At the center of bird dog training and handling is a community of inherited thought and practice, as well as the drive to innovate on already established methods
For those of us whose hearts have been enthralled by bird dogs and bird dog training, it’s easy to imagine as beginners that everything we do is tied by a silver cord to an ancient past and that there’s one tried-and-true process for training a bird dog, passed down in an unbroken generational succession from master to disciple.
There’s some truth to all that, but just a little. Our dogs’ genes and breeding may reach back a few centuries, and a working and companionate relationship between Canis familiaris and Homo sapiens stretches back many millennia. And while the ways dogs learn and communicate with each other and with us is somewhat constant, our training methods have almost always been in a state of flux—the bends in the river of progress prompted by technological developments, changing cultural attitudes, continually emerging needs, techniques and tools, and careful observation.
And, sometimes, genius masters meet up with aspiring students and the results worked out over the hundreds and even thousands of dogs each have under their belts can produce innovative magic.
Innovations in the HuntSmith System
I first became aware of an example of innovation in the HuntSmith system when attending a 2018 Rick Smith weekend foundation seminar. Upon arrival, I was intrigued to see a few obstacles scattered in the field; equipment I hadn’t seen in the Huntsmith DVDs. Rick later explained to us that its purpose was two-fold: to provide the dogs with less pressure-filled obedience tasks between the whoa-post sessions we were about to learn—which would also reinforce the handler’s leadership with a Smith command lead—and the later associated check cord and e-collar.
He explained that bird dog training should complement the things any well-bred bird dog would do perfectly well without us (hunt, smell game, indicate its whereabouts, briefly point, etc.) and teach the dog to follow the handler’s lead to do the things a dog doesn’t naturally want to do. A bird dog doesn’t naturally always want to go with us or come to us. A bird dog doesn’t want to stay still for long in its natural pause (point) before pouncing. So, the various pieces of obstacle equipment can serve as the objects upon which the dog’s mental discipline, learning, decision-making process, and trust of its handler are first established, well before being asked to realize similar goals in the much more distracting and drive-provoking contexts involving birds, like an open field with game birds.
In the Smith system, the traditional whoa post-process prepares a dog for later steadiness training and associating the flank e-collar. At Orapax, where Lincoln and I train, trainer Neal Kauder first explained to me a technique that Sonny Piekarz, of Wisconsin-based Haycreek Kennel, uses with the command lead and agility tasks. This allows some dogs and handlers to either skip or not solely rely upon the whoa post-process in the step of associating the flank e-collar for standing still and stopping. While the result Lincoln and I achieved with the traditional whoa post was all the testimonial I’ve ever needed for that core Smith tool and method, I have been deeply impressed by the results this agility innovation has produced in many of the dogs I’ve seen trained by Neal at Orapax. I’ve subsequently taken Lincoln through the series of tasks to learn the technique myself and as a complement to the whoa post-based training we’d already established.
What has blown me away, though, is seeing that same agility equipment and associated technique used to eliminate the ear pinch and toe hitch methods used in traditional force fetch.
Training fetch is one of the core bird dog training tasks that is consistent across the various bird dog training systems and evidences the least amount of innovation. This is with the notable exception of the fetch training method now employed and taught by Jordan Wells, a Long Island-based kennel owner and trainer who claims both Smith and Piekarz as his most significant mentors. Wells teaches a bird dog to fetch just like any agility-like task to be mastered in the same way. Having witnessed it first-hand this past summer at an Orapax seminar with Wells and Lincoln, who had already been traditionally force-fetched, as well as with several other advanced dogs not already force-fetched, I can testify that the Wells method of fetch is incredibly effective. For many dogs and handlers who have already used the agility methods to get a dog to respond to the handler’s cues to stop and stand still (foundational to later steadiness training), the Wells method can offer a much faster route to achieving a finished fetch than a traditional force fetch method.
A dog that hasn’t been through an agility confidence course can still be brought through the method, but agility task mastery does have to be established first. While results are sure to vary in the hands of those first learning his method, Wells reports being able to get a dog through his method to a finished fetch state in as fast as 1 1/2 weeks for a dog with a decent instinctual retrieve—adding three to four days to establish agility mastery first if the dog hasn’t already been brought through that process—far short of the duration typically required by a traditional force fetch regimen (4-6 weeks).
The inspiration behind the innovation of the Smith method
In conversation after the fetch seminar, Wells helped me understand just how directly Rick inspired both him and Piekarz in their innovative agility-based training techniques. Leading one of his weekend seminars in 2015, Smith first met Wells who was working at the seminar location at the time. That location just happened to have an agility obedience component and Smith, with an always curious and open mind where dogs are concerned, couldn’t help but be intrigued by these tools of another dog training discipline.
He explained to Wells that anything that a dog doesn’t naturally want to do can be used to prepare the dog’s mind for bird dog training, so why not use whatever’s available, even these decidedly non-bird dog agility obstacles? Smith contacted Piekarz, convinced there was something to this agility obedience course they could incorporate directly into bird dog training, and suggested he travel to the kennel and meet with and mentor Wells as a talented protégé. Piekarz went on to more fully develop the command lead and agility method in the process leading up to associating the flank collar to get a dog to stop and stand still on command.
Wells then extended this same equipment and method for fetch, inviting cooperation and decision-making by the dog much earlier into that process as well. Witnessing the method, it’s also apparent that, as a background task performed while making the initial fetch associations, the agility tasks also vacuum up what would be unproductive energy that might be expressed in anxiety or resistance to the new foreground task of fetch. Having already established the dog’s cooperation with the handler in the earlier foundational process, and by utilizing the previously established training language of command lead cue that is subsequently replaced by an associated momentary e-collar cue, no continuous pressure nor pain are required in Jordan’s application of foreground fetch task itself.
While the rest of the Wells Fetch Method looks similar to traditional force fetch programs which take the dog back to the beginning with each new object to be fetched, the dog doesn’t have to learn a brand new aversive stimulus nor work through the typical anxiety and frustration that are a part of establishing the initial associations in traditional force fetch. This not only saves time but also puts more distance between yet another advanced task involving birds and more aversive forms of pressure that are effectively used in the initial association-building processes of foundational training. That further separation of aversive pressure and birds makes unintended bird aversion and drive-diminishment less likely.
Rick Smith’s thoughts on the innovation
One may be left to wonder what an actual Smith might think about a Smith-taught trainer making such an innovative move into fetch with the training inheritance he’s received. I didn’t have to, as Smith attended the Wells Fetch Method seminar this past summer with us.
“Nobody—and I mean nobody—out there is doing what Jordan’s doing with this,” Rick told me as an aside after the seminar.
He seemed every bit as awed as the rest of us to witness the almost magical effectiveness of Wells’ fetch training technique, using and extending for a new task the same foundational techniques Smith and his family had pioneered. Shaking his head a little—and with a trademark Smith twinkle in the eye and gigantic smile—Smith stood up at the end of the seminar, all of us leaning forward dying to know what he thought of all this.
“Ladies and gentlemen, today, the teacher has become the student,” he said.
I’d push back just a little on that. I don’t think it’s too much of a paradox to say that by recognizing his own genius students’ talents and abilities to not just master, but also to innovatively extend what had been taught—and by being willing to become an open and curious student of what his students develop—Rick will always be a supreme teacher.
It might even be said that to be a true bird dog teacher is to always be a bird dog student. At its very best, that’s the essence of bird dog training and handling, a community of inherited thought and practice; its practitioners continually inspired by the dogs and each other, always pushing forward the betterment of our dogs and their ancient and evolving relationships with us.
Robb Moore has pursued the meaning of life from Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the Kathmandu valley to the ivory towers of the academy, to Christian ritual as clergy, and hospital bedsides. Recruited as a bird hunter in his mid-40s by his spunky Brittany pup, Lincoln, he is still on the hunt, but only for birds, his heart having found its rest in walking meditation and the Tao of Bird Dogs. [More musings at amanandhisbirddog.com/blog]