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The (intensity of) media is the message.

The (intensity of) media is the message.

Your dog is constantly watching you, and learning from your movement, your tone of voice, what you put up with, and what you simply won’t tolerate … whether with him, other dogs, or your first-born kid.

Because he has a limited vocabulary, literally, your actions often speak louder than words. But even words have different meanings to your dog depending on how they are delivered. So why not use your ability to nuance training “language” to influence your dog.

I’m lucky in that I can watch myself on TV a lot (someone has to pump up the Nielsen ratings). I learned to be a teacher 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. Just think before you act, adjust your pace, the magnitude of your movements, and your dog will get the message. He does that now, but it’s often to your detriment and you might not even know it.

For instance, move slower and you literally demonstrate to your dog that things are not as exciting (or distracting) as they seem. When you’re winding down an amped-up retrieving training session a short “heel” around the yard in slow motion could cool down your Lab and prepare him for a rest in his crate. A quivering shorthair gulping in pheasant scent while on point might be steadied by a calm, confident and low-key approach to the flush.

Conversely, getting your Springer pumped up for an assault on that blackberry thicket might require an energetic pep talk and gentle pat on his butt. An easily-distracted wirehair might maintain focus during a long retrieve with some loud and animated encouragement from his owner (don’t ask).

When words are the appropriate communication tool, a whisper is often better than a yell. 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 volume level and you might be pleasantly surprised at the results.

On the other hand, an icy water retrieve by a young Chessie could merit a boisterous shoreline cheerleading squad. Again, evaluate your desired result and pick the correct arrow out of your quiver.

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, but a reward nonetheless. He in turn, is lying down, expecting nothing but a chance to be near me as his payback 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 cast in chukar country by my five-year-old.

That five-year-old 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. Then, we can get on to the important stuff.

So consider expanding your training communications repertoire, usually by dialing down your energy. You might see better results, sooner.

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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.

Scott

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Along with the other things we’re practicing, Manny is now learning that a gun shot means “whoa.” Yep, I sometimes shoot birds that fly wild, nowhere near my dogs, especially on a slow day, the first day, the last day, or any day when adrenaline is flowing faster than wisdom. If and when I actually hit something, I want my dogs to find it.

By stopping to the shot (or a flush, or a command or a whistle) Manny and Buddy might actually see the bird drop. If not, at least they are ready for the fetch command and a hand signal assist to the general area. When a chukar tumbles among the rockfall, I like to think they appreciate the heads-up – literally.

In the NAVHDA Utility Test, there are several instances where a shot-equals-whoa sequence will come in handy: after pointing birds in the field, sure. But also when standing at the duck blind, watching birds fly and hearing shots from several directions. The duck search also includes a shot and a pause prior to sending him to the water.

As an aside, I’ve found many uses for a long whistle as another “whoa” command, much like the retriever guys use. Last night, Manny did me proud – 150 yards from me, he locked up tight when I trilled. Good boy!

Bang, tweet, whirr ... all mean "whoa"

Bang, tweet, whirr … all mean “whoa”

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Go away from your catchline, then come back toward it when the sun sets

Go away from your catchline, then come back toward it when the sun sets

While a GPS can be a lifesaver, map and compass skills will bail you out when batteries fail. At a minimum, know how to find a “catchline” that will lead you back to a known location:

Study, then bring along a copy of a map of the area you will hunt. Make note of a stream, road, ridgeline or other long relatively straight feature in relation to where you park or make camp. That’s your catchline. You will hunt away from that location, and as long as you know which direction you went in relation to the catchline, you’re home free.

Example: I’m camped along a river that runs north-south. I hunt away from camp to the east. When I want to head back, I simply walk west until I reach the river. Camp is either left or right along my catchline. If I’m really smart, I’ve overshot camp on purpose (say, to the north) so I know to walk south when I hit the stream.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYour questions, my answers, such as they are:

Q: What is the best method to convince your children to not undo your dog’s training? Every bit of progress seems to be undone, for instance, by the kid’s uncontrollable urge to play tug of war with the dog, etc.

A: Train your kids too. Get them to help in your training and it might have more relevance to them. They’ll have to deal with their misdeeds.

Q: Is it easier for a dog to understand two commands “sit” and “stay” or is it easier to teach a single command for sit and stay by just saying sit or in spaniel circles hup?

A: I like to keep it simple. A dog should obey the command until released or given another command. When he “sits,” he sits, until told to do something else.

Q: Scott, I live in the big city and own a young GSP. What do you think is the best way for me to keep my dog in shape for hunting? Not only physically but also her bird finding skills?

A: Running alongside your bike (attached via a rig like the “Springer”) would be good for physical conditioning. Even a small backyard can be used for fundamental bird contact, especially combined with a long drive once a week to a spot where you can let your dog stretch out and find birds in a more natural setting.

Q: Is it OK to “rough house” with my dog while playing with him or does that hurt his discipline?

A: I do it occasionally, but not as often as I used to. I’m becoming a believer in “pecking order,” and that requires discipline on the human’s part as well as the dog’s. A dog that learns he can “play fight” with you is one step away from jockeying for the position of top dog.

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He's on "whoa" so I can get a photo

He’s on “whoa” so I can get a photo

Terms from the world of training, trials and hunt tests …

Viszla: Shorthaired versatile breed from Hungary.

Wachtelhund: German spaniel originally bred to hunt quail.

Weimaraner: Shorthaired versatile breed from Germany.

Whoa: Command word to stop a dog and have him remain motionless.

Whoa barrel: Metal or plastic barrel laid horizontally on the ground on which trainers place dogs to encourage steadiness to the whoa command and to birds.

Whoa post: Metal or wooden post in the ground around which a checkcord is looped to stop a dog’s forward movement.

Whoa table: Another term for training table, typically a low platform trainers put a dog on to teach or enforce commands, often including the “whoa” command.

Wild flush: Bird that flies before the hunter or dog purposely flushes it.

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Food, praise, your companionship or birds ... every dog has a motivator

Food, praise, your companionship or birds … every dog has a motivator

“Never give away a bowl of dog food.”

That’s what a grizzled old trainer said, almost off-hand, decades ago. Being a bit slow on the uptake, I asked what he’d meant with that tossed-away comment. His explanation drove home the best bit of advice I’ve ever been given: dogs expect something for everything they do … or don’t do.

Your hunting partner is learning all the time. If their DNA contains anything, it holds the chromosome for cause and effect. Deep in their canine genetic legacy is an innate ability to tie actions with consequences. Scramble more aggressively, get more mother’s milk. Run faster and catch more dinner. Fight hardest, and earn the chance to reproduce.

These fundamentals guide a dog’s entire existence. If he gets nothing for his efforts, he’s probably not going to do it again. If he does, he’ll repeat the behavior. When he does it for food or praise, a bird or even your companionship, it becomes a training strategy.  That observation still guides my training today.

Have you been enlightened?What was that advice?

Who shared their wisdom with you, and why? Most importantly, what did you do with that hard-won knowledge?

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