Reducing dog training to a single element would be a difficult task. It’s simply too complicated to say that one technique or tool or tip is all you need to have the dog that dreams are made of. There is, however, one question that every bird dog owner should ask. It applies to nearly all aspects of dog owning, training and hunting IF asked properly and often.
What Question Should I Ask?
The driving force behind repetition of anything is usually the belief that if you do it enough, you’ll get the desired result. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Anyone who’s ever hit a nail with a hammer knows that if the nail bends, every hit after that makes it worse. If you keep pounding, you’re only making more work for yourself.
Most pro trainers agree that repetition is a key to success, but if you’re repeating the wrong thing or repeating the right thing in the wrong way, success is not what you’ll get. Like that bent nail, you’re creating problems that will take even more time to fix. These undeniable truths makes it important to continually pause and take a reading whenever you’re working your dog, whether you’re training in the back yard or chasing game in the field.
Make it a practice to step back and ask “Is this helping?” One simple question can keep you on track and avoid trouble, but only if you’re brutally honest when you answer. Being honest means you need to be aware of what’s going on, which you can’t do if you’re too emotionally involved in the process that you can’t make an objective assessment of what’s happening.
Why is this question useful?
The reason this question is so useful is that it doesn’t matter if the dog is ignoring you or confused by what you’re asking him to do. In either case, if what you’re doing isn’t helping, stop doing what you’re doing. Stop bending the nail.
There’s no need to overthink this and get into particulars of every situation and how some require more repetition than others. If you can step back and take an objective look at what’s going on, you’ll know whether what you’re doing is helping or not.
It’s also vital that you don’t confuse this with questions like “Should this be helping?” or “Is this supposed to help?” The question is “Is this helping?”, as in right now, at this moment in time.
A couple of examples may help to illustrate:
- Whistling or calling your dog to come in and he’s ignoring you? Is the whistling helping? Of course not, but plenty of people keep on doing it (and think that when the dog eventually comes back, the whistling worked).
- Throwing a bumper in the backyard for your dog to retrieve and he trots out there without picking it up? How many times do you walk out and get it and throw it again (and again)? Is this helping? Nope. It’s hoping, not helping, and hope is not a strategy for success.
- Cringe-worthy example: are you zapping your dog with the e-collar and he’s yipping and flinching but not doing what you want? Yep, you’re not helping. How e-collars work and don’t work is a discussion for another day, but if one or two taps on the stim button doesn’t get the reaction you’re looking for, stop doing it.
How Do I Know If This Is Helping?
If you’re repeatedly doing something and not getting the result you want, it’s not helping. You can take a step back or cut the training session short or switch to something the dog can have some success at, but stop doing whatever is it that’s not helping. This is simple. Not easy, but simple. Having the awareness to step back and honestly assess whether what you’re doing is helping is a skill, but everyone is capable of doing it.
I’ve been guilty of this so many times over the years that I’ve lost count. My sins are mostly verbal, repeating a command when I really should stop and take action. By saying (or yelling) something over and over, all l’m doing is bending the nail.
Use your own sense of right and wrong to let you know if you should hit the pause button. You may not be a pro trainer, but we all have a pretty good gut feel for when something’s not working.
There’s more to owning and training than just knowing the one question every bird dog owner should ask. Looking for a few other things to keep from bending that nail? Read the Don’t Ruin Your Bird Dog (a guide to not screwing up your pup).