Timing is a critical foundation to good bird dog training.
The instant it takes to drop your car keys from your fingertips to the floor is all the time you have to relay a message to your dog that they are a good dog or a bad dog. This is all the time you have to tag a behavior. Anything after that simply leads to confusion and resentment.
When you are reward-based bird dog training using food, toys or praise, you must be prepared to reward or correct the dog the very instant it presents either a desirable or undesirable behavior. This requires you to be very attuned to your animal. Being able to read and recognize when they are in the thought process of making a good or bad decision is key. For example, when we teach the sit command on a recall (the dog returning to you), we shape the sit through tagging then rewarding the dog the moment it begins to sit (doesn’t need to be perfectly aligned) and slowly building accuracy over time. It’s very common for handlers to over-command, and when the dog finally performs the action correctly, they are left scrambling for a treat and the reward is now too delayed to be of value towards learning.
If done properly, the dog’s drive for the task builds and they begin to read you. Soon they start anticipating what will be asked and start throwing out actions to be rewarded. This requires the handler to anticipate a whole set of contingencies. Normally, the handler needs to focus on correcting specific mistakes, responding instantly when the dog does not make that mistake. This is your only hope of having anything close to good timing.
As an instructor, I have found this by far takes the greatest amount of tactful restraint from me. There are times when I just have to ask the handler, “What are you thinking! I just told you what was going to happen and you still didn’t get the timing right? What are you actually thinking this very moment that would preoccupy your mind where your timing is that far off? You don’t have all day!” A dog might provide its attention for only a split second, especially in puppies. Within that tiny window, the dog is waiting to see if it’s been good or bad.
With young dogs you would ignore the bad and be ready to chase those good behaviors to shape them further in the right direction. The frequency of the recurrence of a good behavior increases due to the rewarding of the good behavior. We don’t scold the bad in young pups because they in fact can’t learn if they are worried about your response to the bad. It takes one frustrated moment or, as in this next case, the accidental press of a button to create a lasting issue.
An example: there was a couple out training together for marked retrieves on the water from a blind, both sharing an e-collar. The first dog they worked was a hard driver, continuously breaking on the shot requiring a strong collar stimulation level. They later traded off the collar to the other softer, more thoughtful retriever that rarely required the e-collar. This was the type of dog that requires just the slightest nick. However, when the dog broke, the handler was not prepared with the collar in hand as the dog almost never makes mistakes (something we hear often). Instead, she went searching for it, missing the correct moment and later stimulating the dog who at this point was within the decoys. It was too late for the dog to connect its mistake to the breaking; instead, she connected it to the decoys.
In that moment, the handler unraveled nearly two years worth of work with the press of a button. It took five years before that dog eventually learned to trust decoys again. It had taken hundreds of hours of training to get to that point and within less than a second, all was dismantled. Negative experiences — especially with young dogs — can cut like a knife.
Conversely, positive experiences slowly build upon one another, layer by layer, and will create that flashy, confident working dog. A dog fearing punishment will never be that “showy” shock-and-awe type of performer. You will get a tentative dog. They will be the one that freezes up or who slows down on their retrieves, all the while working with that low head and tail set we see all too often. This will never be the reliable hunting companion you’re after.
It’s also important to note that a good trainer trains towards the character of the dog. Knowing the temperament and having the training tools that best suit that temperament is key. This comes from experience and/or from the help of a good friend or professional trainer. As a professional trainer, sometimes we need to step back and let you flounder a bit. We know once you hit that frustration point you will be willing to come back and try something different.
As Blaine Carter of Merrymeeting Kennels says, “Sometimes we just need to let them grab the wrong tool and bloody their knuckles a bit as there is learning that happens in those mistakes.” To be fair, not everyone is going to be a good dog trainer. Some folks will always sabotage their timing by second guessing themselves; they will struggle living in that moment with their dogs — and that’s alright. Amazingly, given enough time, most dogs figure it out despite their owner.
Even if things fall apart or life happens and you didn’t get out to train enough, it’s never too late to start again. Keep at it and remember it’s about enjoying the process and building those connections lesson by lesson, hunt by hunt. It’s about you and your dog having fun together.
Last modified: April 10, 2019