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Bird Dogs: Who Is Training Whom?

You should always be the one in charge.

Bird Dogs: Who Is Training Whom?

I spend nearly every day from late spring through early fall training with my friend Danny Lussen of Pond View II Kennels in Duchess County, New York. We work flushing spaniels and retrievers, putting dogs through their paces and building lots of reps and exposures, ensuring that the dogs get plenty of live-bird contacts.

We regularly get folks “dropping in” to watch and learn, ask questions or run their dogs a bit in hopes of getting some feedback and training time among peers. We also try to help owners who have had dogs in training learn to properly handle their dogs to ensure the training we have put in place “sticks.”

I am often more than willing to correct a visitor, and even to illustrate my points by taking over the handling role to put a dog through its paces. One of the most common frustrations among visitors arises when a dog that was obviously “pushing back” or refusing to follow commands and expectations falls immediately into line once I take over control.

This change in attitude makes me look like a hero, so I rarely go into too much detail about the secrets of my effective ability to step in, take over, and be successful. That said, the ability to shift the dog’s attitude in these cases has far less to do with any magical understanding or training technique. To the contrary, it really has the most to do with my ability to establish leadership, and not fall victim to the patterns of dysfunction that can arise between dog and trainer, owner or handler.


This concept leads me to a question that I feel must be posed to folks who are struggling through roadblocks in their training. Specifically, the question that needs asking is, “Who is training whom?”


In answering this question, and establishing the correct condition (namely, a circumstance where the trainer is clearly the trainer, and the dog is clearly the recipient of the training) it is first critical to think about the fact that dogs have a real (if not always good or well-constructed) reason behind their behaviors. Often, when a dog does not do what we wish it to do, the wrong behavior stems either from a situation where the foundation hasn’t been firmly enough taught, or the alternative to the desired behavior is so tempting that the dog will choose to go “wrong” rather than go “right.” So what does this look like in practice?

A very simple first example of how a dog can quickly train its trainer comes in heeling practice. When we begin heeling a dog, we anticipate the dog that will pull ahead, drag behind or veer away from a handler. These are common conditions, and they are also fairly easy to correct with a “pop” correction to the slip lead and a change of direction.

When we make such corrections as trainers, we feel effective, as we are clearly communicating our desire to the dog with authority. Frequently, however, we see a dog that turns or leans into a handler on heel, creating an annoying pressure on the handler’s leg, and making the handler feel crowded. This often comes off as more of an annoyance than anything, and the handler will often move away from the pressure to create space, in an attempt to re-establish a sense of command.

In reality, the opposite is occurring. As a handler lets the dog steer him or her by leaning in or creating a subtle direction change, the dog is in fact establishing control. As the handler turns away to create a more comfortable space, he or she is actually acknowledging the dog’s control and affirming it, even as that handler thinks he or she is re-establishing space and command. In essence, the dog is now training the trainer, creating a significant challenge to the relationship authority.


We see this same situation arising in domestic settings as well, and we see handlers getting tricked into doing the dog’s will. By thinking that the time in the home can be differentiated from the time in the field with regard to the dog’s interpretation of authority we often open a door for confusion between who is in charge and who is not.

Take, for example, the dog that gets jumpy, barky or agitated in the house at feeding times. If we as owners comply with this behavior by feeding when the dog has proven sufficiently annoying, we communicate that such behavior gets rewarded. It doesn’t take long for a dog to build such negative behavior into its bag of tricks, and to begin to roll out such behavior on a regular basis. In fact, once rewarded, these bad habits are quite hard to correct.

Another example of “who is training whom” that we see arising regularly with visitors to our training field occurs on retrieve training, or even a response to a natural retrieve. Often, a dog with a natural retrieve enjoys the practice of retrieving, and we reward that interest with praise and treats. On occasion, though, the natural retriever will see the process as a game, and one with flexible rules and boundaries.


This manifests often in a dog that goes out hard for a retrieve but then either retrieves back to the handler, only to spit out the dummy or bird and jump around and bark or lie down in anticipation of the next mark, or the dog that goes out for a retrieve only to walk/run away with the dummy or bird. Clearly, neither of these circumstances are ideal, but they do challenge the trainer to respond in a way that does not perpetuate the problem.

When a dog spits out a dummy and excitedly demands another mark, he has taken over the drill. Often, visitors to our training field will throw the dummy again, hoping for the proper behavior on the next retrieve. What is actually occurring with this response, though, is that the dog is getting the trainer to do his bidding.

Similarly, if a dog picks up a dummy and wanders away, or doesn’t complete the retrieve, but is then sent out on another retrieve in hopes of a proper outcome, he again is being rewarded. In all of these case, the tables turn in the favor of the dog, and the balance of power is tipped.

So how to ensure that you remain the trainer, and the dog remains the one being trained? In short, be willing to go the distance in standing your ground, and establishing consistency.

In the examples given above, it is first important to understand what the dog is thinking and why. As a handler, it is critical to recognize that a dog who tests the boundaries and tries to train you is not always looking to take an alpha role. Often, this dog is simply responding to an indication that you have provided for them over the course of the relationship.

In the feeding scenario described above, the reward for negative behavior often happens early, when the handler/owner feeds his exuberant pup assuming that the young dog is just hungry and energetic. Even a pup, however, should be held accountable; a good exercise here would be to make the pup sit and stay calmly, proving that he can do so before the food is ever put down, or before he is ever released to eat.

Similarly, the dog that leans in on heel should be recognized and corrected immediately. Accomplish this by regularly turning into the dog during heeling, rather than having him turn into you. He will quickly get the picture.

In the case of the retrieve and the dog that returns a dummy or bird only to bark or lie down, the immediate solution is to end the session. This behavior will rarely correct itself. Pick up the dummy, heel the dog, and put him up. Provided he has enough foundation training to know how a proper retrieve is finished, he will quickly learn that when done wrong, the game ends.

So too with the dog that wanders off on a retrieve; the handler should simply turn and walk away. This requires some discipline, but is the optimal response. The dog will generally respond by noticing your departure and getting nervous. He will return to you eventually, at which point you will put him up. There need not be any further correction; rather, the game just ends, and he realizes that he does not make the rules.

In the end, we are all trainers, and we need to maintain that role if we hope to be successful. When we give in to the pressures that our dog puts on us, or bend to their will, we knock the power out of balance, and make for a challenging training relationship.

Remember to keep an eye on who is training whom, both in the home and in the training field, and remember that you as the handler are always the one in charge.

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