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At this point in my career, between writing assignments and hosting a weekly podcast on sporting dogs, I’ve interviewed well over 100 dog trainers. Most of them boast years—if not decades—of training experience, and are fortunate to get to work with dozens and dozens of bird dogs each year.
When you’re lucky enough to chat with these folks, you start to see patterns emerge in their training styles and philosophies that transcend individual as well as specific dog breeds. More often than not, they reference training the dogs’ owners on what behaviors are necessary to create a quality bird dog.
This rarely goes the way most of us think it should.
Dogs Know How to Hunt
There’s plenty of debate on how long the canine/human relationship has been evolving, but the best guesses peg it at thousands of years. Some of the more interesting research coming out lately in the dog world has highlighted the vast difference between how domestic dogs can bond with us (and other animals), while their wolf cousins simply don’t possess the same go-with-the-flow, symbiotic proclivities.
This is interesting on its own, but it also doesn’t take a very extensive Google search to see that we’ve not only bonded with dogs for a long time, but have hunted with them, too. Most of our current sporting breeds boast European ancestry and some role as a game-finder in their histories. Many of them were used for a wide variety of big game recovery tasks, as well as upland or waterfowl work.
While some members of those breeds might serve as nothing more than couch potato companion animals, many of them are still used to hunt. They are also, not coincidentally, the dogs we are interested in. And while we are quite familiar with our Labs and GSPs, we also still tend to believe that it is our job to teach them how to hunt. It’s not. Well, not really.
The moment a well-bred litter hits the dirt, those dogs possess an incredible amount of genetic material that makes them well-suited for flushing roosters or retrieving ducks in the chop. The most impressive example of this is a six-week-old pointer that is exposed to a pheasant wing for the first time and does his best to lock up in a tripod point, despite having no previous exposure to birds at all.
A little, wobbly-legged pointer doing what pointers do is impressive, and it’s not much different from a Lab getting a snootful of quail or pheasant scent and rushing in to see what that’s all about. Dogs bred for hunting pretty much know the basics of what they are supposed to do, long before we ever come into their lives.
Now, you might say that an upland puppy doesn’t know how to quarter correctly or stay within 20 yards of you in the ruffed grouse woods, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But that also means they just don’t know how to hunt within the parameters of what we want out of them during a hunt.
Staying close, or sitting tight in a duck blind, is a far cry from the hunting they are driven to do, but it’s necessary. And that’s where we come in.
Natural vs. Unnatural
Hunting, in its basic dog form, is pretty natural for well-bred sporting dogs. Listening to us while they are doing it, is not. Just as running out and grabbing a bird comes naturally to a lot of dogs, but softly carrying that bird back to us and delivering it to hand when we ask, does not. As amateur handlers, we run into these issues all the time, and how we address them will result in either a dog that is an asset in the field, or generally a pain in the ass.
It will also set the tone for how our lives with our dogs will go. Take steadiness, for example. There might be nothing more unnatural to a dog—especially a young dog—than steadiness. A first-grader version of a dog isn’t likely to want to sit still when there is so much to explore, and unless you’re dealing with a dog that just doesn’t have any horsepower under the hood, that’s exactly what they’ll do.
You can work with their desire to explore through socialization and retrieving drills and view it as a positive, which both certainly can be. But eventually, your dog is going to have to learn to sit still and only go when you release him.
This is a basic good-dog behavior, and it results in a safer, more enjoyable experience in the field. If you hunt waterfowl at all, it’s arguably the most important unnatural quality to instill in your dog. If you’ve ever been in a duck blind with a dog that doesn’t have the whole steadiness thing down, you know what I’m talking about.
This transcends every aspect of your life with a dog, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who told me their dog was too steady in the house, or listened too well when a guest knocked on the door. That’s like someone saying they got into too good of shape for a chukar hunt. Not gonna happen.
You might be thinking that this is just a long-winded case for obedience training, and again, you’re not really wrong. The whole idea behind looking at what’s natural and unnatural to our dogs is to understand how it can inform our training and allow us to focus on what’s really important.
The Why of Training
We all know what types of training we should do with a dog, and ideally, we’d all follow a baby-step formula that covers every facet of developing a good dog throughout years of structured drills. That’s utopia-level thinking, and it doesn’t have much bearing on the real world. Most of us have a limited amount of time each day to devote to our dog’s education, and limited experience to draw upon.
With that reality, it pays to think about what’s most important to a dog’s development, and to build a plan around that. This is where it gets tricky, because we tend to lean toward what is most fun, but not necessarily what is most beneficial for our dogs.
It’s fun to take the Lab down to the beach and toss a dummy into the water over and over again. The dog gets to do what it loves while getting plenty of exercise, and we feel like we’ve done a good thing for him. We have, but if we didn’t work in some steadiness and release work, or maybe some blind retrieves with hand signals or e-collars thrown in, what did we do? We worked with the dog’s natural drive to retrieve, and not much more.
Maybe a better example is what we do around the house with our dogs. Making them wait for meals, to go out a door, or sit in their place when the UPS guy delivers a package to your front steps isn’t as fun as winging a dummy into the lake and watching your dog hard-charge into the water, but it’s awful beneficial. Especially if you do those things every day from a very young age, so that the dog learns that this behavior is the only behavior that will be tolerated (and if necessary, rewarded).
This is not unlike getting ourselves in shape. It’s fun to mix up a protein shake and slurp it down, but not all that fun to go to the gym every day to knock out a 5K on the treadmill. But one is vastly better for us than the other and will lead to much better long-term gains.
Ask yourself why you’re training your dog the way you are, and what benefits will come from each drill. If it’s nothing more than a fun retrieving exercise to knock the edge off a high-drive dog, so be it. But know that that’s not the answer to the question on how to develop a great dog overall.
This takes a much more methodical process that’s less fun, at least at first. Eventually, when your dog really starts to develop, then the whole thing becomes far more enjoyable and will feel less like 10 mini chores each day that you have to do with your dog.
A Blending of The Two
If you commit yourself to a puppy and the reality that you’ll have to do a lot of work to get him to understand the unnatural behavior you’ll require of him, eventually you’ll realize that the natural and unnatural start to blend together. A great example of this is a seasoned dog that often checks back to its owner while in the field.
Even though the dog probably wants to charge ahead to find more roosters, he knows that he is required to stay close, and likely in front, of his owner. While he’s working up fresh scent and trying to find the next flush (natural), he’s also mindful of his owner’s position in relation to his, and the direction of travel (unnatural).
A seasoned waterfowl retriever will learn that the longer he sits still and quiet, the more chances he’ll have to be sent into the water to retrieve ducks and geese. Again, the reward for unnatural behavior is getting to engage in natural behavior, and good training will allow him to see that the outcome is in his control.
That’s no small thing, and it’s possible with all bird dogs. It just takes the unfortunate reality that we need to tamp down what we want to do with our dogs and what we should do with our dogs, because the two are rarely the same thing.