Is that "whoa," or "no," or "whatever," boss?

Is that “whoa,” or “no,” or “whatever,” boss?

Boy howdy, a recent talk generated some feedback and fascinating stories of other dog owners’ trials, tribulations and triumphs. The most intriguing discussion after each presentation had to do with which words to use for which commands, and why. Compare my ideas to yours, and of course, your particular situation, and then let’s talk in the comments section.

First, in my mind simple is better. While your pup could conceivably understand over 200 different commands according to the U.S. Army, I give my dogs easy to yell names . . . one or two syllables.  That way, they learn their unique signal faster.

And here was the major bugaboo: watch for conflicts.  Many of our commands can sound like names.Call your setter “Beau,” and he might whoa when you want him to hunt on. Rover sounds like “over,” a common command among retriever handlers. And “no” sounds like Beau or whoa, adding to the confusion. Momma dog uses “aagh” when she disapproves . . . why not take advantage of genetics? One behaviorist has recently advocated for “wrong,” which also makes some sense for its uniqueness and harshness. And most dogs’ first names end up being “goddammit” for a while early in their careers anyway, don’t they?

“Here” is easier to yell loudly than come. But “heel” and “here” sound the same to dogs, so my “heel” command is “walk.”  I don’t use “over” when I want my dog to change direction, I use “way” as the command, often accompanied by a hand signal. So my release command can’t be “okay,” or there’ll be more confusion. And he might think I’m asking him to hold still … “stay.”  “Alright” is safe and sounds like nothing else in the lexicon.

I have a theory that most times, most dogs simply detect the vowel, and ignore the consonants. Testing this theory on Buddy probably doesn’t prove much besides I’m a bad trainer, but it seems to ring true. At Pheasant Fest, one of my new friends disputes this theory and offers various command words and tricky situations where he has tested his dogs (clay-play-stay-hey) and they have learned the difference. More power to ya, Andy.

But as I said, for me and Buddy at least, simple is better. How about you? Do you have any unique command words that we might want to try?

Would you be steady with them strolling past?

Would you be steady with them strolling past?

You’ve heard the phrase “less is more.” Does it have relevance to dog training?

Manny and I are deep into preparation for an upcoming NAVHDA Utility test (www.navhda.org) and our latest challenge is steady to wing-shot-fall. If you know the test, you know it’s a ball-buster. Both the field and water portions require a dog to be rock-steady in the midst of distraction shots, walking birds, flying birds, dead birds, shot birds, bobbing decoys, and swinging guns. Not to mention a small gallery of judges, gunners and handlers adding to the circus atmosphere.

I hit on something today (probably did earlier, but it didn’t sink in) that I hope helps. Actually, part one hit me yesterday when in a less-than-stellar moment with my wife’s help, Buddy lunged every time the bird flew and the gun popped.

Revelation: he was simply reacting to her tensing the checkcord in preparation for the flush, telegraphing that tension to him literally and figuratively. He felt the stress both physical and emotional, and simply couldn’t focus on what he knew to be right.

[I remember an obedience trainer who’d worked with wolves once telling me canines will almost always pull back when you do, for example, on a lead. You’ve probably have had yours push back when you steady him on point by pushing on his rump.]

None of this would have sunk in had I not taken him out to remedy last night’s situation with a brush-up at lunch today. No wife, no checkcord, less tension in the air and voila! a steady dog throughout the sequence.

I may be a slow learner, but I pick things up, eventually. With luck, so will Buddy. Hope this helps you, too.


At least when it comes to learning about dog training, I’m lucky in that I watch myself on TV a lot (hey, someone has to pump up the Nielsen ratings!). I learned to teach the same way – with video. It is a cruel but fair instructor, the small screen.

But you don’t need a camera to reflect on your actions and the messages they convey to your bird dog. Just think before you act, adjust your pace, temper your volume, experiment with the magnitude of your movements, and your dog will get the message. He gets it now but it’s often to your detriment, and you might not even know it.

When words are required, a whisper is often better than a growl. It certainly brings down the adrenaline levels, calming the situation. Like people, dogs will often pay closer attention to you if you make it hard for them to hear what you’re saying. Drop the

Everything is relative ... even your praise.

Everything is relative … even your praise.

volume level and you might be pleasantly surprised at the results.

Even physical praise has degrees. As I write this, I’m scratching my old guy’s neck following a quiet “here” command. It’s a slow, relaxing touch, light and low-key. He in turn, is lying down, expecting nothing but a chance to be near me as his reward for a small job well done – he showed up. A vigorous, two-hand rib tickle implies something else entirely, higher energy and more excitement. It might be just the ticket to jet-propel a long retrieve by my two-year-old … to get him going or as a well-earned reward.

A dog that forges ahead when walking at heel is often “corrected” with a violent jerk. He, in turn, pulls harder. A pup told “whoa” is held still by a taut check cord pulling on his neck. Relaxing that tension would actually put him more at ease and willing to follow the original direction.

My dog Manny simply cannot stand still when he first gets on the training table. I used to yank on his collar, yelling “whoa” at increasingly high volume. Now I speak calmly, slowly, sometimes from a sitting position, stroking his back until he settles – faster than he ever did when I engaged him in a battle of canine (half)wits.

As in life, "timing is everything."

As in life, “timing is everything.”

Just as important as what you feed is when you feed your hunting partner. There are simple mechanical reasons not to feed your dog the morning of a hunt. An empty G.I. tract doesn’t hold anything that could rattle around in there.

Try this experiment: Take off your sock (representing your dog’s stomach and intestinal track), drop your car keys (ersatz “dog food”) into it. Hold it horizontally, and the dog food will settle in the heel. Then jiggle it, swing it back and forth, whip it around a little like a dog on the hunt would. All that weight will make the sock swing, bounce up and down, possibly even twist. Veterinarians call it gastro volvulus and it is often fatal.

Your dog’s athletic performance is another concern. Studies have shown than a dog with food in its gut runs slower, is less agile, and has less stamina than one hunting on an empty stomach.

Another good reason: the gut is not using the body’s finite allotment of energy to digest food when it could be fueling active muscles that are chasing birds.

No guilt trips here, your dog’s metabolism is unlike yours. Sending your dog into the field without breakfast will have no ill effects. Unless he’s got other health problems, he won’t develop “low blood sugar,” because dogs get their version of instant energy from fat.

If you can’t resist giving Gunner something during the hunt, give him a high-fat content snack that won’t fill his belly. You can make your own, or simply offer him some of your salami sandwich (just the meat). There are plenty of commercial versions out there in tubes, droppers and blocks. The key is low volume, high fat to keep the belly as empty as possible.

You can’t go wrong offering water frequently – it keeps a dog cool as well as hydrated. Make life simple on both of you by carrying a bota (wine skin) or the modern equivalent. Teach your dog to drink from it just like you, so there is no need to drag a bowl or sacrifice your hat as a substitute.

IMG_1610I became a bird hunter because I watched my first wirehair work a field, putting up a pheasant hen after a solid point. I’d never owned a gun before, but decided if he would do that for me, the least I could do is shoot the bird for him. Little did I know that was the start of a (late) life-long series of dazzling performances by a series of magical dogs I was privileged to observe. Lucky for me, the relationship continues, and the awe I felt from that first point returns every time I send a dog into the field.

Any excuse for sharing time with a dog is legitimate. But for me, it is clear: we become a team linked by DNA, a modern version of a prehistoric wolf pack coursing the uplands for sustenance – literal and emotional.

In the digital age we pretend to communicate with gadgets. The talking we do at each other via smartphone is shallow, ephemeral and self-centered. Contrast that with the deep genetic link between hunters. Words are unnecessary when instinct guides predators linked by common purpose.

I’m honored when my dogs invite me to share this primitive thrill, accepting me as equal, calling on the most basic of instincts to feed our pack and sustain our souls. We are one, thinking and acting as a single being with a single goal, to find prey. The act is violent and primitive, ugly and beautiful, the most complicated transaction in the universe: lives taking life to sustain life.

Neither of us will starve if we aren’t successful in the common definition of the term. The size of our bag is a sidebar to a bigger story: flow of adrenaline, deep passion, panting and slobber, the tang of sage and if we are lucky, the coppery smell of blood.

Our dogs tolerate human missteps and bad shots. They put up with poor noses and slow, creaky joints in their human packmate. At the end of the day they ask little except a warm place to sleep near their hunting companion, forgiving missed shots and misplaced anger.

We should be flattered

Keep it on the Q.T. and he won't hold it against you.

Keep it on the Q.T. and he won’t hold it against you.

I like to maintain a positive relationship with my wife, friends, co-workers, and my dogs. Like the rest of them, my guys don’t appreciate “constructive criticism” from me. So I let them think it’s coming from somewhere else.

Sure, some times the “master” has to assert himself over the dog. But most times, you simply want him to do – or not do – certain things at certain times. Why not let your training tools take the blame?

The leash keeps Buddy at heel, not my constant haranguing. A checkcord becomes the bad guy when Buddy doesn’t “whoa.” With both, avoid eye contact as you yank for an extra dose of depersonalizing.

When he’s distracted, the tone feature on the electric collar breaks his train of thought and I’m not the party pooper. And in rare cases, the e-collar’s stimulation comes from out of nowhere, not from me! I even try to hide my hand while holding the e-collar transmitter.

With this strategy, at the end of the day we’re still friends, and plenty of learning has taken place. Isn’t that what counts?


Pay attention to him, and score more often.

I was recently reminded of how working with our dogs, thinking like they think, can produce better shooting from us. In South Dakota, a less-experienced companion was so nervous (or was he dazzled at my dog’s performance?) the ringneck had almost five minutes to fly wild or scoot out from under the point. This guy snuck, skulked, minced and tiptoed over 100 yards – it seemed to take eons for him to flush the dang bird!

The rest of us were going batty, urging him to step on it. I was hoarse from yelling across the stubble. My dog stood on trembling legs, eyes bugging out as he searched for someone, anyone, to push that bird into the air. Luckily the pheasant held and the outcome was fatal for him.

Sure, that situation was the exception. But the lesson was clear: ignoring your dog’s critical role might negatively affect your shot. Consider these tips next time you’re lucky enough to find your dog locked up on a bird:

  1. To ensure a safe, sure shot, ensure a solid point, and a bird that holds still rather than a scampering off unscathed, be punctual. Once your dog stands the bird, walk in with alacrity. The longer you dawdle or admire his stunning good looks, or take photos, the greater the chance a bird will flush wild, run off or the dog will do the flushing for you.
  1. Then, assert yourself. Over many years in many fields one thing is clear: both birds and dogs hold better when the gunner moves with confidence. Once your dog shows you the bird, stride right in and everyone will likely do what’s expected of them. This is the time to show you are in charge. Be confident.
  1. Choose your approach route with care to maximize your chance at a solid, killing shot. Swing wide around the dog and you’ll cut off one of the bird’s escape routes. Two gunners performing a pincer movement means even fewer bolt-holes for a cunning rooster more inclined to sprint than fly. If you can move to the front and circle back so the bird is between you and the dog there’s a good chance it will fly, not run.
  1. Flanking your dog also minimizes his chance of breaking point … one less thing to worry about when you should be preparing for a flush and a shot. “Allelomimetic behavior” is a highfalutin’ word for that flock of birds that jinks in unison, or pair of wolves trotting in parallel. Sauntering close alongside a pointing dog is an invitation to follow you into the flush – that’s how we teach “heel,” after all.

Okay, so you hunt a spaniel or retriever in the uplands. You could still apply many of the same principals:

  1. Focus on the dog, not the puffy clouds or a deconstruct of last night’s game. Stick as close as possible to your hound, and look for the “tells” that indicate he’s getting birdy. Be as ready as you can be for a shot.
  2. Use your “hup” command (you DID train for that, right?). It might instill confidence in the dog … you’re in charge, a situation he’s accustomed to, and comfortable in.
  3. When you sense your dog’s birdiness, start maneuvering for a safe shot. Use your peripheral vision to suss out birds’ likely escape routes. Set up as best you can for a shot in that direction. As with pointers, two hunters working in sync can stage-manage a bird’s flight to some degree. Now’s the time to talk to each other.

Shorthair, Lab, Small Munsterlander, Boykin, whatever breed you’re running these days, keeping your eye on the dog and not on your smart phone should put you in a better place, literally and figuratively … when it comes to shooting.


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