History of hightest


TOP: John with a perpetual trophy awarded to FC Encino Oaks

Chimney Sweep.


LEFT: John receives a silver goblet when Rusty won the Derby at the American Chesapeake Specialty Trial-1969.


RIGHT: John with his first competitive retriever "Rusty," a Chesapeake Bay-1968.

The history of Hightest Kennels began in 1968 when John, at the age of 25, acquired his first field trial dog “Rusty”, a Chesapeake Bay Retriever. John became infatuated with field trials while working at Stanford University in the San Francisco Bay Area. John witnessed a field trial dog being trained on Lake Loganita on the Stanford campus. He was amazed at how the dog worked and decided to pursue retriever field trials with Rusty. Rusty won the Derby at the American Chesapeake Specialty trial in 1969.


Later that year John quit his job in the printing shop at Stanford and went to work for trainer, Rex Carr at Carr-Lab kennels in Escalon, California, beginning his own career as a professional trainer. Rex became famous for developing the first electronic training collar program for competitive retrievers. The electronic collar was new on the retriever training scene and not well received by the traditional trainers. When the dogs Rex trained began winning trials throughout the country, retriever training was changed forever. John was privileged to be able to work with some of the great field trial dogs of all time at Rex’s including the great national field champion and sire “Super Chief” owned by August Belmont.


In 1976 John left Carr-Lab kennels and moved to Oroville, California. There he formed a partnership with trainer Warren Grimsby of Warcon Kennels. During that time he had the opportunity to work with Peter Lane who had two great field trial dogs, NAFC-FC Kannonball Kate and FC-AFC Truckee’s Little Crackerjack. John helped Peter collar condition the dogs later in their field trial careers. Kate ended her career in 1982 with 410.5 all age points and a National Amateur win. An unbeatable record. Jackie had 144.5 all age points. John also trained a dog for Mrs. Marge Vermillion named FC Encino Oaks Chimney Sweep. Sweep went on to win five opens and qualify for several National Championships at a young age. Mrs. Vermillion left Sweep to John when she passed away. John was crushed when Sweep died from an illness at the peak of his field trial career.

In 1977, Debra at the age of 24, acquired her first Labrador Retriever CFC-CAFC Lomac’s Rockin Raja. Debra,who was living in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, was invited to an informal field trial called a “picnic trial” by the man that owned the sire of Raja. Raja won third place in the puppy stake at the trial and Debra was forever hooked on retriever field trails. Raja went on to acquire 39 Derby points and be the high point Canadian Derby bitch in 1979. Debra bred her first Labrador litter in 1980 when she bred Raja to CFC Virdon’s Tucktoyaktuk. She also registered the kennel name Hightest with the Canadian kennel club. “Hightest” was the term used to describe high octane gasoline in Canada and it became symbolic of the highly bred, high performance field retrievers that Hightest would later become known for. Raja’s first litter produced Debra’s second successful field trial dog - FC Hightest Magic Mouse.


In 1981, John was invited to be the featured speaker at a retriever field trial training seminar put on by the local retriever club in Langley, BC, Canada. Debra attended the seminar and later decided to send Raja and Mouse down to John in California for advanced training. Raja came home to Canada after her time with John and completed her Canadian Field Championship. Mouse went on to become an American Field Champion. In 1983 Debra moved to Oroville and joined John at Warcon Kennels. John and Debra trained field trial dogs from all over the U.S. during the warm California winter and trained local hunting dogs during the hot summers. In 1986 they were married. Later that year, they began looking for property in the Oroville area to develop their own training kennel under the name of Hightest Kennels. They purchased the 120 acres of rice fields on Lower Honcut Road that is now Hightest. Previously the dogs were trained on public and private properties within driving distance of the kennel. At the Honcut property there was plenty of room to do all the training on site. The pumps used to irrigate the rice could be used to supply water to training ponds year round which was a big advantage.


TOP: Debra and her first competitive ribbon and trophy. Raja won the Puppy Stake-1978


MIDDLE: 1982-Debra with CFC-CAFC Lomac's Rockin Raja when she completed her Canadian Field Championship by winning two open stakes in one trial.


BOTTOM: 1985-Debra and FC Hightest's Magic Mouse won the open at the Sacramento Valley Retriever Club.



TOP: John and Debra with Debra's 3 dogs at the Oroville Afterbay-1982.


BOTTOM: John's first training truck nicknamed "UG."

In May of 1987 they began construction of a 30 run kennel building. The plans were drawn for the construction on a paper napkin over a beer at a local pub. John and Debra did much of the labor with the help of their friend Ron Edmundson. The kennel was completed for under $25,000.

That May was one of the hottest on record with the mercury near the century mark most days. The dogs lived on the dog truck during construction and were relieved when their new quarters were complete. The specially contoured training ponds were constructed simultaneously with the building of the kennel because you had to have adequate water to train retrievers during summer months in California. Hightest then expanded their business plan to concentrate on training personal hunting dogs. Hightest's training services were in demand by duck hunters both locally and out of state. The Kennel's web site came into being in the early 1990’s when the internet became mainstream, drawing in business from all parts of the U.S.


Hightest began acquiring breeding Labrador bitches and sires, running them in AKC Retriever Hunt Tests which were new to the retriever scene at the time. The breeding stock became more credible with hunt test titles, making the puppies more valuable.

Since then, Hightest has whelped litters producing quality Labradors sold throughout the US. and abroad. Many Hightest puppies have earned Hunt Test titles and a few have become Field Champions. The history of Hightest would not be complete without mentioning some of the great Labrador sires that have produced successful hunting dogs (pictured below). They served as personal friends, hunting dogs, and resulted in numerous satisfied puppy buyers. Note: Rooty's special designation, DGD (Darned Good Dog!).

FC Keno

Paint-Derby CH

Booze MH

Willie SH

In the summer of 1994 a neighboring farmer establishing a new prune orchard changed the lay of the land adjacent to Honcut Creek. That winter was a particularly wet one in California and the Hightest Kennel property was flooded on eight occasions during December and January. The dogs were evacuated several times and thousands of dollars in damage was sustained to the roads and levees on the property. After that experience, the whole frontage of Hightest was elevated 2 to 3 feet so future flood water would run by the kennel, down Honcut Road to the west and dump into the lower field where the damage, if any, would be minimal.


TOP: The ponds take shape.


OTHERS: Hightest Kennel Building I - constructed in 1987.

Rooty DGD

Sage-Qual AA

Beau MH


Danny MH

Groovy MH

FC Keno

Paint-Derby CH

Chance MH

Orvis MH

In 1997 Jared came to work at Hightest to assist with the training. Jared started out throwing birds for the dogs at the retriever field trials while in high school. He developed a love for the dogs and their training. He became the kennel manager and was taken on as a Junior partner in the business in 2003. After nine years at Hightest, Jared was killed in a tragic vehicle accident in 2008. He was well loved by both the customers and dogs. Jared was truly an integral part of the history of Hightest and left a big footprint on the development of the business.

In 2005, Hightest began to lay plans for the construction of a second kennel building and office.  By this time the business had expanded into several facets offering programs in all breed obedience, puppy head start training, as well as the continuation of the hunting dog program. Hightest was also breeding 8-10 litters of puppies a year. The business had outgrown the original kennel and a front office was much needed. In 2006, a second 34 run dog kennel and office was completed. The building that was similar in size to the original kennel, cost exactly seven times more to build. This brought the total number of dog runs at Hightest to 85.


TOP: The flood of 1995 inudated Hightest. Kennel Building I flooded.MIDDLE: Debra out on the back levee, January 1995.BOTTOM: Employee Mike Hulsey hoses mud from kennel.

In 2009 Hightest Retrievers was changed to Hightest Kennels to reflect the broader range of services offered at the kennel. Hightest Kennels offers gun dog training for retrievers and obedience training for all breeds of dogs. Hightest has become a prominent boarding facility with customers driving as far as from the San Francisco Bay area to board their dogs. 

So there you have it – over forty-five years in the dog business. Hightest Kennels has been a life’s work and if you ask anyone where they would rather be – they would say right here at Hightest. There is nothing better than watching a well-trained dog work or see the smile on the face of a satisfied customer with a fat, healthy, Hightest puppy in their arms. 


In 2018 John and Debra retired, selling the business to Jim and Teal Knapp of Palermo.

© 2006-19 Hightest Kennels

Oroville, California 95966

All Rights Reserved

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