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Calm Composure

A calm demeanor is ideal in a bird dog and its potential for success depends on it.

Calm Composure

A composed dog will go a long way in all environments. (Susanna Love photo)

Most people would agree that all first-class bird dogs exhibit some common traits, most notably boldness, intensity and style on point, prey drive, athleticism, conformation, and endurance. However, this list often overlooks one trait that we see as a defining characteristic of a great dog: composure. A dog’s potential for success relies heavily on his ability to maintain a calm demeanor and to keep his mind under control through all of life’s changes, demands, and stresses.

A composed dog learns more quickly than an excited, reactive dog, and is therefore easier to train. He is able to evaluate a situation rationally and adapt his behavior appropriately. He can manage his energy while waiting in a crate, and by doing so has more energy to draw on when he sets out on those challenging hunts. He is also far more likely to be honest on game. In short, a composed dog is more enjoyable to both live and hunt with.

Developing Composure Early On

A dog’s ability to remain composed in a range of environments is not developed overnight. It requires an investment in time, beginning with early puppyhood. There are many creative ways to help instill a calm, composed mindset in your dog, and much of this work requires the creation of a calm environment, patience, and establishment of consistent expectations. With time, you can help your dog to develop composure and impulse control, which in turn will significantly benefit him in all environments.

English setter
With the end goal of a balanced bird dog, calm composure should start the moment you bring your puppy home. (Susanna Love photo)

Lessons in composure should begin when a dog is young. We consciously strive to bring a calming influence to all of our interactions with puppies. If a puppy exhibits a tendency to come to us bouncing around, jumping up, and even peeing in excitement, we intentionally slow down our movements, calm our voices, and have the puppy learn to “present” himself. We want the pup to develop the behavior of standing calmly in front of us, head up, receptive and still. Once the puppy is able to do this for a brief moment, we begin to rub and reward him calmly. If he fails and loses all composure, we set him back up to stand in front of us and present himself.


Our goal is to communicate to the pup that he gets attention when he is able to stand calmly. Our body language and tone are calm and receptive, and our voices are tempered to cultivate a composed mind. This intentionally calm style of interaction begins during puppyhood but applies to our actions throughout the dog’s life. We work consistently with each adult dog we train to ensure that they calmly present themselves to us before interacting with them. If a pointing dog sits, starts moving around, or even lies down to get a belly rub, we simply stop petting him and have him stand still again.

You can apply this principle in many situations around the house to solidify consistent behavior. A great place to introduce the standard of a calm, composed mind arises in predictable moments of daily excitement, such as feeding time or the time to go outside. When teaching composure at feeding time, simply hold the food pan up high until the dog stops bouncing around and stands calmly. At that moment, give the reward of the food. As your dog realizes that his behavior prompts the food to be given to him, you can begin to build duration. Eventually your dog will stand still until you give him the food, or you can heighten the lesson by teaching him to wait for a release cue before he will eat the food that has been placed in front of him.

Similar training can take place when letting your dog out of a door. Wait calmly until your dog quits bounding around in excitement, and at that moment give him what he wants: an open door. As the behavior begins to develop, you can extend the challenge until your dog will stand still at an open door until cued to go outside. We train this same behavior with our dogs at the kennel. Our dogs in training present themselves in a composed manner before we go outside. We do not allow them to go outside of their kennel until they are composed and then cued to move forward. This simple practice not only allows us to build composure in a replicable way, but it also ensures that we maintain a safe environment. When a dog pushes his way out of a door in a wild or uncontrolled fashion in any location, he potentially puts both himself and others in a dangerous situation.

Bird dog in a dog box
Instill patience in your bird dog by asking them to wait to leave their kennel or dog box. (Susanna Love photo)

Another great tool that we have used for years to instill composure lies in teaching a dog to heel on a loose lead. By creating a scenario where the dog is expected to make the decision to walk beside his handler and react to his handler’s movements, we are asking that dog to employ self-control. This exercise helps foster a calm, rational mindset. We always want our training dogs to pay enough attention to us that if we take a step to the right, the dog will do the same. If we take giant strides, the dog should change his pace to accommodate that speed. If we run and then come to a complete stop, so should the dog. In these heeling drills a dog should be composed enough to decide on his own to mirror our body movements.


Time and Expectations

These skills take time to develop. If in the process a dog loses his composure and fails due to a lack of impulse control, we maintain our expectations and cue to correct as needed, but we also slow down our body movements. We respond to a loss of composure with a calm demeanor and any words spoken are in a low, slow manner that can calm and decelerate the dog’s mind.

When building behavior, always be consistent, but take baby steps ensuring your dog’s success. The first bit of training should take place in a controlled environment with few distractions. Set the situation up so that your dog can be successful. As our dogs progress through training, we build challenges. We maintain our expectations while working our dogs through new obstacles in an agility course. This drill represents the beginning of asking a dog to go with us in a calm manner, responding to the slightest cues we give. We then carry the expectation of calm composure to the field. The best bird dogs are typically the ones that remain composed from the time we first put our hands on them in the dog box until they are content and tired after a run in the field. We ask that they remain calm in the box before the hunt, and even on the ground we expect our dogs to wait calmly for cues. Composure allows them to conserve the energy that they need to perform physically at a high level, and it allows them the mental focus to think rationally and make good decisions while hunting. An immense benefit of establishing this mindset throughout a dog’s life is that a calm, rational, composed dog is more likely to stand intensely on point for a longer period of time.

English pointer in a point
Remember, composure is really just impulse control, which in turn is the fundamental behavior behind a staunch point. (Susanna Love photo)

Always be conscious of how your energy and demeanor impact your dog. If you use excited baby talk with your dog, you are likely instigating excitable behavior. Don’t over-stimulate your dog and then expect him to keep a calm demeanor. During times of excitement, such as when you come home from work, intentionally maintain a calm presence, and expect your dog to do the same. Consistency is key in building behavior.

Shaping a bird dog’s behavior is a lifetime journey that does not just take place in the field. Training happens every day, as habits are built and experiences are created. The greatest gift you can give any dog is a solid, composed mindset. It will benefit him for life.

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