Being able to read a bird dog’s body language can increase effective training and communication
I’m sure you noticed that you can’t make a move your bird dog doesn’t notice. It’s kind of creepy at times finding your dog at the door staring at you the moment the thought crosses your mind to go out dog training or hunting, as if they are somehow reading your mind. It’s because they’ve been studying your every move since the day you brought them home. They know things about you that you don’t even realize. They have learned to become a bilingual behaviorist to be able to read you as well as their own doggy world. We owe it to them and it’s to our benefit to attempt to figure out how to read their language to become bilingual ourselves. It’s only then we learn to develop that harmonious hunting relationship we all dream to have with our dog.
Canines primarily communicate with their world through body language. It is paramount for their survival in the wild to be motivated to learn important pack behaviours and mimic the social behaviours around them. As explained in Roger Abrante’s book, Dog Language, “The concept of motivation is highly relevant to communication patterns. There is no behaviour without motivation. Most of the dog’s facial expressions and body postures are motivated by fear, aggression, dominance/superiority and/or submission/inferiority. Motivation is also vital when teaching a dog various tricks or exercises.”
If you’re going to have any chance at all of having the right timing in dog training and drawing out your dog’s maximum hunting potential, you need to figure out how to utilize motivation in your training and be able to read what they’re telling you. Every thought, every emotion is right there for you to see, expressed throughout the dog. Every inch of a dog is like a page in a book that you can read. In the twitch of a paw, ear, tail or eye, you know how the story will end.
Similar to choosing your own adventure novel, you can often manipulate the story or at least prepare yourself for the twisted tragedy that is about to unfold. Often in gun dog training, more so in hunting, you can’t see the dog’s expressive face to see what they’re thinking. With a few tips and a little practice, you can learn to read them nose to tail, increasing your chances to avoid mistakes and catch those trainable moments. Mistakes being situations that move us back in our training, trainable moments being situations that provide us with learning opportunities to move forward. Commonly, new handlers avoid situations they perceive as mistakes, denying their dog a learning opportunity. A good example would be introducing puppies to game. For some, we want to see the pup pursue and capture the game, promoting drive where it strengthens their predatory instincts and draws out their pointing. For others, it could be a detriment, decreasing the frequency of pointing due to teaching them they can catch. How do we know if our pups need to capture game or they need birds to fly away? It’s all in reading their body language.
Becoming literate to what dogs are telling us puts us in tune to what they are thinking and provides us with the information we need to predict the future. It prepares us for that perfect timing we need, though so often alludes us. It’s the secret behind any successful trainer.
Breaking down bird dog body language
The inspiration for this article came from Nancy Anisfield’s photo here of her four dogs sitting in her field out on their daily run. It got me thinking about reading dogs and the ability of handlers to get into the heads or mindset of their dogs in correlation to their body language. Thinking about the dog’s ability to learn based on having a calm, alert or alarmed mindset. (Read: The Five Mental States of Bird Dog Training). This photo has all three. I thought it was pretty cool that based on the eyes and body language, we can tell the story of how this photo played out. Far left needed to be forced to sit causing the half-moon eyes slightly alarmed; really wanted to be somewhere else based on the head, eyes and spine alignment (alert). Second from the right is obsessive-compulsive about the bumper which had to be given to pacify him so he would sit happily though would prefer to be alone (alert). And the far right is a patiently and obediently connected dog that is confidently waiting for whatever comes next (calm).
Now let’s walk through the dog from nose to tail and investigate the anatomy of the dog in relation to some of the more easily recognizable trainable moments we can read from our dog’s movements.
Reading a dog’s nose
The cornerstone of any good hunting dog starts with the nose. The nose should drive the dog’s behavior in the field, making it essential for us to recognize and conceptualize our dog’s acute abilities to scent. We need to be able to tell when they are making game, working old scents or crittering non-game.
When a dog is pointing, you can tell a lot about the situation by watching the structure of the nose itself. You can tell when the wind shifted, if they lost the scent, if the bird is moving, is stressed, wounded or is about to fly through watching the nose. You can watch your dog scent in stereo, where each nostril moves independently of the other, sampling the air currents to determine the location of the bird and angling the nostril itself towards that scent.
When a developmental dog locates a bird they may be tempted to crowd the scent cone, wanting to get deep into that scent buffet. In doing so, they are learning how to use their nose to decipher the variants in the scent that preempt the escape of the bird. The endorphins that are released prior to flight, the scent of blood on crippled birds, the flux of scent from increased respiration, the departing body scent of moving birds, all elicit reactions from our dog which we can read.
In that learning process the dog learns to trust their nose and improves accuracy and the pointing instinct begins to be triggered more towards the fringes of scent — an important upland skill necessary to be successful at pinning birds without crowding. It’s amazing how quickly they can learn this. You can take most any finished gun dog from one region and within a matter of hours, have them successfully handling new species from across the country. It’s less about the trainer and more about the dog’s nose skills and having the ability to scent discriminate, adapting its behavior to specific scents and the bird behavior connected to those scents.
Reading a dog’s eyes
The eyes tell the whole story. It’s the most efficient way to communicate to your dog and for the dog to communicate with you. In training, it’s extremely important to be able to get your dog to focus and get them to lock in on you and patiently wait for your commands.
During steadiness we always attempt to influence our dogs by approaching from the eye versus challenging them from behind where you can’t visually influence them and where you challenge them for ownership of the game. Also, in the steadiness process you may see your dog soften on your approach and the whites of the eye begin to show, signifying your dog is alarmed by your presence. In those moments I change my mannerisms towards a supportive role that emboldens the dog.
The eyes are so expressive and difficult to ignore. To that point, we sometimes fall victim to “The Puppy Eyes” at which point the training plan goes out the window. When a dog learns to manipulate us, our training can become inconsistent and unpredictable as does our dog work.
Lastly, in a perfect world our dog locates the game scent, locks in on game, the eyes bulge forward and become affixed, telling us without any doubt that the game is there ready to be harvested. It’s in those moments we get to enjoy the fruits of our labor, making sense of all the money, time and effort we put in. Take a second, look into those eyes and be thankful for what your breeder provided you.
Reading a dog’s mouth
We can even glean information from the mouths of our dogs. As dogs become submissive they tend to yawn or lick their lips. For example, the ADD alert dog who is a distracted adolescent will likely have alternative ideas about what they would like to do. Through persistence and insistence we get our dogs to meet our training demands. In that process your dog attempts to resist and then there’s a moment where you will see them let out a low level submissive whine, followed by a yawn and licking of the lips. They essentially said, “Fine, you win” and become far more compliant for the time being.
Also, the gums and tongue can also be used to assess the health of your dog. When a dog becomes excited by scent they will use their Jacobson’s organ located behind the top jaw incisors to literally bite the air to taste and smell simultaneously; this is called the Flehmen response and can be seen while dogs are tracking or excited by a female in heat. Watering our dogs frequently keeps that gland moist allowing the dog to capture scent more efficiently. If you notice your dog panting uncontrollably, they are overheating and need to be cooled down ASAP. Dogs that are panting heavily struggle to scent well. Keeping your dog cool improves their safety and productivity in the field.
Reading a dog’s ears
I spend a lot of time training on a lead and watching ears. I find the ears to be one of the most informative tools I have next to the eyes. From the long lead position I can tell from moment to moment when I matter and when I don’t to the dog. I can tell instantly if I’m influencing the dog the way I hope to — or not.
For a dog that is alert and engaged, the ears stand forward and erect. For a dog alarmed and submissive, the ears fold back. For a dog who is ambivalent or passively disobedient, the ears will lay flat. In young dog steadiness, the dog’s decisions change very rapidly and often. I’m going to catch it. I’m going to stand. I’m going to walk away, I’m going to point. Nope, again I’m going to catch . . . You need to be on your toes watching those ears to know when to encourage the point and when to discourage the catch, remembering to keep the dog’s drive and focus forward on the bird, not on you. Watching their ears provides us with the instant feedback necessary to accomplish this.
Reading a dog’s chest and body
For those of you who have teenage boys, you know far too well the mannerisms that go along with having their new girlfriend over. They suddenly walk and talk differently, flexing to let everyone know they’re the big man on campus. They puff out their chest and can potentially become defiant. Ever notice your dog standing taller, chest out, ears erect with their tail held high, looking larger than life and not listening?
It’s a sign they need a reminder that you are the leader and that they should refocus on the job at hand. (Read: Resetting Your Bird Dog in Training) A dominant dog exhibiting this behavior over time could become aggressive if allowed and needs a reminder of their pack position. The opposite is true for dogs that shrink with the body low and curled in a submissive position. Both dogs need to be brought back into balance.
An example would be during steadiness. You may see the chest and body drop down close to the ground as the dog demonstrates self control in anticipation of the flight of the bird. At other times, when too much pressure is applied, the dog may lay down completely or begin to stand soft and small, possibly flagging or pulling off the bird completely. For dogs in the process of breaking on a bird, you can watch the body tense up, the weight shifts and how the body loads up prior to the pounce, giving you time to make the correction.
Reading a dog’s legs and feet
Look at that classic point with the foot up. This may be a shock, but they are simply between steps. Their pointing is strong enough to lock them in place. I’ve had folks go as far as telling me the front foot up indicates a woodcock, the back foot up a grouse. That step, however, is very important.
A dog that takes a step routinely will mean loss of shot opportunities. It’s the dog selfishly crowding the scent cone unable to control its own emotions. With the foot up you will see them attempting to maintain position or slowly starting to creep forward. If allowed one step, they’ll take two, then three and eventually you have created a creeper. Or worse. A foot that is planted on the ground during pointing has to load up to move. The muscles engage and the leg flexes, giving you time to prepare for the correction.
Reading the spine on a dog
A straight spine demonstrates a sure or confident dog. It can also signal dominance. Spine alignment in training cues us in on our dog’s intent. Often the spine curves towards where your dog will go next. The head and eyes may say one thing, but the spine alignment clues you into alternative ideas. This is super important when teaching retrieving and recalls, specifically lining drills. You want a dog to be able to align itself properly to the line you want them to take.
Reading a dog’s tail
Though at times misleading, the tail in certain situations says a lot about what the dog is thinking, usually in conjunction with the rest of the dog. A tail that flags on point is not ideal. Flagging is the wagging of the tail in the presence of game. (Read: Understanding and Fixing Flagging in a Bird Dog) It often means the dog is in the process of breaking. I call it, “The Catch Tail.” It could mean the dog is about to catch, lacking intensity or is nervous. Improper training can encourage flagging and should be avoided.
A tail puffed out could mean fear and aggression or over excitement at times. A happy tail can mean whatever your teaching will be for life as a dog that likes and wants to work and easily digests information. It can also mean aggression, anxiety, and stress. A tail that is drooping is an indicator of questioning, confusion or displeasure and the dog will resist or avoid those activities. Negative reactions such as this are fine when snake- or porcupine-proofing, though we need to be careful not to create passivity around important areas of development.
Why reading a dog’s body language is important
Often, handlers are in such a rush to get their dog towards the finish line that they overlook the obvious needs of their dog unfolding in front of them and thereby miss that visually obvious trainable moment. Not paying attention to our dog’s behaviors is like driving blind. You don’t have to be a behaviorist; simply pay closer attention and do your part to learn from what you see. It will pay itself back in dividends, I promise. Good luck all and happy training.
Jason Carter is a NAVHDA judge, NADKC member, director of youth development, secretary of NAVHDA’s youth committee, clinic leader and trainer at Merrymeeting Kennels. He has been around versatile hunting dogs his entire life, literally! Born into the Carter family and Merrymeeting Kennels, he attended his first NAVHDA test in Bowdoinham, Maine, when he was just a year of age. Jason successfully trains, tests and breeds Deutsch Kurzhaars in both the NAVHDA and NADKC testing systems. Through his work at the kennel, Jason has had the opportunity to develop pointers, flushers and retrievers over the years. When October arrives he can be found with family and friends hunting throughout New England.