Cooperation is a foundation of a dog’s success, but the failures lie in a handler’s ability to read a dog.
The young wirehaired dog lets out a happy yip as it wraps the jager lead around the handler’s legs who spins to unwind himself, tugs on the lead, and again commands “heel” exactly as the group leader demonstrated moments ago. Or so he thought. The dog, now seemingly irritated, dashes off and the handler nearly falls over as the dog reaches the end of the lead and flips to his back with a thud. A calm voice from behind asks: “May I handle your dog?” It’s the group leader. “Sure,” the handler sheepishly responds, handing off the jager, the leather still wiry with newness. The group leader walks away silently holding the lead as the young dog begins to yield and is at a heel by the 10th step. The handler is left in awe. “How did they do that?” he wonders with a murmur.
It’s a scene that I have seen repeatedly at countless dog training events. Occasionally I was the group leader and often I’ve been the embarrassed handler. If you have ever shared this experience, like me you probably assumed it was witchcraft. Bolstering this magical sense is that the group leader will have a hard time describing what exactly they did differently. This is because what was done differently is not so simply explained and is usually gained only through experience.
You may have heard this described as the ability to “read” a dog. I find this term interesting because it contains an implication that may hide its true definition. When you think of the word “reading,” what comes to mind? I see logs burning in the fireplace, two fingers of whiskey in a crystal tumbler, a roan Spinone balled up on a coach, and an endless stack of books. I don’t see anything that helps me understand or communicate with a dog as if I am a witch.
So what does reading have to do with communicating in this context? Another way to describe the ability to “read” a dog might be to say that someone can listen to, or understand a dog. So the group leader was better at understanding what the dog was communicating at any given moment. This superior communication made cooperation between the group leader and the dog much more likely. This ability comes in handy because understanding a dog gives insight into what a dog is thinking. This, in turn, allows you to better communicate to the dog what you are thinking. Because this communication is often imperceptible to the uninitiated it might as well be magic to them. It’s what might be described as a feeling or a sixth sense.
So, if we are still learning to “read” a dog—and honestly who among us isn’t?—experience is the only way to get better. Maybe we should turn from the what and take stock of the how. Or in other words how does a dog think? Scientists studying animal cognition have done some work in this area but it is an ever-evolving field with more left to be done. With that in mind, the following study caught my eye. Let’s see if we can tease out any insights into our bird dogs.
The Science of Reading a Dog
A group of researchers decided to study the stress response of dogs that found their way into a shelter. They wanted to know if petting sessions would reduce the dog’s stress response, which they tested by measuring the cortisol levels in the blood. Reducing stress levels would allow the dogs to adjust to the shelter environment more quickly and a well-adjusted dog is more likely to be adopted than a stressed dog.
Researchers measured cortisol levels by taking blood samples before and after 20-minute petting sessions. But, the results were not as expected. Some of the dogs showed a significantly reduced stress response while others didn’t. What was even stranger was that dogs that had a reduced stress response had female petters, while the ones that didn’t show a reduction had male petters.
This raised the question: why were female petters more effective at reducing stress levels in dogs than their male counterparts? Was it something indescribable? Can the dogs smell and react differently to estrogen then they do testosterone? Or were the female petters simply just better at petting a dog? If the female petters were better there was no obvious reason as all the petters were reported to have similar experience levels with dogs and similar petting techniques.
The researchers set out to answer this question in a second study set up much like the first. Except in this study the female petters trained the male petters. The following are the petting instructions taken directly from the research paper.
“Petter should gently encourage the dog to maintain body contact with the petter. The dog should be encouraged to lean against the petter, sit, or lie down. The dog’s size and controllability are factors in the position.
The petter should strive for a deep massage to the dog’s shoulder, back, and neck muscles, or long, firm strokes of the hand from the dog’s head to the hind quarters. Since the petter will not be just working to move the skin, but the underlying muscle, pressure should vary from medium to firm. Petter will need to allow his/her intuition and the dog’s response to guide him/her. Throughout the session, the petter should speak to the dog in a calm and soothing voice.”
The female petters trained the male petters until they were satisfied with their ability. Researchers conducted the experiment again and observed that both female and male petters were able to reduce the shelter dogs’ stress responses. As it turns out, the female petters were simply better petters. But the good news was that this was not witchcraft or magic. In fact it just took a little instruction and practice for the male petters to get up to speed.
If we take a closer look at the female petters’ instruction there is one sentence that stands out to me. And it’s the only sentence that does not describe the physical action of petting: “Petter will need to allow his/her intuition and the dog’s response to guide him/her.” In other words the petter will need to “read” the dog for the petting to produce the desired physiological effect in the dog.
The act of petting our dogs is so ingrained in us that I would guess you can feel the sensation of your dog’s fur in the palm of your hand and in between your fingers just from reading this sentence. Yet this simple and common act may hold the key to better communication between you and your dog. It may be the easiest way to learn to “read” your dog more effectively.
A dog’s proclivity towards cooperation is often touted as the most important factor in a hunting dog’s success. Yet, the old adage is that cooperation is given, not trained. I believe this adage to be true but I also know that cooperation thrives in good communication. So, cooperation may not be able to be trained into a dog but it seems likely it can be fostered between a dog and a handler. I’m going to start by petting my dogs like the women petters above to see what I can learn. I encourage you to do the same.
Authors Note: I became interested in this topic after reading The Genius Of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think. I plan a series of articles on how dog cognition relates to our beloved bird dogs, their training, and our training. I encourage the interested readers to read the aforementioned book as many of the studies I plan to reference will be taken directly from the notes of this book. Also please contact me with any books or research in this area that you think I may find germane.
Hennessy, Michael & Williams, Michael & Miller, Deborah & Douglas, Chet & Voith, Victoria. (1998). Influence of male and female petters on plasma cortisol and behaviour: Can human interaction reduce the stress of dogs in a public animal shelter? Applied Animal Behaviour Science – APPL ANIM BEHAV SCI. 61. 63-77. 10.1016/S0168-1591(98)00179-8.
Hare, B. and Woods, V., 2013. The Genius Of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think.
Scott Frasier is a Michigan-based freelance outdoors writer who has been wrapped in the tradition of hunting his whole life. A former police officer, Scott has been hands-on in a variety of dog training methods, from police canines to bird dogs, for more than a decade. When not writing, Scott can usually be found in the grouse woods, training dogs at a NAVHDA event, or helping his wife with their latest litter of Spinoni.