Getting A Handle On Your Dog, Part 1
September 23, 2010
Learning how to "read" what he "writes."
Can you tell me exactly what's meant by the guy training my German wirehair to handle when he talks about "reading" my dog? Once in a while I see a reference to that in the many books I've read on hunting dog training, but never an explanation.
Is this something I have to know or some kind of inside gobbledygook professionals in all fields like to use? If it is some kind of technique that will help me train and handle a breed new to me, I want to know how to do it. I've read the books and watched the videos in English. Both seriously and facetiously, how do you "read" a dog?
Reading a gun dog in the field is too multi-faceted to lend itself to trying to phrase an exact description. But the most concise way it can be summed up is that an observant and reflective trainer studies and reaches conclusions from a bird dog's actions and reactions that assist his training efforts and result in a good-handling hunting dog. That interpreter acquires his knowledge with much field experience devoting time and perspicacity to his studies, just as do respected scholars.
Training is a haphazard thing for a lot of sportsmen. So, when it comes to "reading" a gun dog, large numbers of hunters view a dog's actions with about the same comprehension they'd show if they were asked to use a Greek or Gaelic dictionary as a source book.
Somehow, through circumstance and inheritance, a surprising number of hunting dogs become a credit to their breeds by doing good jobs, despite a lack of help and guidance from their owners. But anyone serious about having a decent hunting dog ought to be interested in gaining insight into what might be motivating or distracting a dog in the home, yard and field.
"Reading a dog" is not like "reading a book," although good training books by knowledgeable trainers will give almost all hunters a basic program and a leg up on getting a pup trained.
The fly in the ointment is that "book l'arnin" alone won't a gun dog make. Time spent afield "working" the dog will. But unless an owner consciously studies his dog and its actions when gunning, during training and in the house and yard (so he can help his bird dog by properly timing his commands, praise and punishment), most dogs are going to be at least several bales of hay shy of a load and quite a few won't have anything to haul to the barn.
There's no book that can tell you how to read a dog. There are some basic things, which are little more than a matter of common sense, that any man who makes enough money to afford a pedigreed dog today could come up with, if only he'd put his mind to it. So I'm not going to pose as a Solomon among dog trainers, nor attempt to lay down grammar rules and supervise reading lessons. How much you want to learn rests with you; the time you spend "messing" with your gun dog and how hard you study him so that your superior intelligence will gauge what to do (and when to do it) in order to gain compliance. That has as much to do with cooperation as it does with coercion.
Hopefully, I can prompt you to think of some things you were unaware of that you can then apply to your personal situation, as well as try some of your own "interpretations" of the book of bird dogs when you open it. As "reading experiences" pile up, you gain more and more insight into why dogs do and do not respond to published training techniques.
Despite the analogies being used, please don't let the suggestion that gun dogs should be studied and read turn you off. There's nothing bookish about gun dog training and handling. Hands-on doing, frequently, consistently and often by the numbers, gets the job done.
Examples offered ought to give you at least an inkling into why (when you shout, blow your whistle, wave your arms and cuss) your dog doesn't respond once he's gotten more than five yards from your boot tips. Furthermore, when you don't correctly read an already-trained dog, you are going to mess that dog up something awful when you don't understand what his attitude and actions are telling you.
Let's begin with a good, natural young dog that might be described as "well-started," "green-broke," "country-broke" or "well-trained" by four different hunters. We'll say he finds birds, points them long enough so a hunter can get there and cause the flush and the dog will recover what's knocked down.
A heap of hunters would apply the adage, "If it works, don't fix it" to any dog that performs in that manner; and to that degree it may very well describe 90 percent of the pointing breeds used by hunters. But a lot of inexperienced or non-thinking hunters "unfix" some perfectly sound dogs because they don't bother to "read" or don't comprehend what they see when the dog is on point.
Stance, attitude, positioning of head and tail should tell a hunter approximately where the bird is and whether it is holding tight or sneaking off.
An intent dog, rigid as a bow-string with a bowed neck and nose pointing down to the ground just ahead of his toes, in all likelihood, has a bird smack dab in front of him.
This is the most frequent "style" of point demonstrated on "planted" birds used in training. But it can occur on native game as well. Reading your dog right means you scour the ground repeatedly only a few yards from and right up to the dog's feet to assure that you are not passing up a tight-sitting bird.
If you don't "read right" and trust your dog, too brief a search and too early a swing out to the likely perimeters of the "scent cone" doesn't mean the bird won't be produced.
But it will be done wrong and set back initial training or reinforcing that occurs when things are done right, should your pup decide to give into temptation and pounce on the bird under his nose; or inadvertently flushes when you order him to relocate, depending on how far along he is in experience and training.
A prompt flush of the close-in bird would have avoided all that. Reading your dog correctly and trusting him results in his quickly catching on to how to behave around birds. Misreading messes up basically sound dogs.
Individual dogs, regardless of breed, point with different degrees of style and intensity. But if your dog is locked up with his head high, almost staring over the horizon, it's a good bet that bird scent is coming in on the breeze from some distance away. Then your strategy is to start at the estimated perimeter with your flushing effort and gradually work in closer to the dog. Should you have passed short of a "far out" bird, there won't be as much temptation for your dog to break and he'll have a better chance at a successful relocation than the close-up bird offered.
But you still want to produce the bird located afar as rapidly as possible in order to retain a dog's highly d
esirable trait of "pointing 'em from as far away as he can smell 'em." Because of frequent (if not almost exclusive) exposure to planted training birds and released gamebirds, thousands of otherwise well-trained dogs haven't mastered the art of handling wild birds.
Only with experience hunting native game will dogs learn this. Unfortunately, such experiences are all too limited for many. Even those paragons whelped with good bird sense can become "preserve dogs" if misread and misdirected too frequently. Whether in release traps or dizzied and tucked into cover, training and preserve birds don't give off scent like native game moving about naturally.
Dogs can't be faulted for being right on top of them when they point. Planted bird scent doesn't carry far. Many dogs become programmed to marching in close to birds, no matter how far off they've winded them, even to the extent of sight pointing. This is undesirable, and with wild birds it's disastrous. But you will encourage it if you misread your dog's pointing posture and concentrate on kicking around in the wrong location.
When making an extensive flushing effort, look back at your dog frequently for some guidance. Some dogs move their eyes, others even turn their heads in the direction of birds sneaking off. Customarily rigid-tailed dogs may "tick" their tails as birds leave them. A let-down when you arrive at the scene, with a softening in stance and/or flagging tail, is a likely indication that birds have flown before you got there.
Again, these are general observations. You have to spend time afield with your dog, observe his actions and reach some sensible conclusions.
Individual dogs will react differently to different bird species, particularly if they are new or in a strange situation. Most dogs are trained on one bird at time. A first encounter with a covey, particularly when scattered out, can be discombobulating. Finding himself smack dab in the middle of a feeding covey of bobwhite quail or Hungarian partridge results in three understandable reactions: rooting around and flushing birds; tentatively pointing, often with flagging tail indicating confusion; or freezing in a crouch or dropping flat, instinctively trying to avoid flushing birds.
Even the latter desirable reaction would be criticized by stylists, but some otherwise high-stationed pointers will "hit the dirt" (usually with head and tail stationary and high) when surprised by close up or confusing scent. With a new dog, you try to guess "what's happening," but with a reliable old dog, you ought to know and should handle things accordingly.
There are numerous theories and techniques regarding how dogs should handle game and how hunters should handle dogs, and we'll go into more detail about these in the next issue.