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Building Trust and Partnership with Your Dog

Building Trust and Partnership with Your Dog

A dog and handler look at each other while training.

The development of a strong bound between a dog and handler is a cornerstone to better training and performance

My single biggest goal as a hunter is to be good enough to deserve my gun dog. I say that lightly but also honestly. While a variety of activities and competing obligations pull my life in multiple directions, my Deutsch Langhaar lives and breathes to hunt. True, she also enjoys snuggling on the couch and harassing our older dog, but her real passion is for the hunt. Hundreds of years of instinct and genetics are channeled into this singular purpose.

On the other hand, I am entirely new to bird hunting. I’m no stranger to the outdoors, but hunting is a new pursuit. My journey started with a few tagalong days in the duck blind. Suddenly, it seemed, I had my own gun, my own gear, and now my own dog. I’m discovering that I love the challenge of the hunt and the reward of a fine meal, but more than anything else, I love the sight of a dog fulfilling its purpose.

This brings me to my goal. Anyone who’s endured the withering glare of a dog after a missed shot is probably familiar with this feeling of inadequacy. Even though both my dog and my upland career are both young, I’ve already been on the receiving end of The Look. I had no idea that a five month old puppy could make me feel so small.

Fall 2022 Prairie bird hunting Magazine ad

It was a beautiful, bluebird day in eastern Washington. We were out in the high sage desert, working on our rookie season goal of simply gaining some field exposure. We’d kicked up a few pheasants on long-distance wild flushes, but not much else. The puppy was pointing field mice and grasshoppers with great earnestness. My initial excitement about her natural pointing abilities eventually wavered toward indifference. Apparently there were a lot of mice in this field and we were locating all of them.

Without warning, the pup locked into an intense point at what appeared to be bare ground. I’d never before seen her freeze into such a stunning point. I admired her style, then dismissed it with a shrug, “Eh, just another field mouse. Nice to see such determination, though.”  My husband kicked around in the whisper-thin grass and encouraged the young puppy, who was still frozen in place.

“See, there are no birds here, but you’re getting the hang of it!” As if on cue, a half-dozen quail exploded out of the “bare ground” with thundering wing beats. The pup was beside herself. The birds! There they are! But we were standing back on our heels, guns by our sides, telling our brilliant puppy that there were simply no birds to be found.

As the California quail scattered into deep cover and the pup’s adrenaline rush came down out of orbit, she looked around quizzically. It was her very first point on wild birds, but from her rudimentary training she knew that something more was supposed to happen: a loud bang, a falling bird, maybe even feathers in her mouth. It was in that moment when she looked at me with crippling disappointment, releasing a tumble of my own insecurities and doubts. How could I let her down at such a crucial moment in her development? Could I ever remember to pay attention to what I was supposed to be doing? Were we ever going to shoot a bird together? Was I hopeless?

Hindsight and reflection are powerful tools; I’ve relied on both as I’ve studied our first bird hunting season. The truth is, for better or worse, the pup and I are both learning this game together. As the months have gone by, I’ve learned just how much she communicates with me – as long as I’m paying attention. Familiar scents elicit a predictable reaction. Our hours spent together in the field have taught me to read the difference between wild, circular tail swings or just a lazy flick. All points are not created equal, but only time together can teach the secrets of decoding them.

If only I could transport myself back to that first point and whisper some wisdom into my own ear! I’d tell myself to pay attention to the details and notice the difference in the intensity. I’d tell myself to be ready, trust the dog, and stop second-guessing what she was trying to tell us. After all, she’s the one with the nose.

Much of the partnership between dog and hunter is built on trust. I need to trust her nose and her instincts; she needs to trust that eventually I’ll finish the job. As we train together, we’re building the foundation for a long and fulfilling partnership. We’re going to be a great team someday, but it won’t be without a few challenges along the way.

In the meantime, should you run across a classified ad pleading, “Naturally talented pointing dog seeks new human partner who can hit the broad side of a barn,” please know that I’m still doing my best to someday be worthy of my dog!

View Comments (7)
  • Great article Jennifer. Reminds me of my duck/pheasant/ quail hunting in the Pot Holes area. Also had a dog, a priceless hunting companion. It becomes a beautiful, non-verbal working relationship . Awesome experience ????

    • Thanks! We look forward to learning more about the Potholes, too – it seems like a great area to explore. I appreciate the kind words!

  • Right there with you. Was just telling someone at a training seminar this weekend that I feel like a 15-year-old with a learner’s permit who’d also been given a Lamborghini. I have no business with a dog that’s as awesome as my boy, less so training him, but I sure am having fun and sense he is too. My wife says he is obsessed with me after every time I take him out to the training field for bird exposure and I think she’s right. I wouldn’t worry about that single missed covey that your pup pointed. Based on the stories I hear (and I bet you’ve heard too), you’ll get plenty of opportunities to make the same mistake again and maybe even correct it a few times too!

  • Love this article! I too have recently gotten into the hunting game, primarily quail. I started dating this guy who was obsessed with his English Setter, hunting, and conservation. 2 years later, I get it! We have 5 more English Setters and they are amazing. I’ve learned how to train them, and now I’m learning how to guide quail hunts on our farm where we started up our own business. I had been on a quail hunt a year or so ago, but I didn’t fall in love with it until I was hunting over MY dogs that I helped train. Really is an amazing experience!

    • Thank you! Sounds like you have an awesome setup at your place. Thanks for sharing your story and, yeah – I get it!

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