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Bobby Bass

Joe DeLoia, dies

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From Duluth News Tribune

From Duluth News Tribune

Joe DeLoia, the legendary Duluth dog trainer who helped generations of hunters field better dogs and who trained a black Lab that went on to win the national retriever championship, died Sunday at age 97.

DeLoia had been living in a Twin Cities care facility for several years while suffering from memory loss and the loss of his eyesight.

DeLoia was instrumental in just about anything to do with shotgun-shooting sports, bird hunting and dog training in the Duluth area from when he moved to town in 1945 into the 2000s.

"He was an absolute master at reading dogs; reading them quickly and instinctively,'' said Dave Zentner of Duluth, a longtime hunting and dog training freind of DeLoia's.

Zentner recalled one of his own dogs, Rip, which DeLoia was helping Zentner train.

"He asked me at one point whether I was trying to get Rip to sit, stay or come ... because I had barked out all three orders before the dog could respond," Zentner recalled this week. "And he told me I had to start watching my language because he had a reputation to uphold."

DeLoia convinced Zentner to calm down, limit his commands "and to stop screaming and swearing."

DeLoia didn't just understand dogs by second nature, "he also read people very well, which is just as important in dog training," Zentner noted.

Jeff Wiklund, a past board member of the Duluth Retriever Club, where the entry road is called Joe DeLoia Drive, said DeLoia seemed outwardly gruff at times but had a heart of gold.

"If he saw you had interest in dogs, he'd help you out. You might not like what he had to say, but he'd help you get the best out of your dog. If you listened," Wiklund said. "He was willing to give up so much of his time to help. He was just a great guy."

DeLoia started training hunting dogs for his uncles as a boy in St. Paul, where he grew up. He'd ride his bike 13 miles each way to a suburban Minneapolis field trial grounds just to be a dummy thrower — just so he could be close to the dogs, the shotguns and the people.

"I learned to think like a dog. I can tell you more about your dog after watching it for five minutes than you probably know about him from living with it for a year," DeLoia said in a 2000 interview with the News Tribune. "I'm not bragging. But that's what it is. It's not rocket science training dogs. You just have to be a little bit smarter than they are.''

When the U.S. entered World War II, DeLoia enlisted, hoping to further his career in the transportation industry. Instead, thanks to less-than-stellar eyesight and a disclosure that he hunted and trained dogs on his own, the Army sent him to Nebraska to train dogs to sniff for explosives, mines and bodies.

"I was afraid they were going to put me in the infantry. But they sent me to work with dogs ... look where that's got me."

In the Army, DeLoia learned about dog training and behavior from some of the world's best animal behavior experts. He quickly became an instructor but didn't hesitate to mix business and pleasure.

"We moved our training to South Dakota" so trainers could also hunt pheasants, DeLoia recalled. "We kept rejecting (for Army duty) all the Labs so we could keep hunting them."

After the war DeLoia was recruited by the Duluth Chamber of Commerce to move here and start training dogs for field trials. At the time, field trials were a growing and popular spectator sport that attracted thousands of visitors to major events. City leaders thought DeLoia could put Duluth on the map as a field trial hot spot.

The move was backed by some of Duluth's most influential businessmen, who also happened to be avid sportsmen. They convinced a banker to back the diminutive dog trainer who had nothing but good intentions for collateral.

"I'd never been to Duluth before. But they set me up. ... I don't know how, but the bank gave me the loan. I got my place for $4,200 and started paying $29.95 per month. I never moved."

DeLoia Kennels was born, and within just a few years the trainer's magic with retrievers was becoming news across the region. One dog he trained from a pup, Massie's Sassy Boots, owned by friend Art Massie, went on to win the national field trial championship in 1956.

While that may have been the pinnacle of competition, DeLoia never rated that dog ahead of any other he's owned or worked with — and that included thousands of Labs, Chesapeakes, goldens, pointers, setters, spaniels and even poodles. Another Lab, Lucky, won several regional field championships, and DeLoia's compatriots say that probably was his finest dog.

DeLoia stuck with field trials for some 25 years. But eventually he quit, preferring to stay at home to train and breed dogs.

"I wanted a family life, a community life, a church life," DeLoia said. "That business (field trials) really ripped families apart. You were on the road constantly."

For nearly 40 years DeLoia also ran a trapshooting range on Midway Road north of Pike Lake. He closed it in 1992 and sold the land. A few years later he sold his dog training business across the street but kept a chunk of land near his favorite retrieving pond for a new house.

DeLoia said his goal in dog training was to make people happy by making their dogs the best they could be in the field.

"I hope I made every person who brought a dog to me a little happier," DeLoia said. "There isn't one dog or one friend. I'm the richest man I know because of all of it together."

Joe DeLoia was preceded in death by a son, Gary DeLoia. He is survived by his wife of 74 years, Lorraine; children, Tom (Gail) DeLoia, Halene (Paul) von Wiegandt, Betsy (Steven) Godmare, and Jeffrey (Karen) DeLoia; daughter-in-law, Linda DeLoia; 11 grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren and other relatives and friends.

A Mass of Christian Burial is set for 10 a.m. Friday at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, 835 Second Ave. NW, New Brighton, Minn., with a visitation from 9-10 a.m. at the church. Burial will be at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.

Years ago I met Joe and he helped me with one of my labs. The guys knew dogs that was for sure and he helped me out with my lab Lady I watched and listened as he work dogs and I learned a lot. That was years ago, sorry for his family's loss.

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