Hunting & Heritage  |  01/12/2023

“Leave the Pheasant, Take the Cannoli"


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The Dogfather of Iowa and his storied history with Pheasant Fest

By Casey Sill
 

Joe Strang is not a dog trainer. 

He’s not a breeder, or a kennel owner, or a field trial champion — But he is the Dogfather. 

A longtime Labrador owner and lover, Strang’s yellow lab Gordon sired over a dozen litters of puppies before his passing in 2013. Gordon earned the name “The Dogfather” during his reign, and the moniker has since morphed to represent both Gordon and Strang himself. 

In an age where everyone is falling over one another to look like an expert and fighting over the spotlight on Instagram, Strang is humble and soft spoken. His humility is cause for celebration. He makes no bold claims about his greatness as a dog man, only about the greatness of dogs. 

He speaks about Gordon and his new lab Sully, one of Gordon’s grand puppies, in a way that might make some old school professional trainers roll their eyes. His dogs sleep on the couch and the bed, they’ve earned full membership rights in his family. The beauty of that relationship lies in its simplicity — Strang loves dogs, and that’s all there is to it. 

Strang was born and raised in Cascade Falls, Iowa and has lived there his entire life. He got his fist lab when he was 12 and hasn’t been without one for nearly 60 years. He’s stuck with labs all these years for the same reasons everyone does, their attentiveness and affection. The Labrador retriever is hands down, without a doubt, not even close, the most effective and well-rounded sporting dog in the world (my email is csill@pheasantsforever.org, I look forward to your letters). But what sets them apart, and what keeps Strang coming back to them year after year, is their emotional capacity. 

“They know when you’re feeling good, they know when you’re feeling poor — they can read you just through your eyes,” Strang said. “There’s not a bad dog breed out there, it’s all personal preference, but it’s difficult to beat the loyalty of a lab. When I sit down on the couch, Sully is right there next to me. He’s almost a pest he wants to be so close to you all the time.” 

Strang bought Gordon from Ridgeview Labradors in Elkader, Iowa. He was a very traditional, large frame male lab, which is what Strang always looks for in a dog — Close to 100 pounds, big blocky head, deep chest, strong otter tail (you could hear Strang’s smile through the phone as he described him). And he comes from good blood, both in the field and the show ring. Gordon’s great great grandfather won best in breed at the Westminster Dog show in 1995. Gordon was an attractive enough specimen that Strang started to get requests to stud Gordon out. One thing led to another and before long Gordon had fathered pups from San Diego to Long Island, St. Louis to Anchorage. 

When that number started to rise, Strang began holding a get together every year to celebrate Gordon’s prowess as a stud dog. He invited all Gordon’s pups, and their owners, to Iowa for what became known as “Gordonfest.” The event eventually grew large enough that Strang hired a food truck and four live bands. 

“It’s a wonderful celebration of Gordon, but also of labs in general and the bond we all share with them,” Strang said. “Only tough part was knowing whose dog was whose. I used to call everyone after they got home to make sure they got the right dog back.” 

Gordon died shortly after the event was held in the early fall of 2013, but Strang continues the celebration to this day. At the last Gordonfest before he died, there were 124 of Gordon’s puppies and grand puppies in attendance. 

Strang has been active in Pheasants Forever since 1985 and began coming to Pheasant Fest in 2004. He entered Gordon in the Bird Dog Parade that year and hasn’t missed one since. When he comes across the stage this year, like every year since 2013, he’ll be carrying Gordon’s ashes with him. 

“It’s a tradition I’m not going to give up unless I have to,” he said. “I see people there that I only ever see at Pheasant Fest. And I meet people every year from thousands of miles away. I plan on continuing to go even if the event moves to the east or west coast.”

Strang’s draw to Pheasant Fest is universal. It’s a chance for all of us to celebrate our bird dogs, honor the habitat that shapes our lives and maybe smell a little puppy breath along the way. 

Strang will be there, not just for the parade but all weekend, roaming the show floor meeting old friends and new friends alike. Stop and say hello, scratch Sully behind the ears, and ask Strang about the best retrieve he ever saw ‘Ol Gordon make — you won’t be disappointed. 



Casey Sill is the public relations specialist at Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever national headquarters in St. Paul, Minn. He can be reached at csill@pheasantsforever.org.