American Field

Personality Profile

Robert Ecker — His Journey To Success

By Andy Wert | Aug 15, 2019
Handler Robert Ecker with one of his many winners.

“Loyalty is the strongest glue which makes a relationship last a lifetime” — Mario Puzo

Pennsylvania has its share of talented bird dog trainers. This profile is about a born and raised city boy who has become one of the top walking shooting dog trainers in America.

Robert was born in Hazleton, Pa., son of Robert and Grace Ecker. His paternal grandfather, an immigrant from Tyrol, was an avid hunter and setter man. He owned a construction company that served the anthracite mining industry. One of his supply salesmen gave him a pair of setter puppies sired by Mississippi Zev. Robert’s grandfather and uncles hunted grouse and woodcock in the Pocono Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania. They also traveled to Lancaster County Amish country for pheasants. The setters were never taken along on these trips because Robert’s grandfather thought the pheasants would ruin his dogs for grouse hunting.

Robert grew up in the middle of the city of Hazleton. He had a great childhood playing sports, army, and cops and robbers. One Christmas his Uncle Peter made him a small pen and put four quail in it for Robert to raise in their backyard. On a spring day he forgot to latch the pen and his birds escaped.

Robert and his friends spent days chasing the quail up and down the streets of his neighborhood. They had no luck recapturing the birds.

Summer rolled by and Robert and his buddies went back to school. One warm September afternoon on his way home from school he looked up and walking down the sidewalk in Hazleton was a beautiful bobwhite male with six or seven chicks following it in single file. This was when he really fell in love with game birds.

Robert’s involvement in bird dogs and hunting was limited to watching his father cleaning the pheasants after opening day until his sophomore year in high school. On a whim Robert decided he wanted to go grouse hunting. His uncle took him along on a hunt near Brady’s Lake, Pa., but the only grouse they saw was one standing along the road on the way to the hunting area. They did find woodcock and thus began Robert’s love for anything that pertains to woodcock. He loves hunting them but has also spent countless hours watching them sing, finding nests, and viewing them in various states.

That first hunt got Robert hooked on bird dogs. Someone’s Gordon setter got away from them and it ended up hunting with Robert and his uncle. Robert couldn’t get over the beauty of this Gordon. He told his uncle how much he liked the dog. The next day his uncle showed up at Robert’s house with a copy of the Outdoor Life magazine. There was a Gordon on the cover and in the back of the magazine was an ad for Gordon setter puppies in Pennsylvania. Robert started saving his money by selling all his baseball cards and doing odd jobs and before long two Gordon puppies found their way to Hazleton.

Every chance he could get he took them to the Freeland Kennel Club to train and run them. One day Jimmy Wilkinson, one of Robert’s early field trial mentors, told Robert that in the near future there was a field trial being held at Freeland. Robert asked if he could enter and he was told it was only for folks with “good dogs”! Robert took this as a challenge and decided to enter the trial. His Gordon setter won first place and Robert was hooked on trials. (We’re sure Jimmy was just teasing Robert).

Robert’s uncle, Peter Ecker, was the family member who influenced him the most about bird dogs.

Peter was a diehard bird hunter. After the conclusion of World War II he came home and much to the dismay of Robert’s grandfather he bought an Irish setter. As the story goes, the dog never pointed anything.

Then at about two years of age he slammed into his first point under a hemlock tree. Peter walked in to flush and out came a big old snowshoe hare. From that day on the dog pointed everything he found.

Peter rented a barn and for many years had a quail pen at the Freeland Kennel Club. He was not very competitive in trials but served as club secretary. He loved raising his line of English setters.

Robert spent many days at the Freeland grounds with his uncle. He taught Robert some of the basics in training and was very helpful in getting him started training bird dogs.

Robert’s beginning trial years were spent as an amateur and his success was limited. During those first early years he spent many days with pro Pete DeAngelis learning and watching him work dogs on liberated birds. Another man who helped Robert was wild bird dog trainer Tom Gingher of Bloomsburg, Pa. Tom also trained with Dick Straub and Robert was fortunate in those days to have a plentiful supply of wild birds for training.

His first English setter was a “backyard dog.” Robert remembers competing at State College, Pa., and was in a truck with several other trialers as they moved to another course. A man whom Robert didn’t know but had seen Robert run his dog said, “Boy, you need a setter with HOT blood to compete here!” That man was Tom Derosa.

Robert took Tom’s suggestion to heart and started looking through The American Field for some well bred pups. He found an ad by Scott Chaffee who had pups sired by Pioneer Train Jake. He bought a pup and three years later won his first championship with his young setter female. Her name was Ecker’s Midnight Light.

Robert is fortunate to have a wife who completely supports his career as a bird dog trainer. Robert met Kimberly through mutual friends. At the time he had an electronics parts distributorship in Hazleton and was training dogs part time. Once they got married he sold his business to concentrate on training full time. Kimberly says her life “went to the dogs” when she met Robert.

Kimberly is currently a special education administrator in the Hazleton Area School District. She isn’t into the trialing part of dog training but loves dogs. Over the years many of the dogs have spent time in the house with the Eckers. Some of Kimberly’s favorite house dogs have been Annie, a red setter from Roger Boser’s kennel, English setter female Fricke N Coco, owned by Johnathon Fricke, and their current house dog, Annabelle, a Gordon setter.

Several years ago Robert had one of those magical years, winning the Rhode Island Woodcock Championship, the Wisconsin Woodcock Championship, Pennsylvania and Lake States Grouse Championships along with the Grand National Grouse Futurity. Kimberly planned a huge surprise party for Robert’s friends and clients to celebrate his success. She did all this while working full time and raising their son. She is a good wife, for sure.

Robert’s pride and joy is his son Michael. He has just completed his freshman year at King’s College in Wilkes Barre, Pa. Michael plans to transfer to Villanova Law School. He is an extremely talented singer, dancer, and actor. He has won many awards for his acting. He, like his mother, is not interested in field trials but loves dogs. He is very helpful to Robert on the media end of his dog training business.

If Michael is Robert’s pride and joy, then his mom Grace Motto Ecker is his rock. She has been supportive of him from day one. She has helped him in many ways. One time Robert’s female had a litter of eleven puppies. She got sick on the second day and was on medicine and could not nurse her pups. Grace stepped in and helped bottle feed all those pups three times a day.

In any well run business you need an outstanding support staff. Every one of Robert’s employees makes sure the dogs get the best in care and training.

Arthur Bruno has worked with Robert for 25 years. His expertise is starting puppies and training the gun dogs. He is ideally suited for these duties because he has a mild temperament and a gentle way of handling the dogs.

Jimmy Campbell is the kennel helper at Robert’s winter headquarters in North Carolina. Jimmy has been with Robert for ten years and is a jack of all trades and the dogs love him. Mike Heiser has been with Robert’s Midnight Kennels for four years. He manages the kennel and does repairs and general maintenance. Like Jimmy, Mike loves the dogs and has become an integral part of the program.

The secretarial work for Midnight Kennels is mainly handled by Robert’s mom Grace.

Robert has currently won 90 championship placements. He has won with English setters, pointers, and Irish setters and has won titles on grouse, woodcock, and quail. He has won an AKC championship with an Irish setter owned by Paul Ober and has handled several dogs in AKC hunt tests. He has trained hundreds of gun dogs for folks across the country.

Loyalty is the key to Robert’s life. He tries to be loyal to his friends and surrounds himself with like-minded people. Robert believes you can have the best dog in the world but if you don’t have a supportive and loyal client you won’t be successful as a pro.

Antonio Dattolo was Robert’s first client and grew to become a close personal friend. Antonio owned Concord Mike, Robert’s first big winning dog as a professional. Antonio decided to sell Mike to a Japanese sportsman. Knowing that Robert and Kimberly had just recently been married he decided to give the proceeds from the sale to the couple as a wedding gift.

Phil Gould was another client who helped Robert down the road to success. Phil owned a setter named Taz. The setter was a slow developer and had just one third place Derby win. He made many callbacks but always would make a mistake in the birdfield. Phil was ready to give up on the dog but Robert saw the potential in Taz and persuaded Phil to keep campaigning the dog. Taz would go on to win eight open titles for Phil and Robert. Taz’s breeding was repeated and from that match came Keystone Red Ryder, owned by Craig Peters. Red Ryder would become a multiple national champion.

Another client who is a father figure for Robert and a great friend is Rich Warters. When he first met Robert, Rich Warters was soured on trials and was about ready to quit. Success with Ch. Bud of Piney Woods and Bud’s son, two-time national champion Bo of Piney Woods, rekindled his love for the sport.

Robert uses friend Mills Hodge’s kennel in North Carolina and Mills helped Robert obtain the lease where he trains in the winter. Mills was the original owner of the successful setter Sunrise Star. Dr. George Najor, owner of setter champions Miss Penn Star and Sunrise Star, owns the house where Robert stays in North Carolina. George is another individual who is not only a client but a close friend.

Robert’s current client who has been with him the longest is Jim Millett who not only wants his dogs to be trial competitors but also dogs he can hunt with. Fieldstone Farm Clyde was that type of dog as is his current trial dog Sterlingworth Jack.

Red setter aficionado Paul Ober allows Robert to campaign his dogs. Paul is a great client. He gives Robert time to develop the red dogs and that patience paid off with the open champion Celtic’s First Strike.

Being a walking trainer normally means you don’t have a need to travel with horses. Larry Craig offered Robert his horses so he could run First Strike in the 2012 National Red Setter Futurity in Kentucky. First Strike won first place in that Futurity.

I asked Robert which were the outstanding dogs he has trained. With great reluctance he mentioned two because he didn’t want to slight anyone and with ninety championship placements you know he has trained a bunch of good dogs.

First on his list, or maybe second, he really didn’t say, is Ch. Islander, owned by Pedrag Kazic from New York. Islander has fifteen championship placements — nine titles and six runners-up. According to Robert, Islander’s intelligence is what sets him apart. His behavior is at times almost humanlike!

The other dog is setter female Merritt’s Pearl, owned by Terry Merritt of North Carolina. Robert won all open titles with her and she is the only dog to have won the U. S. Complete Open National Championship and NBHA National Championship in the same season (2010). She has also been a  producer as well.

Robert’s success might be due to his passion for dogs and birds. Hopefully from his story you have learned that his love for family and friends has made him the type of person that he is.

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