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4 Keys to Building a Balanced Bird Dog

Start your puppy the right way to create a more well-adjusted gun dog in the future.

4 Keys to Building a Balanced Bird Dog

Discourage over-excitement in your pup and instead encourage a calm demeanor. (Photo By: Ksenia Raykova/Shutterstock.com)

Bird dogs are the ultimate adventure dogs. They live with us, travel with us, and play a dynamic role in the memories we make outdoors. A bird dog may perform at a southern quail plantation one weekend, working the pines ahead of multiple hunters on horseback, but the very next foray might be a pheasant hunt in the Dakota crop strips or a desert sojourn in pursuit of Gambel’s and blue quail. To bird dog and hunter alike, each of these environments is unique, and presents a particular set of stresses, challenges, and lessons. These myriad adventures and the lessons that they hold are a driver for us at Ronnie Smith Kennels. In travel and diversity of experience we see unparalleled benefit for our dogs, and profound fulfillment for us as hunters and trainers. We love nothing more than to travel across the country creating hunting memories with our dogs. But all of this comes with some considerable forethought from an early age. Beginning in puppyhood, a young pup should wind its way through life building behavioral traits that will serve its ability to react to and perform in new environments. It is vital that a bird dog learn to be composed, confident, and compliant.


To understand the full ramifications and benefits of instilling composure, confidence, and compliance in your dog, let’s first look at our idea of what a finished bird dog should be. A finished bird dog should be easy to travel with and should be able to remain calm and quiet at hunting camp. He should be happy to load up into a rig he has never seen before, he should be fine crated next to dogs he does not know, and he should seamlessly jump out of the box to hunt a new environment while being proficient and steady on game. The finished bird dog is a functional, working piece of the hunting puzzle, and the realization of that end product demands that we prepare each dog in a progressive manner to achieve a level of composure, confidence, and compliance, which in turn makes possible these positive lifetime experiences.

The last thing any of us desire to see in our canine hunting partner is a dog that is uncertain, fearful, or out of control on a hunt. Any of these exhibited behaviors can ruin a hunting trip for everyone and will prove negatively impactful on the dog. A dog that is uncertain or fearful may run back to the truck when overwhelmed by the prevalence of birds on a preserve hunt, or a fearful dog may encounter another hunter in the field during a wild bird hunt and completely fall prey to his own fears, barking defensively, running away, or falling into his default heel position next to his owner. An excited, out-of-control dog is less likely to be mannerly around game. An overly fearful dog is generally too consumed in the process of mitigating the stress of the situation to be able to find birds. These are just some of the issues that we strive to avoid with effective early conditioning.

Read More from the Author on the Benefits of Calm Composure

Composure 

Let’s start by exploring the lifelong trait of composure. Composed behavior in a dog is displayed when the dog is still and calm, reacting logically to new stimuli around him, rather than impulsively. A composed dog is settled in his kennel or crate, can wait at a door, heel off lead with minimal to no corrections, stand still next to his owner, and will be steady on game. Essentially, a composed dog is one that is adept at mitigating stresses and is able to settle quickly and think rationally. Composure facilitates the development and maintenance of both confidence and compliance.

A composed dog experiences travel with minimal stress. Usually, a composed dog will also consume healthy amounts of food and maintain body conditioning better while on a hunting trip. When loaded to go to the field, that dog’s body is fueled and ready to perform. He has lasting energy and is able to perform his best.

Conversely, an overstimulated, impulsive and excitable dog is likely stressed during the entire hunting trip experience. Typically, this dog doesn’t eat well and loses weight quickly. This dog often is one that will be barking in the crate or on a tie out throughout the hunt. When it is time to hunt, this dog simply doesn’t have the physical or mental reserves left to perform his best.

The ability to remain composed in moments of stress or excitement is part genetic, but also partially a skill developed as a dog grows up. A few simple ways to begin implementing this mindset are crate training, teaching the dog to stand still at a door before going outside or before eating, rewarding the dog for standing calmly by your side. Conversely, a sure way to unravel a dog’s natural ability to self-compose is to reward excited behavior. Composure is negated when we give attention to our dogs as they exhibit behavior such as jumping on us, bouncing around, squatting, rolling over on their backs, etc. Suddenly, non-composed behavior becomes a default way for a dog to interact with humans. Conversely, even when dealing with an eight-week-old puppy, if we set the expectation that our attention is gained by standing calmly like a lady or gentleman, that is the behavior we will instill in our dog for life.

These lessons in composure can begin small and grow. As the dog gets better and better at exhibiting desirable physical behavior and mindset, we can apply it in more scenarios, gradually adding distractions and excitement for the dog to contend with. The daily goal is to build an enduring mindset that is capable of being calm when there are exciting things going on all around. Developing a sound-minded bird dog is akin to training a seeing eye dog, bomb detection dog, or other service dog. Their early experiences facilitate the development of the life skill of being able to perform and focus on their task or job in any situation.

Confidence 

Confidence in a bird dog comes from success in a variety of environments. A dog is only confident in contexts that they are comfortable in. A dog that is raised in a quiet, privacy- fenced backyard has good cause to be completely unnerved when suddenly dumped in a hunting scenario with multiple hunters, handlers, dogs, and birds. By exposing dogs to a variety of new experiences as they grow, we can help build resiliency and confidence. The goal is to develop a dog that is confident and capable of handling any environment he encounters. Pointing dogs need to find success in the hunting field early in their development. They need to learn that when they navigate cover confidently, going to the “birdy spots,” a reward awaits. Confidence is gained from success in a variety of experiences and environments. We try to help our young pups explore a world full of positive outcomes; some of the most confident and adaptable dogs we have raised have spent months with us on the road, encountering new sights, smells, and experiences almost daily.

english setter training on a check cord
Confidence in the field is essential for any bird dog so they can handle any environment they encounter. (Photo By: Bridges Photography/Shutterstock.com)

Compliance

Compliance is developed by instilling consistent rules and behavioral expectations in a dog’s life. Our goal must be to teach them at an early age that there are things they can do and things they cannot do. This structure prepares them for learning mechanical cues on a lead (to develop “here,” etc.). We always look for the moment when a dog “joins up.” This term essentially refers to a dog’s willingness to tune-in, showing attentiveness to cues and being receptive to leadership or instruction. Compliance can present itself simply. For example, when a handler takes one step to the right while heeling, the compliant dog will immediately mirror the movement. A compliant dog may change direction in the field when the handler takes a few strides in a new direction. Teaching clear cues helps a dog to slide into this behavior. There is a beautiful cadence and continuity to working with animals that are joined up with their handlers and looking for instruction.

american brittany pointing dog
A compliant dog is ready and willing to take verbal and non-verbal cues from you. (Photo By: Susanna Love)

Preparation 

Preparation for life as an adventuring bird dog should begin as early as possible. As trainers and dog owners, it is vital that we build a structure that enables a dog to progress through lessons that teach composure, confidence, and compliance. Everything we do should facilitate building the healthy mindset we desire in our dogs. This augments each dog’s ability to react to and perform well in new environments, in and out of the field. The dog we invariably are working to shape is composed, confident, and compliant, and it is our responsibility to nurture and continue to develop these traits throughout the life of each dog that we put our hands on.

pointing dog retrieving a rooster ring-necked pheasant
Ensure your dog is prepared for a variety of situations and environments by training them to be composed, confident, and compliant. (Photo By: Ksenia Raykova/Shutterstock.com)


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