How Awareness Trains Bird Dogs

What exactly does awareness mean to a wingshooter? This may sound like a new age mashup of different worlds but if you’re someone who trains or owns bird dogs, awareness is one of your most important skills and knowing how it translates to your pup’s abilities is vital.

You can break it down into a pair of simple questions:

  • What is the dog doing?
  • How am I responding?

Awareness is simply paying attention in real time to what’s going on. It means your mind is on the matter at hand and not thinking about dinner or what you need to get done at work tomorrow or why the Redskins lost yesterday.

What should you be aware of when working your dog?

Look again at that pair of questions:

  • What is the dog doing?
  • How am I responding?

One without the other only gets you half way home. They’re a package deal and neither can be neglected if you want to understand how awareness trains bird dogs.

What is your dog doing?

This is a much deeper question than it seems. Take in the full picture. Where is he looking (at you, at a bumper or a bird, at squirrels or cars)? Are his ears and tail high or tucked (high is a happy dog, tucked is a nervous dog)? Is he licking his lips and yawning (in dogs this is doesn’t mean he’s tired – it’s a sign of nervousness and uncertainty).

Training a Brittany pup with awareness
What’s he focused on?

Your dog’s body language is how he communicates with you and if you’re not aware of it, you’re not listening to him. A dog that’s ready to learn will be looking at you or at an object you’re working with such as a bumper or a bird. A dog that’s not ready to learn will be distracted like the proverbial ADHD child, looking at everything except what he should be looking at. SQUIRREL! The signs mentioned above – the position of ears, head and tail and whether he’s licking his lips and/or yawning – also give you a clear window into his readiness to learn. Be aware of them.

Your dog’s body language is how he communicates with you and if you’re not aware of it, you’re not listening to him.

So if your dog isn’t showing signs of being focused and ready to learn, how do you change his mindset? That’s a post for another day but the short answer is it may require more time than you have, and it’s better to not work the dog if he’s not ready than to force it, which leads straight into the next question.

How am I responding?

Equally important is your response to anything the dog does. First ask yourself what kind of mood you’re in. This will determine your response to nearly everything the dog does and it can be disastrous if you’re angry or tired. A training session is NOT the place to work out your frustrations from other areas of life. Short tempers and dog training don’t mix because your reactions when the dog makes a mistake are likely to be ratcheted way out of proportion. Dogs should be corrected, not punished.

This is not how you train bird dogs using awareness
Not good form for training your dog

Are you frustrated that your dog isn’t learning more quickly (impatience ruins more dogs that just about anything)? Are you eager to see him get it right or are you comfortable just observing and seeing if he’s picking it up and then making adjustments? Take a step back and see if you’re rushing things.

How much talking are you doing? When teaching a verbal command like sit or heel or fetch, it’s necessary to talk, but the command should be the only thing coming out of your mouth. Maybe a word of praise if your dog gets it right. Step-by-step verbal instructions don’t do a dog any good. Ever met someone with diarrhea of the mouth? Whenever we speak more than a word or two, that’s what we sound like to our dogs.

All of these tie together to make a sequence of events and a cycle that determine success. You do something and the dog reacts, the dog does something and you react. Awareness of this cycle is important because of the cause and effect nature of it – good behavior leads to good behavior, bad behavior leads to bad behavior. Both hold the potential to snowball.

What awareness is NOT

Awareness is not persistence

Bullheaded persistence in the face of signs that you should slow down or back up is decidedly not awareness. Nor is pushing ahead to get the ball across the goal line at all costs. While it’s ok to have a goal for a daily session, the goal should should be task-oriented, not results-oriented.

Task-oriented (good): I’m going to work on steadiness today
Results-oriented (not good): I’m going to get my dog steady to shot today

Results are, of course, what you are shooting for but they happen over time, not in a single session, and trying to force them in a single session usually leaves you further from the goal, not closer to it. The longer I own dogs, the less use I have for timelines.

Awareness is not black and white

Did the dog do what I want or didn’t he? Turning a session into a pass/fail test won’t get you closer to your goal. If the dog doesn’t do what you wanted, ask why and spend time looking for the answer. You won’t move forward without it.

Many times, especially in the early years I owned bird dogs, I fell into the trap of pushing forward with no regard for how the dog was acting or reacting. I was going through the motions of something I’d read in a book or an article and wasn’t aware of the feedback the dog was giving me.

Sometimes the answer is right there if you just take the time to look. Is your dog reluctant to pick up a retrieving dummy? Try switching it with another dummy or bumper and see what happens. Maybe it has a strange taste or smell to it. I know, I know, strange tastes and smells usually make it more attractive to a dog but you never know what that dummy might have come in contact with.

Be aware.

Try this tomorrow

Right before you begin working your dog, set your cell phone alarm to go off in 5 minutes. If you can set it to vibrate, that’s even better. When the alarm goes off, what are you thinking about? Are you focused on what your dog is doing or how you are reacting? Or has your mind already wandered?

Nobody’s keeping score so be honest with yourself. Do this a few times and you’ll find you’re much more aware simply because you know that alarm is coming.

Taking your dog for a longer workout in a field, maybe working some planted birds or leftovers from a previous session? Set the alarm for 10 or 15 minutes. It’s really easy to drift off in thought on longer walks. Try it next time you go hunting and set the alarm for 30 minutes or an hour. You’ll be surprised where you mind is if you’re not making an effort to be aware.

Other than awareness, what trains bird dogs? Read this post to find out.

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