One of the main problems we have as a society right now is that our communication style has changed so rapidly. We’ve spent a couple hundred thousand years looking at one-another, making sounds with our face, and gesticulating our bodies to convey our messages.
Today, we key in simple, poorly worded sentences and read them on a screen. Emotion, inflection, sarcasm, and all of the nuances of in-person communication are stripped away. This leaves us wholly unprepared to glean all of the unwritten information that might be included in the message. This is particularly difficult to deal with when it comes to communicating with strangers. To top it off, the very same devices that we choose to communicate with are chock-full of distraction, which further hinders communication.
What does this have to do with dogs? Probably more than most of us think.
The co-evolution of humans and canines that has led us to the point where we might have a Lab laying at our feet or a setter snoozing on the couch next to us, also created a style of communication that is truly remarkable. A few years back, Japanese researchers released findings on a study that dug into the bonding between domestic dogs and humans, which found that looking into one-another’s eyes created an oxytocin feedback loop.
This behavior, which helps human parents bond with human children, was essentially hacked by our canine counterparts and is now one of their sneaky, go-to methods for weaseling their way right into our hearts. It’s also a lesson in the communication that happens when nothing is explicitly said or even gestured.
What this means for us as dog owners is a lot to unpack, but in the realm of hunting enjoyment and training success, it implies that if we aren’t really present, we aren’t doing it right. It also means that the more distraction in our session, the more likely the necessary communication is to get lost in the noise.
This is something to think about when you’re training, of course, but also when you’re planning out a couple days in the grouse woods or maybe the CRP fields for pheasants. In either case, and most others, there is no better situation to communicate with your dog than when it’s just you and him.
The Distractions We Choose
All of the good bird dog trainers out there develop drills to address distraction. They know it’s inevitable that dogs will bump deer or rabbits, or that they may be working within sight of a busy road. They anticipate the attention-grabbers our dogs will encounter in the field, and they train for them so that dogs learn to tune out the unnecessary stuff to stay focused on us, and the task of finding birds.
They also train for the distractions we will invite into the field. From our hunting partners to extra dogs, there are aspects of a hunt we not only accept but encourage, and they really don’t do our dogs any favors. This is partly because when we invite these extra distractions in, we are also somewhat biased to ignoring their potential deleterious effects on our dogs.
Take the extra dog, for example. It’s a long-held belief by bird dog owners that old dogs will teach youngsters the ropes. On paper, that’s a solid plan. But, watch a one-year old dog interact with a seven-year old dog, and you’ll see something entirely different.
Odds are the youngster will focus nearly all of his attention on the older dog. The older dog will do his best to pretend the annoying young dog doesn’t exist, or will flat out let the dog know that he should keep his distance. What happens here a lot of times is that both dogs are getting less out of the hunt than they would have if they were just solo with their owners.
I noticed this with my Lab a few years ago when two of my buddies got puppies. It was painfully obvious that my dog wasn’t concerned with passing on bird hunting knowledge, and that the young dogs were looking at the hunt as play time. I also noticed that my dog would frequently stop and listen, thinking the younger dogs were something feathery and worth paying attention to, only to realize again that it was an unseen dog in the cover.
Last season I watched a line of five hunters walking through a parcel of public land in Minnesota. They had one dog between them, and the body language from all of them was that they were just going through the motions. The dog couldn’t possibly hunt well for all of them, and that clearly had an effect on the hunting party.
This also had an effect on us, because the more people that end up in our hunting party the more our attention is divided up. Now, I realize that this will probably ruffle some feathers but it’s also why I personally avoid the gang-style hunts that are so common on the pheasant opener.
Dogs that are comfortable with that style will do just fine, just as hunters who acknowledge what they are getting into can have a blast pushing milo fields out with eight of their buddies. But it’s not for everyone, and it’s definitely not a great situation to invite a dog into that has never had a softer introduction to more people, more guns, and more dogs.
In fact, if you really want to develop an in-field working relationship with your dog, whether you’re running a flusher or a pointer, the best bet is to go at it alone. With no one else to worry about, you’ll be far more likely to move at the dog’s pace through the cover. There won’t be any slowing down for the stragglers or speeding up to keep the line steady.
This allows the dog to work at his own pace and figure out where the birds are and how to work them. If this sounds like hogwash, try it. A dog that is figuring out quail or grouse or whatever in a given spot, needs time to work. If your pace is in response to his pace, the whole thing will take on a different feel and better yet, you’ll start to develop and understand communication that goes far beyond verbal commands or what you can conjure up with a whistle and hand signals.
An added bonus of the one-on-one hunt is that you can allow the dog to tell you where to go. With extra hunters comes extra input on how to proceed through a given property. This might not be a big deal on a private piece that is loaded with birds and set up just for the hunt, but when you’re on public land and trying to find the best way to put up a few pressured birds, it can be huge. I don’t know how many times I’ve set out with my Lab with a specific route in mind, only to find myself following her lead back through cover we’ve already hunted or in a direction that just didn’t seem to make sense to me. I’ve learned enough times that she’s operating on a different plane when it comes to understanding where the birds are or should be.
In fact, most of the time we hunt I just set a very general course and let her hammer out the specifics. I firmly believe this leads to trust with a dog, and that leads to teamwork—which leads to better hunting and a much more rewarding experience. Often when you see the wheels falling off on a dog’s performance, it’s due to too much distraction or too many handler demands while the dog is just trying to do his job. Eventually, the dog either directly disobeys, which is bad, or the dog gives up and walks sheepishly in the wake of its owner (also, very bad).
When it comes down to it, there are plenty of ways to encourage and implement a great hunt, but one overlooked route is to just spend more time hunting just you and your dog. This takes some of the pressure off of the hunt and allows the back and forth communication between handler and dog to develop and grow with each hour afield. This usually results in not only a better dog, but a better experience with the dog while hunting — which is something we all desire.