Not everything in life goes as planned, and so is true in dog training. The “Bella…Be Good” series reminds me of this as a handler, and it becomes quite clear to anyone following along with the YouTube video series. It’s the risk you take when you make the decision to show the process completely unedited and raw. I experience the struggles and shortfalls not only as they happen in real time, but then again each time that I review the videos, create a text summary, and post an episode. It’s much easier to see issues coming, critique, and recognize what you should have done from the comfort of your easy chair while watching it all unfold on your laptop weeks later.
This series has become a living document and a great opportunity for me to become a better trainer—twice. Once, when the issues first show up live, and then again while watching the video afterwards. By the time this article is printed and being read, I expect I will look back on some of the things that have happened over the last few months as distant memories of a time when a puppy was doing puppy things. When it comes to a puppy or young dog, short amounts of time add up quickly, and progress can go from what seems to be a standstill to a distant memory in surprisingly little time.
There is an old saying, “No bird, no bird dog.” I believe this to be true, and I don’t think it is necessarily limited to bird dogs. It applies to gun dogs, shed dogs, tracking dogs, and so on. In order to ultimately achieve your goals in the field with your dog, you have to build toward the end goal. With gun dogs, birds and gunfire are a must. A shed dog needs to understand the value of a shed and how to safely pick one up. Tracking dogs must be put on a lot of tracks in order to piece the puzzle together. The issue comes when people hear this and act on it as the primary focus in training. The saying is true, but it’s no different than any other part of our training—the birds, gun, antler, and scents need to be built in and well planned out.
Time and time again, when it comes to retrievers, I see far too many handlers allow uncontrolled introductions and uncontrolled independence to happen, sometimes even encouraging it in their gun dogs. Although it is what your dog is bred to do—this is risky. Uncontrolled introductions are then followed by a struggle to regain the focus and control necessary to perform the way we ultimately would like the dog to perform. The best results always come from carefully balanced, controlled training combined with your pup’s natural talent and inherent traits. There has to be some balance.
The first 10-12 months of Bella’s training have been heavily focused on building her foundation. We have allowed for some important things that are often thought to be the “fun stuff” to happen along the way. Most of it, like introduction to gunfire, happens strategically in a very controlled manner. I always try to plan my pup’s introduction to birds to come sequentially and incrementally as well. I like to have the dog first experience the smells and the feel of feathers by using wings on a dummy. From there I like to use cold game such as frozen pigeons. Next, I thaw the pigeon and allow the dog to hold and retrieve the softer version, followed by a warm or freshly killed pigeon. Finally, they get their first chance to pick up a live bird using a harnessed pigeon. All sounds good and makes incremental sense. Unfortunately, not all goes as planned, or as well as it looks on paper.
Despite my efforts to control introductions, Bella’s first live bird experience came unexpectedly, and completely on her terms. It happens in Episode #23 of the “Bella…Be Good” video series, and fortunately the bird was just a young hen pheasant, barely “flight ready.” Completely unplanned, it gave us a good look at Bella’s natural hunting style. She had only handled a few feathered dummies, so the real thing was a considerable jump ahead in schedule. My control of her at that moment was virtually nonexistent once she had caught wind of the bird. Thankfully, we had developed a strong habit with her early retrieves, and once she caught the bird, a soft-mouthed delivery was made. It happened literally in a matter of seconds, and decisions had to be made quickly in order to avoid the undesirable.
A few months later, Bella bumped, tracked, and caught a young rooster pheasant in cover (Episode #60). Again, not part of the script, but another chance to see some natural hunt in her. Several things went through my mind at that moment. One was whether to stop her. I tried—that didn’t work. The temptation to chase a live bird was stronger than my whistle, and at that moment I had to make the decision to either let her track or put more pressure on her to stop.
My decision was to let her go. The reason was because I didn’t want her questioning what we ultimately are working toward simply because of my lack of preparation. Although I was frustrated, she held nicely and delivered cleanly without any issue. It ended as a positive experience for Bella, and a learning one for me.
These are simply a few examples and reminders to me that all the raw talent in the world doesn’t matter without the ability to maintain control and work together. And all the control in the world doesn’t matter if we don’t allow them to use their talents. The end looked good. The beginning looked good. It’s in the middle, linking things together, where we need to continue improving. And so, we will continue—always searching for that balance.
If you’re interested in more of Bella’s journey to “be good,” check out the complete “Bella…Be Good” series on YouTube, as well as the @dogbonehunter and @gundogmag Instagram and Facebook pages.