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Training to the Character of Your Gun Dog
Not all gun dogs are created equal, or personalities, or characters and those details matter
“I don’t know who or what possessed my dog, but he just systematically relocated every bird into the next county!”
If you have been in this game any time at all, you have been in a similar situation where things simply fall apart at the worst possible moments. Usually during a test or when you’re bragging to your buds on how amazing your bird dog works. It’s in these moments where we get to see the unadulterated character of our dog, highlighting weaknesses in our own foundational work, reminding us how bad things can truly get when the wheels come off.
“Bird dog training at its core is behavior modification reliant upon catching your dog in the thought process and being able to read their emotions.”
These are most certainly not the most enjoyable moments we have with our dog, though it does show us the holes in our training. It’s at this point we are forced to rummage through our bag of training tools (techniques) in hopes of finding the right tool for the job. And hopefully, one that matches the dog’s character at that moment, coining the phrase, “Train towards the character of your dog.”
Bird dog training at its core is behavior modification reliant upon catching your dog in the thought process and being able to read their emotions. Doing so allows us to predict behaviors before they occur, thereby maximizing the potential for learning. Also, the character of the dog at that moment and the behaviors they are exhibiting dictates the amount of pressure required to gain compliance.
Pressure comes in various forms. Understanding pressure and how to use it is entirely another article in itself. Basically, pressure can be generated in a variety of ways. Food pressure is when the dog feels internal pressure to perform for treats. The leash and collar is an example of physical pressure. Standing in the proximity of your dog places spatial pressure on them and using corrective tones places verbal pressure on them. Social pressure can even come from the competition of using other dogs.
It’s our job to do our homework to learn how to best utilize pressure to become great teachers for our dogs. Training them to understand how to avoid or turn off the pressure, then driving them up to work while maintaining balanced attention, accuracy, and attitude. Always remember that a dog that has to work acts differently than a dog that desiresto work. Finishing each lesson with the dog wanting more.
Imagine now the possible emotions you would take on if I provided you with a large stack of cash, yet the moment you reached for it I applied heavy physical and verbal pressure on you. Some of you would run for the hills, some of you would stop, thoughtfully assess the situation and wait, where others would selflessly dive head first into the stack yelling, “Show me the money!”
These personality characteristics or reactions are largely genetically reinforced by your parents, with a fair amount of environmental influence thrown in, as well. Basically, you are just wired that way. To get each of you to wait patiently, you can imagine the amounts of pressure I would need to apply would vary wildly. The same is true when dealing with the character of your dogs.
What if I intermittently gave you some cash because I felt bad for you? The payoff would set you back towards where you started, muddying the waters towards confusion. Being a consistent leader is essential to learning. It takes many hours and layers of consistent and predictable training to create good behavior. Though it takes just one mistake at the wrong time to create bad behavior.
A dog’s character is perpetually in emotional flux, requiring you to be fluid in how you handle them. For example, watch a pointing dog and carefully study the dog’s emotions as its handler approaches them and the bird. Often you will see the dog flinch, eyes become fixed and ears perk forward as the body stiffens, loading into catch mode. Conversely, you may see the whites of the eyes begin to show, nervous flagging start and the dog loosens its pointing stance or may even lay down or retreat from the bird altogether.
These antecedent behaviors are a series of reactions to your steadiness (steadiness begins the moment the dog realizes the presence of its handler.) exercises. Behaviors, especially in young dogs, can be abrupt and overt, at other times subtle or even invisible to the untrained eye. It takes a laser-focused trainer to be able to deal with these emotions at the right time. One that requires them to shift quickly from the punishment mindset to reinforcement and back as the dog’s character shifts.
It is impossible to do this if you are distracted in conversation, watching the bird or even worse, taking on the exhibiting emotion yourself. However, if done correctly, from outward appearances one would think you are batshit crazy. Shifting back and forth instantly from the happy, “Atta boy!” tone to the “Bad dog! Don’t you do that again!” tone, all the while matching your tone to the character of the dog. As a rule, the volume of your commands should be limited to the level the dog can hear. It’s our tone that draws out emotional responses that help us shape behavior.
Though you may vary your volume, it’s the inflection in your command that lets the dog know when you’re unhappy, no matter how loud you get. Your tonal bipolar mannerisms help the dog realize in the moment what they are doing is good or bad. Those theatrical emotional reactions generate teachable moments in the training process. It will create clarity, motivation, and understanding while painting a clear picture for your dog. In the end, we are training towards learning while maintaining mental balance. Mental balance being a calm or alert dog that is ready to take in information, keeping in mind that if we go too high into praise or too deep into punishment we lose balance and understanding.
A mother weaning her pup is the perfect example of how to scaffold your training towards the character of your dog. As a pup approaches its mother, the mother will visually posture and may curl a lip. If the puppy persists, she’ll escalate to a verbal growl with an aggressive bark. If still the puppy persists, the mother will verbally and physically pin the pup and mouth it harmlessly until the pup submits. Once the pup gives up the pursuit, she will lick the pup, reassuring them that all is okay with the world. Her discipline of undesirable behavior is absolute.
“Too often folks muck the waters attempting to humanize their dogs and let their emotional attachments interfere with their training choices.”
This illustrates perfectly how we should communicate as handlers. There is no grey area here to confuse the pup. As the bitch never nags her pups, nor should we. Nagging is a habit trainers get into that is simply an inefficient and ineffective way to shape behavior. Too often folks muck the waters attempting to humanize their dogs and let their emotional attachments interfere with their training choices. This prevents them from having the right timing and being able to give the appropriate level of correction when necessary. Instead, they second guess themselves and begin to hack and nag their dog incessantly — thus stealing the joy of the hunt from you, the dog and everyone around you that has to listen. We all should strive to be the pack leader for our dogs. Being fair and absolute balances our dogs mentally, giving them one less thing to think about during the hunt or training.
It’s also important to note the pitfalls of being a one-trick pony, as every dog learns differently. Adding tools and developing a variety of approaches is essential if we are going to meet the needs of the genetic packages we are provided. It’s essential that we are capable of tweaking our approaches to meet each dog’s individual characteristics as they appear. It certainly takes time to develop these skills, copious amounts of patience and realistically some guidance from folks who have been there before.
Your evolution as a dog trainer is dependent on the time you spend with boots on the ground. Don’t worry if you crash and burn, as burning is learning. Have fun, be a thoughtful and fair trainer, and success will eventually find both you and your dog.
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.
Very well written, I can see you’ve had an opportunity to work a wide variety of dogs. Excellent description of dog character and how you need to fluently move between positive and negative pressures to get results.