Don’t Ruin Your Bird Dog (a guide to not screwing up your pup)

Most of the advice you’ll find on owning a bird dog, whether in books or at seminars or online, centers on the nuts and bolts of training and handling. Usually presented as a technique for teaching the dog a skill or behavior, it likely covers everything you need to know to build the behavior into the pup. Everything except how you fit into the equation, and this might be the most important factor if you don’t want to ruin your bird dog.

How you fit into the equation is at least as important as any technique for the dog. Given the right genetics and an ample supply of wild birds, many dogs are capable of training themselves, which begs the question of whether you as a dog owner need to do anything other than stay out of the way? The short answer is yes. The long answer is why we’re here.

A saying often attributed to Hippocrates and drilled into the heads of medical students could easily apply to owning a bird dog:

First, do no harm

In other words, as you work on turning that pup into the perfect hunter, don’t ruin him in the process. Far more damage is done by owners who mean well and don’t realize they’re making things worse. This guide covers the main ideas that, if made a part of your routine, allow your pup to learn without you sabotaging the effort.

These ideas will work whether you’re training your own bird dog or having a professional do most of the work for you. If you’re a DIYer, congratulations. Few experiences are as rewarding to a hunter as training his dog. If you lack the time or the setup to do it yourself, however, by all means outsource it to a pro. There’s no shame in either path as long as they’re done for the right reasons.

In either case it’s vital to know how to keep from doing more harm than good. If you only remember one thing you read today, remember these facts:

How timelines, talking, emotions and awareness impact your bird dog.

Digging a little deeper…

Why time doesn’t matter

Hunting season is never more than 9 months away and no matter what time of year you get a puppy you’re going to be counting the days until the opener. It’s okay, everybody does it. There’s nothing wrong with looking forward to the day you can take your dog hunting. That’s why you got him, right?

Things runs afoul when owners try to compress the training to fit the space on the calendar between now and opening day. Rushing the process is a sure way to ruin a promising bird dog, and I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Let the dog set the schedule

If it seems a little backward to let the dog dictate the training schedule it’s probably because that’s not how we typically approach a task. Whether it’s a project at the office or spring cleaning or planning a party, the standard routine is to figure out the deadline and work backwards. Divvy up the things that need to be done, put them in order with dates and times and get rolling. If something unexpected comes up, we just work faster or put in longer hours to stay on track.

Learning, however, is different. It can’t be force-fed to someone at a rate that the person isn’t capable of handling. Imagine trying to get a week’s worth of nutrition into your child in one day by shoving 21 meals into her. Pretty quickly things begin to back up and then it gets worse and worse every time you try to cram another bite in. It works the same way with learning.

Any training program can be run at a pace that’s right for your dog. Don’t ever be afraid or ashamed to slow down, back up, and then move forward when your dog shows he’s ready. You’ll end up with a better hunting partner, and since you’ll be hunting with him for a decade or more, don’t sacrifice all of those years for a few days this fall.

How talking doesn’t work

Some of you from the older generations remember a cartoon called The Far Side. Gary Larson had a singular talent for pointing out the obvious humor that surrounds us every day. This one is pretty appropriate for the topic at hand:

Cartoon showing how we ruin bird dogs by talking too much

This is something that shouldn’t need stating but does, and in a big way. How many dog owners, especially new ones, have you seen trying to walk a dog through something verbally? Just keep explaining it in a different way til he gets it….right? Wrong.

I’ll admit it, I’m guilty of lecturing my dogs on occasion, but I realize I’m doing it more for my benefit than theirs. The only thing they pick up from the one-sided conversation is whether I’m happy or angry with them, and that comes from my tone of voice and body language, not the words. This stuff is pretty harmless if you’re sitting on the couch on Sunday evening, but in the field it can quickly ruin a promising bird dog.

It’s a foreign language

It’s not hard to put yourself in your dog’s situation. Suppose you found yourself in Russia and due to some “problems” with your passport you end up in a back room at the airport with a bunch of guys named Igor and they put a pen and paper in front of you and begin telling you what to do. In Russian. Maybe you speak a word or two of the language but it’s hard to even pick those out of the stream of garble so you just look at them. And then they talk louder, or maybe point angrily at the paper a few times, and wait for you to do what they want (for extra measure, imagine one of them straps an e-collar around your neck and nicks you if you don’t do what he’s asking).

Would it be helpful if Igor stopped talking and picked up the pen and showed you what he wanted you to do?

You can train a dog to respond to commands, but you can’t tell him how to do it.

The fewer words you use with your dog, the better. Visiting my parents one weekend we let my dog out in the evening to go to the bathroom and my Dad said over and over and over “Do your business” while the dog sniffed his way around the yard. Finally I said, “Dad, he has no idea what that means.” As soon as I said it Dad realized how ridiculous it was and we both laughed, but this goes on every day in fields and backyards wherever people own bird dogs. Stop and think before you speak, and then don’t speak.

Watch your mood and temper

Ever fry a turkey and have too much oil in the pot? Things are going great until you get the bird about 3/4 of the way in and then the oil spills over the top like a volcano and hits the flame and next thing you know you need new grass. Not what you intended, was it?

Emotions have a way of doing the same thing. If you’re carrying too much anger, frustration, bitterness or are just generally pissed off about something else in your life and you take the dog for a workout, it won’t take long for your temper to boil over and do some damage to your pup. The old saw about coming home from a bad day at work and kicking the dog is, unfortunately, borne of experience. Man’s best friend too often takes the butt of man’s worst impulses.

It’s not fair to you and it’s not fair to the dog. Taking a hot temper or a bad mood into the field will leave you shortchanged on what could have been a productive day and your pup will just get screwed. Even if you only do it occasionally, it’s q quick way to ruin your bird dog.

If you use a training session to get yourself in a better mood, that’s a great plan but make sure you leave the head trash behind before you get to the field. Being focused on the dog and the task at hand, you’ll forget all about whatever was rubbing you wrong – you can’t hold two thoughts in your head at once. Let those bad emotions linger, though, and soon they’ll spill over the top with lasting effects. Your mood controls your reactions and your reactions dictate the dog’s mood. You want both to be relaxed.

Be aware of what’s going on

This one gets a little more zen than the others, so bear with me. In order for the 3 ideas above to gain any traction you’ll need an increased sense of what’s going on in the moment. Not as easy as it sounds given that, in addition to watching the dog and what he’s doing and how he’s acting, you’ll have to monitor your own voice (talking too much?), your mood (still relaxed?), and your watch (we’re not in a hurry, remember?).

All of the things that happen when you’re hunting or training flow together seamlessly, one right after another and sometimes on top of one another, to create a constantly changing scenario. What happened 10 seconds ago could be irrelevant to what you just saw or it could be the cause of what you just saw and if you didn’t notice it, well, you just missed something important.

Mistakes happen in that one moment when you lose awareness

Being aware is as simple as being where your feet are, which is another way of saying that you’re in the present moment and your mind isn’t wandering off somewhere else. Spatially speaking, don’t pay attention to what’s going on 300 yards off to the side or 30,000 feet above, pay attention to the dog and the bird and yourself in that little world in right front of you.

Focus on the dog and let the distractions that ruin him fade away
Focus on the dog and let the distractions fade

Pro athletes call it “being in the zone”, a state where all of the stuff that doesn’t matter fades away and only the stuff that affects your performance remains. It’s not blocking out all the unimportant background noise, it’s becoming so absorbed in the task at hand that the noise goes silent. Everyone experiences this sooner or later, but being able to make it happen when you want it to takes practice, and you can start practicing today.

Read more about how awareness trains your bird dog.

The Wrap-up

We’ve covered a good bit of ground here, hopefully useful to you and your dog. The four main ideas are a solid foundation for doing your part to make (and keep) your pup performing somewhere near the top of his skill set. When practiced, they’ll stop you from interfering with your dog’s learning process, help you understand when things go wrong, and in the end will keep you from ruining your bird dog.

Was this perspective on owning and training a bird dog worthwhile? I love feedback – it helps me strip content down to only the stuff that’s helpful, so do me a favor and leave me a thumbs up or thumbs down in the comments, and don’t be shy about dropping some words in there too.

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