Touch

Many owners, in their enthusiasm, handle their dogs with so much vigor that they damage the animal's training attitude. Rough-housing, excited praise and so forth may satisfy a human need, but it does nothing positive for the dog. At best, it excites him, releases him from control and makes him wonder who's in charge. At worst, it either so intimidates him that he can't respond to proper handling or so toughens him that he won't.


Dogs are canines, not humans. Thus, the trainer must apply the principles of canine, not human, psychology. Being a pack animal, each dog wants to understand his place in the pecking order. In every successful dog-training "pack," the dog recognizes the trainer is the dominant one--the pack leader. This may be old stuff, but no matter how often it has been repeated, many people still "don't get it."

"Touch" is critical. Whether training, hunting or relaxing around home, the way you touch your dog physically can either convey to him your position of dominance or confuse him about who's in charge. Perhaps the best one-word description for proper touch is "deliberate," that is, an expression of thought, not emotion. If you stroke your dog's shoulder firmly but calmly and gently, you reassure him and put yourself at the helm. If you rough him up excitedly, you lower yourself to his level and invite him to assert his dominance. Most dogs of the sporting breeds, especially the pointing breeds, are so tightly wired by nature that they seldom need to be pumped up by the boss. Mostly, they need to be settled down. Look at it this way: You should train your bird dog to have the nerves of a fighter pilot, not Bobo the Clown.


For example, when he's on point, approach him slowly, stroke his shoulder calmly, and say "Good dog" softly. That'll reassure him that you're pleased without breaking his concentration on the enchanting scent in his nostrils. If, on the other hand, you charge at him like a wild bull, slap him excitedly here and there, and bellow "Attaboy! Attaboy!" you'll probably panic him into break-and-chase mode. (You may also frighten the bird into flying.)


Touch is the essence of proper handling. If you touch your dog correctly, you'll also approach him and speak to him correctly. Proper touch seems to "steady" both the dog and the trainer. Thus, you should use it whenever you have occasion to praise your dog, whether pointing, retrieving, obeying some obedience command or whatever. He'll probably indicate when you are touching him correctly by what I call a "pleasure lick." As you stroke him, his mouth will open a little, the tip of his tongue will come out ever so slightly, then go back as his mouth closes.

To maintain a proper trainer/dog relationship, you should even make your bird dog's "off-hours recreation" job-related. Instead of playing with him as you would with a child, give him a few retrieves or run him through some obedience commands. This allows him to earn and experience your approval. Rough-housing? That satisfies a human, not a canine, need. Keep your dog razor-sharp by treating him according to the needs of his nature, not human nature.

A pro for 25 years, Jim trains all sporting breeds, but mostly pointing dogs. He occasionally competes in grouse trials and has judged American Field trials, but he concentrates on training gundogs for hunters. He breeds pointers and German shorthairs.

Contact: James S. Rypkema, Pine Hill Kennels & Sportsman's Club, 8347 10 Mile Road, Rockford, MI 49341; 616/874-8459.

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