Mistakes We Make

Expectations Can Make or Break a Bird Dog

Most people don’t get a bird dog hoping it turns out to be a mediocre hunter or a field trial washout, but few realize how their initial expectations can make or break their pup. If you’re among the lucky ones whose dog exceeds your wildest hopes, enjoy it. The gods are smiling on you. More often, however, it works in reverse and your pup falls short of your expectations.

Is this the pup’s fault, or yours? Hint: the pup has no expectations of himself.

This post proved much more difficult to write than I imagined, mostly because there’s such a fine line between wanting to make your dog better and expecting more than your situation allows. Your “situation”, or what you have to work with, boils down to 3 things:

  1. your dog’s bloodlines
  2. your available time and talent for training
  3. your finances

You can mix and match these as necessary to make up for shortfalls in one of them, but you can’t exceed the upper limits in any of them. Wanting your dog to be better than he (and you) are capable of is a problem, and why expectations are so important.

The other difficulty in pulling this post together surfaced while trying to making the point that being happy with the skill level of your dog is far more important than the skill level itself. It’s an awkward distinction and you’ll have to let me know in the comments if I succeeded. In the meantime, know that if you’re happy with your dog’s stuff, you aced the expectations thing.

Are your expectations realistic?

When I was a kid I loved basketball. I played every day in the driveway, watched it on TV, had visions of the NBA in my head. As I got to middle school it became apparent that the deck was not stacked in my favor.

Maybe I could have overcome the limitations of a 5’8″ frame and a 10″ vertical leap. Spud Webb did it (slightly better vertical leap). Muggsy Bogues did it. It would have taken a hell of a commitment on my part, though. Safe to say that if I wasn’t committed, no amount of pressure from a parent or a coach could get me there.

There goes my excuse

Outliers exist in every pursuit and profession, but in all cases this success is a result of internal motivation, not someone pushing from the outside. The kid who becomes a virtuoso pianist may have been forced by mom and dad to take lessons for years, but at some point she decides this is the path she wants to take and puts in the work to do it without being shoved forward by a parent. Dogs don’t have that self-directed motivation, which means the higher your expectations, the more your situation needs to be stacked in your dog’s favor.

Which comes first?

Do you set your expectations and then get the right dog or do you get a dog and then set your expectations? This is a call only you can make. Maybe you already have a dog in which case it’s a matter of doing a realistic assessment of your dog’s bloodlines, your available time and experience as a trainer, and your finances.

Delusion leads to disillusion

If you don’t yet have a dog, there’s a bit more latitude available. You have the luxury of figuring out what you want and then finding it. Just be honest with yourself about your situation. Delusion leads to disillusion.

Unreasonable expectations cause collateral damage

Common sense says that if you try to drive a 1973 Ford Pinto 150mph (a) there’s almost no chance it will ever get there and (b) bad things are likely to happen along the way. The same is true if you expect your dog to do things he isn’t trained or bred for.

A dog that never quite lives up to your hopes will leave you disappointed, frustrated, or even angry, and none of these are what bird dogs are for. This is how expectations can make or break a bird dog.

Worse is when you try to get more out of your dog without knowing how. Lack of knowledge or experience on your part can do all kinds of damage, sometimes irreversible. Cultivate a sense of awareness of what’s going on in the field, in particular whether you’re making progress with your dog or just running into a wall.

Know your situation and be ok with it

The greatest disappointments in life come not from what you have, but what you don’t have. Constantly wanting more or better and never taking the time to enjoy what’s around you leads to misery, depression or worse.

Brittany puppy with leash. Expectations can make or break a dog at a young age.

My younger Brittany has good bloodlines and spent time with a couple of very good trainers. He’s one of the best dogs I’ve owned and honestly has even more potential. For him to really excel, however, he needs more exposure to wild birds than he’s going to get with me. During the season we go out at least once a week and we’ll find a covey or two of quail, maybe a few woodcock depending on where we hunt. For him to hit the next level he’d need to do this several times a week or we’d need to live in a place where he could find 4-5x as many birds as we typically do. Until I retire, it’s just not gonna happen.

At this point, though, I’m ok with it. He’s a fine dog and a load of fun around the house, and to really fulfill his potential I’d have to give him up and ship him off to a trainer every summer and I just don’t want to do that.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting your dog to be a little better than he is. Aspiration produces some of the greatest success stories. Knowing when to stop wanting and start enjoying, though, is where the real fun begins.

Try this tomorrow

Think about what you want from your bird dog and then do a realistic assessment of your situation. Realistic means leaving your ego in the other room and being honest about the time you have available (an hour a week or an hour a day?), your skill as a trainer (ever done this before?) and your finances (how much is left at the end of the month?).

It’s not a stretch to say that expectations can make or break a bird dog. They are so vital to your enjoyment of your pup that it’s worth taking the time and making the effort to set them the right way.


Looking for more ways to keep up your end of the bargain? The foundations article is a perfect place to start.

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