No, then the dog might outlive you and would be taken care of by someone else. It was then that I realized that the good Lord had gotten it right again.”
Akin continues to train dogs and has a DVD series. He doubts he will ever have another Boomer but he will continue to strive to make his dogs the best.
“So much has changed in the course of Boomer’s lifetime, the dogs are much better and the knowledge of how to train them is so much better,” he said.
Akin will take to the fields without his friend this season but Boomer will always remain with him in spirit, spinning around in the crate, filled with joy for the coming day.