Maybe the most common mistake dog owners make is trying to teach their pups by talking them through a process. Everyone knows that bird dogs don’t speak English, at least not more than a handful of words anyway, but living in a world where so much communication is based on spoken language, we just can’t help trying to explain out loud what we want a dog to do. This will get you and your dog nowhere in a hurry.
If you’ve been at this more than a season or two, you’ve been around that guy who is a constant stream of chatter in the field. And he’s not talking to you. A conversation with him isn’t possible because he’s giving his dog a non-stop set of instructions. The sad part is that the more he talks, the less his dog listens, which creates an endless cycle of more getting less.
All of us do this to some degree, but if you truly want to get out of your dog’s way and let him learn, you need to dial it back and only use your mouth in the right situations.
Dogs really don’t know what you’re saying
As explained in Don’t Ruin Your Bird Dog (a guide to not screwing up your pup), it’s not hard to imagine how your dog feels when you tell him what you want him to do. Have you ever been in a foreign country where you didn’t speak the language? Even if you know a few words, when a local starts jabbering at you and it’s apparent he wants something, all the words in his dictionary aren’t going to help you know what he wants. On the other hand, if he shows you what he wants, things get easier in a hurry.
It’s the same with your dog. The first thing you taught him when he was a pup was probably the Sit command. Very simple, one-word command accompanied by slight upward tug on the lead and slight downward push on his rear end. You didn’t have to tell him to keep his front legs straight or to bend his rear knees or to swing his tail out to the side. You didn’t have to tell him not to run in circles or not to bark or not to jump up and down. A single word along with some hand contact was all it took.
Think about this the next time you’re trying to get your dog to comply. How many times do you repeat the command? Do you throw in a bunch of come ons and this ways and let’s gos? All unnecessary. Remember, dogs don’t speak English, right?
Take it from a pro
My friend and pro trainer Mo Lindley taught me a lot about the value of not talking while training. Several years after he trained my first dog, Mo contracted Meniere’s Syndrome and subsequently lost his hearing. What seems like a century ago (it was actually the March/April 2002 issue), I wrote a piece about this for The Pointing Dog Journal in which I noted how quiet the field was when he worked a dog.
Mo said he stopped talking to the dogs because he wasn’t sure how loudly he was speaking and didn’t want to startle them. As a result, he became much more aware of body language – both his and the dog’s – when sound was taken out of the equation, and realized how useless most of the talking was. He still teaches the Here command and occasionally lets out a yell to get a distant dog to change direction in the field, but most of the time the only sound you’ll hear is boots walking through grass or the flap of a bird’s wings.
Watching him work I’ve become more aware of all the talking I do and how much can be accomplished without it. You may have heard the expression “addition by subtraction” and this is a prime example.
When it’s ok to talk
While you could conceivably never speak a word to your dog and end up with a fine hunting partner, voice commands do come in handy. Being able to get your dog’s attention and direct him is extremely useful when he’s out of arm’s reach and isn’t looking at you. The best of these are one word, maybe coupled with the dog’s name to get his attention. I’ve taught mine several that are more than one word like “get out of the kitchen” and “do you need to go outside”, but for the most part they’re only picking up a word or two and acting on it. Again, less is more.
It’s useful to overlay voice commands with hand signals because if your dog lives long enough, he’s going to lose his hearing and it’s really nice to have some level of control over him without yelling at the top of your lungs.
While there are a few dogs with enormous vocabularies, these are the exception and still aren’t truly conversational. Knowing a thousand words isn’t very useful in the field if he can’t put them together in sentences and understand them in context. As much as we might like to believe they do, bird dogs don’t speak English.
As a side note, and this isn’t a secret to most dog owners, dogs make great (i.e. cheap) therapists. They’ll listen for hours and never violate your confidentiality. Use them as often as needed for this purpose.
Try this tomorrow
Whether training or just out for a run, limit the conversation with your dog to voice commands only. I’m talking about here, fetch, heel, sit and such, just the basics, and be sparing with those. If you want a really unique experience, put some earplugs in before you start and see how it affects your urge to speak.
If you’d like to read the Pointing Dog Journal article about Mo Lindley, click below to preview or download a copy.