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Developing a Dog's Positive Mindset During Formal Training

How to help your gun dog be confident, composed, and compliant in its work.

Developing a Dog's Positive Mindset During Formal Training

A dog in a calm mindset will be more receptive to training. (Photo By: Susanna Love)

Training a bird dog is quite like teaching a human in that the general goal is to create a productive, engaging experience that modifies the student’s set of skills, mindset, and/or behaviors in a specific, intentional way. As with a human, a dog’s genetics and accumulated experiences shape how they view, navigate, and react to inputs and stimuli. A dog’s proficiency on a hunt is directly correlated to their overall state of mind and their perception of events taking place around them. As we have discussed in previous articles, this mindset and perception is manipulated and refined by the experiences the dog encounters during development and training. As a result, training bird dogs encompasses much more than just training a predator to work the scent of a game bird.

At Ronnie Smith Kennels, we develop and train bird dogs with a steady focus on what we call the three C’s: confident, composed, and compliant. A confident dog is less stressed through the learning process and is more likely to accurately interpret the events taking place around him. A composed dog is more able to process and react in a level-headed fashion during training and while on game. A compliant dog has the desire and capacity to recognize cues and react according to the training that has been put in place. Our goal throughout the training process is to help dogs accurately interpret human behavior, build the dog’s resilience and assertiveness, and give them the skills to move through their stressors. These fundamental abilities will allow a dog to grow stronger and more adept at behaving as desired when each new or challenging experience is encountered.

Evaluation

As professional trainers, our efficiency and effectiveness hinges on the dog’s ability to accurately interpret human behavior, cues, and events. As training dogs are received at our kennel, we evaluate how well each individual dog interprets human and canine behavior, and we also look closely at how resilient and bold each dog is in the new environment. The dog’s ability to mitigate stress and adapt to new situations are big factors in determining how well the dog will proceed through training.

A dog that is comfortable only with the people that are routinely in their lives may react with fear when encountering new people. A dog that is fearful around a stranger will have an inherent negative association with any action that person does. Over the past couple of years, COVID has introduced a generation of puppies that were not widely socialized with new people, and as a result we have seen a significant increase in dogs beginning their training with a fearful or fearfully aggressive mindset. In our recent groups of new training dogs, it has not been uncommon for up to 25 percent of these newly arrived dogs to shy away from us when we go toward them, some even growling and barking defensively. Before any productive training can take place, this mindset has to be changed and the dog must learn to be able to react to his trainers in a positive manner. Only then will he actually be able to learn anything in the training exercises.

Liver German shorthaired pointer in tall grass
The goal is to always strive to build confidence, compliance, and composure in your bird dog. (Photo By: Susanna Love)

Slowing Down Formal Training

Working with a dog to make sure he has a positive association with the trainer is the first step in building confident, composed, and compliant behavior during formal training. When working with a fearful dog, we intentionally make slow movements and try to minimize the amount of stimulation (any action or condition that creates a response or sensory input). While we take note of timid behavior, we do not placate or try to soothe the dog. Instead, we slow down the training steps and set the dog up to have the opportunity to face his fears at a manageable pace, while also ensuring his success. We consciously set these dogs up to be successful with simple tasks early in their training. The more stressed or fearful a dog is, the more necessary we find it is to make sure cues are simple and clear.

We begin in a controlled environment with as few stimuli or distractions as possible and begin by establishing a routine. A routine helps dogs gain initial success and builds a strong foundation. As the dog becomes more responsive to the trainer we can expand and begin to change the established routine to apply a newly acquired skill set in a fresh, slightly more challenging scenario. This process helps dogs incrementally learn how to mitigate stress and adapt to new situations. We navigate this process while taking into consideration the fact that dogs with strong fearful behaviors or tendencies will often never fully overcome that mindset. With consistent training, however, they can learn to mitigate stress in a healthy way, confidently facing fears in a more calm, confident, and composed manner.


Once each dog is comfortable with the trainer, the next step is to introduce the concept of communicating via mechanical cues of leads, check cords, etc. We do this with the use of agility obstacles we call the “Challenge Course.” As each dog gains confidence and proficiency navigating physical obstacles, we transition to light cues with a check cord or Command Lead. Our cues vary to allow us to communicate to the dog how we want them to navigate each obstacle (walk through, jump over, put two feet on, or stand fully on obstacles). By the time most dogs complete their Basic Formal Training they can navigate each obstacle by following small cues of our body language or light cues of the e-collar. We use creativity to keep it fun and use nuances to practice all “basic bird dog behaviors” (going with you, being still, and coming to you) in different ways. By varying how we utilize the obstacles, dogs gain familiarity and confidence with the course, and we can keep the dogs engaged, enthusiastic, and in a learning state of mind. Recall, we are always striving to build confidence, compliance, and composure.

Formal Training Composure

As confidence is building, we begin to work on teaching the dogs how to be composed during training. One of the most effective ways to introduce this concept is to teach a dog to stand calmly beside his handler on a loose lead. If the dog pulls on the lead or check cord, we cue to reposition the dog by our side, allowing the lead to be loose as long as the dog remains in place. Through repetition, the dogs get better and better at standing calmly beside their handler, and we can increase the level of distractions as we require the dog to continue to stand on a loose lead. By working with a composed animal, we can easily teach them to heel on a loose lead.

Liver German shorthaired pointer in tall grass
The lead is a fundamental way to communicate with your dog in training. (Photo By: Susanna Love)

Once the dog is in a state of mind that is positive and receptive to training, the formal training can really begin to make progress. This is when we begin to develop points of contact to cue the dog for desired behaviors such as standing still, going with us, and coming to us. The dog’s receptive mind and the healthy relationship with the trainer allows the dog to move forward quickly and easily through the formal training process. The end result is a better understanding of the training and therefore a more proficient bird dog in the field.

As we work through the training process, we find motivators for each dog (i.e. finding birds, treats, retrieving, etc.). We then use these motivators with that dog to keep him engaged and moving forward through the training process. We work hard to find the right balance of workouts for each dog rather than trying to force each dog through any single element in training. If a dog is feeling pressure on game, we might let him have a dry run with no bird contact. This will help loosen him up and free his mind. If the dog is not excelling in a portion of the obedience work, we might just work on that element briefly and then turn loose to work birds. Balancing the motivators in a training workout with the elements that challenge that individual helps to build and maintain a positive mindset while re-shaping behaviors.

We often tell our apprentices that the mindset of the dog is far more important than their outward performance. A dog in the right mindset is a willing teammate that can learn rapidly and adapt quickly. Developing this positive mindset starts early and continues through the dog’s lifespan. It is likely the most critical component of their success.


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