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How to Help Your Gun Dog Be Confident in New Environments

Bouncing back from stress in new situations requires a little patience and proper exposure.

How to Help Your Gun Dog Be Confident in New Environments

New terrain and new birds can take time for a dog to acclimate to. Be patient and level-headed as your dog adjusts. (Photo By: Susanna Love)

Periods of transition and change can be challenging. Consider the experience of a recent high school graduate, and the tremendous amount of stress that arises as that student navigates the first year of college. Change brings new expectations and boundaries. It is exciting, but also quite daunting to move into unknown territory. These periods of transition arise through the life stages. After navigating the college environment, a new set of challenges will be presented in the form of various new jobs, new homes, new financial responsibilities, and more. Fortunately, facing the stress of transitions will equip the developing human with some coping skills. Each successful transition or change helps a person become more comfortable dealing with the new situations that are unavoidable throughout life. With experience, each change gets slightly easier; successful transitions breed confidence in one’s ability to adapt to new surroundings, challenges, and demands.

Dogs experience the stress of transition and change in much the same way that humans do. Young dogs that have not experienced many new, unfamiliar environments in their life are particularly susceptible to the stress of change. A dog that has lived a life of predictable experiences, or a dog that has only known one routine, will encounter new challenges or environments with a degree of stress or anxiety. Our job as trainers is to recognize these occurrences of stress and to help build coping skills and resiliency.

Starting Early

The development of a dog that can adapt and cope with change begins with the proper socialization of puppies. The early days are critical. Puppies that are presented with a stream of new experiences will be better equipped to make calm, rational decisions in moments of stress throughout their life. A solid catalog of adventures and growing experiences during a dog’s youth will instill in the adult dog a sense of confidence dealing with new stimuli. Take your puppy out to a variety of safe, but new environments. Expose them to new sights, smells, and sounds. Conscious conditioning of a dog to be comfortable with change should begin during puppyhood and should be a point of focus at least through young adulthood.

dog kennel
Transitions and new environments can cause stress in your dog. (Photo By: Susanna Love)

We often talk about the ability of a dog to handle transition as their “bounce back.” This concept simply describes the amount of time it takes a dog to assess a new situation, to become comfortable, and to use cognitive skills and training to react to the newfound circumstances in a calm, appropriate manner. We should all set out to have dogs that display a quick “bounce back” when encountering new experiences, as these are the dogs that can successfully “go anywhere and do anything.” Developing quick “bounce back” requires a deliberate process on the handler’s part and requires the handler to help the dog develop the confidence to remain composed when confronted with stress. As handlers and trainers, our patience, leadership, clear boundary-setting, and a consistent, yet calm, demeanor are key.

Adapting to Transition

When we receive a group of dogs in for training at Ronnie Smith Kennels, some individuals are immediately comfortable in the new environment. These dogs are receptive to both the trainers and the training. The more relaxed, receptive dogs tend to be the ones that have traveled and been exposed to a variety of new experiences during their first year of life. In every class, though, there are dogs that show fear when transitioning into our facility. Often these are the dogs that have been provided a puppyhood that is filled with comfort and love, but that is lacking in transitions or dynamic experiences. The incidence of these dogs was increased during the COVID pandemic when quarantine periods and work from home forced many dogs and owners into a wholesome yet entirely routine environment. For many, the COVID environment was anything but dynamic, and as a result, these dogs did not develop a degree of resiliency. They now have a very hard time coping with the change and stress that training introduces.

dog trainer walking with English pointer
The best preventative is exposing your dog to new surroundings early in their life. (Photo By: Susanna Love)

Some dogs take days to adjust, others take weeks. During this time of transition these dogs are not capable of successfully beginning their formal training because they remain focused on the stress that environmental change forced upon them. They need to work through this developmental process before they are receptive to the next phases of training. Fortunately, by being presented with the change of being at a training kennel, they are forced to learn how to be successful adapting to these transitions. Simply being at the kennel presents a significant learning opportunity, and the process strengthens the dog, allowing him to begin overcoming fears and stressors.

New Environment Stress

As we develop, train, and hunt our dogs we should remain aware of the transitions and challenges they may encounter. Every year as we transition dogs from our class back to their owners, we see dogs working through the stress of changing handlers. The slightest difference in cue and mannerisms can cause some dogs significant stress which is visibly reflected in their performance. Occasionally at these times “the wheels fall off the wagon.” With an awareness of what is taking place and by utilizing the training that has been carefully implemented, we can help dogs re-focus on skills they are confident in, and they can work through this transition relatively quickly.

This fall, as young dogs hit the grouse woods, the pheasant fields, or the prairies for the first time, they will navigate new territory and will be asked to cope with the stresses of change. This stress may result simply from travel to new locations, or it may arise from the demands of learning to assess new terrain and new types of birds. It is good to be aware of what your dog is experiencing, and to utilize the consistency of previous experience and training to help them move through the process.

pointing dog running with foot cast
A balanced and well-adjusted dog will be able to quickly recover from adversities. (Photo By: Susanna Love)

Each fall we take a group of first season dogs (“rookies”) on a training trip. These are dogs that have graduated our basic training class and are considered “trained.” However, like the high school graduate, they have a lot of “real world” lessons to learn. The lessons begin the first day on the road. We often overnight in relatively quiet locations, but there are always new stimuli for the dogs to notice. We quickly assess which dogs stress the most with travel, identifying the dogs that nervously look around at everything and pay little to no attention to their food. These dogs have not even gotten to the location where we will be working on birds, and yet their bodies are undergoing a physical stress. The stress will make them more susceptible to illness, weight loss, and injury, so we are very attentive to their mental and physical state as we travel. Extra care is taken to make sure these stressed animals consume sufficient calories, take in a probiotic (we always travel with a supply of Purina’s FortiFlora probiotic), stay hydrated, and have good bowel movements.

When we arrive at our wild bird training camp, we always give the dogs a few days to settle in before transitioning to the new type of bird. It is important to remember that during a period of transition, a dog’s performance in the field may not be optimal. Just as your ability to execute a task is decreased when you are distracted and stressed, your dog’s performance will likely be impacted by the stress of a new environment. Your dog may not even be able to engage in the hunt, as new stimuli may be his primary focus. At the end of our time at our wild bird camp, these dogs are much less impacted by novel experiences. They tend to react to stimuli in more of a calm manner and are better equipped to make good decisions in the field and on the road.

As you work your “rookie” this season, we encourage you to help set your dog up for success. Maintain your training, but with an eye on developing your bird dog’s career instead of expecting perfection in every hunt. Identify those times when your dog does not react well and consider that he may be going through a period of transition. Use a calm demeanor, keep your composure as a handler, and reference your dog’s training to help him through that learning experience. Be patient, but maintain consistent expectations, and strive to build reliable, replicable behavior.

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