Though it was nearly 40 years ago, I remember my first day guiding professionally like it was yesterday. The head guide and trainer pulled me into his office for a chat.
“Tracey, I have a training recommendation for you,” he said.
“Well, hold on a minute. Let me go out to the truck and get my notebook,” I said.
“Don’t bother,” he said. “This won’t take long.”
He reached into his desk drawer, pulled out a roll of duct tape, and tore off a strip. He walked around the desk, stood in front of me, and placed that tape over my mouth. My eyes couldn’t get any wider.
“There,” he said. “Now you can be a good dog trainer. Right now, you talk too much.”
His advice was spot on. As a full-time guide and dog trainer, I feel that chatter and over-commanding are the biggest issues I see between clients and their dogs. For some reason, nonstop talking gives some handlers a sense that they’re in control of the dog. They believe the constant communication improves the dog’s situational performance, and that somehow the chatter motivates pups to cast better or to remain staunchly on point. But most of those commands fall on deaf ears as the dog tunes out its owner. And when it comes to bird dogs, tuning out an owner is never a good idea.
Let the dog work..
A well-bred bird dog knows instinctively what to do. Its genetics are such that the handler’s role is to bring out the best qualities in the dog while reducing the mistakes. That can only be achieved if the dog is listening to the command and is given the opportunity to follow that command. Let the dog work, and allow him to finish one task before giving him another. Praise him when he does things right, and view mistakes as opportunities for improvement. It’s as simple as that.
Avoid changing commands..
Nothing confuses a dog as much as a handler who varies commands. Sometimes they’ll say “come,” another time they’ll say “come over here,” while a third time they might say “here.” I see dogs balk when their session is over, and most of the time the commands vary from “kennel up” to “load up” to “get in the box.” Identify a short list of commands, and stick to them. Keep them simple, and don’t introduce a variety of options. You’ll get better performance out of your dog.
Say what you mean, and mean what you say..
After handlers simplify the number of commands, it’s important that when one is given, the dog obeys. To a driver, a red traffic light means stop, while green means go. It’s the same with dogs. When a handler issues a command, the dog needs to obey—not just occasionally, but every time. Dogs that are allowed to do what they want after a command is given will become headstrong. Headstrong dogs are harder to train than obedient dogs.
Dogs are visual and they read body language. That’s a prime reason why unspoken directives easily fill in the gaps between verbal commands. As a full-time grouse guide, I want my dogs to cast in front of me. They need to check in periodically, and when they do, they need to adjust their run so that they cast in front of my shoulders in the arc between 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock. When I change direction they know they need to change direction, too.
Other unspoken directives are pointing or whistle training. If I want the dog to hit a different area—say on the opposite side of a logging road—I’ll watch for them to check in with me. When they do, I’ll hold out my arm in the direction of that area and walk toward that area, and they’ll move along as well. Whistle training is excellent for handling dogs at a distance, in the early season’s full foliage, or on a windy day. I whistle train my dogs so when they hear a long, single blast they’ll cast in the direction of the whistle. A double blast brings them all the way in, and I don’t have to say a word.
Simplify your dog training by keeping commands and chatter to a minimum. Fewer, clearer messages help keep your dog focused and obedient. When it comes to commands, less really is more.