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Learn to Trust Your Dog

When your dog is trying to tell you something, sometimes it's best to shut up and listen.

Learn to Trust Your Dog

Even though they can’t speak, dogs are fully capable of communicating with us in other ways—and we should listen. (Photo By: Tony J. Peterson)

The rooster took us from one edge of the property to the other. As he neared the far property line, I knew that he was likely to take off considering the fence consisted of tight, woven wire in its bottom half. That’s exactly what he did, and when he piled into the grass, I waited for Luna to make the retrieve.

It took about 30 seconds to realize the bird wasn’t as dead as I thought. Luna frantically coursed back and forth along the fence. I honestly didn’t think the ringneck would have the juice to run anywhere, let alone slip through the wire. She said otherwise, but I didn’t believe her, so I sent her on a lost-cause, hunt-dead mission.

Eventually I picked Luna up and set her on the far side of the fence where she buried her nose in the grass. Back and forth she went along the fence until she zeroed in on the exact spot the bird had slipped through. She seemed stumped.

Frustrated, I lifted her back over and repeated the drill on our side. After a few minutes of that she just stood at the fence and looked through it, so I hoisted her over again. This time, she swung further out and shifted into high gear. While we couldn’t see the rooster, we could see what Luna was doing with him as he darted back and forth in the CRP. Eventually, she corralled him and came in from the top rope to get her teeth around the very much alive rooster. As a hunting dog owner and lover, it was the kind of dog work that is just amazing to witness. It was also a poignant reminder that when a good dog tells you something, it’s worth listening to.

Dog Communication  

Levator anguli oculi medialis might sound like a magical spell lifted straight out of a novel, but it’s actually the name of facial muscles that canines possess. Its function in our modern dogs is to lift the eyebrows and make the eyes look bigger. This results in “puppy dog eyes” and is not possible in wolves where the muscle isn’t nearly as well developed as in their domesticated cousins. Wolves, which don’t boast thousands of years of co-evolution with humans, simply don’t need to look cute or sad. They don’t need to elicit an emotional response from us, because they don’t communicate with us. Dogs do, and it goes much further than adopting a Disney-esque look in order to con us out of a few treats or provoke an invitation to snuggle on the couch.

A decade ago, scientists explored the theory that dogs understand communicating with us better than our closest living relatives, chimpanzees. The eye-opening study found that even puppies with no training on that matter, instinctively understood that a human pointing at something meant they needed to check it out. This proved to be largely true, and it was noted that hunting dog breeds were particularly quick to grasp this style of communication.

Chimps, not so much. Ditto for wolves, even when they were raised with humans. The realm of grasping what pointing at an object really means was relegated to the dogs that have benefited from communication with humans for generations upon generations.

This is also one of the reasons why so many skilled trainers emphasize establishing eye contact with young dogs while they were working together. A dog that quickly learns to look into its handler's eyes is privy to more communication cues than simple verbal commands. In other words, the value of a command like the previously mentioned “hunt dead” can be as low as signaling to your dog that there is a dead or wounded bird worth searching for.

That command paired up with a hand signal, or even a look in a specific direction, can convey more relevant information and the crazy part is, your dog can understand that. If your focus is toward a certain direction, like the one that will put your dog downwind of where you marked the bird, the odds of recovery go up. This is a self-reinforcing system when it goes well, and it’s pretty incredible. It’s also the foundation of trust. The great intangible that takes the relationship of owning a bird dog to an entirely new level.

Why Trust Matters  

A dog’s trust for its owner is tethered to its confidence in the situation or the ask. If a dog isn’t confident enough in what you ask of it, it’s going to try to opt out. This is why baby steps matter so much in training. Dogs, like kids, want the truth when they are being asked to do something. If you tell a dog that he is to look in a patch of grass for a dummy, he expects to find it. If he doesn’t because it’s not there or the task is too difficult, there has been a breakdown in communication. Even if ever-so-slightly, the trust has taken a hit.

A dog that is asked to do something challenging but 100 percent achievable will learn that you don’t ask unfair questions. You might (and should) ask challenging questions, but as part of the deal you’ll do your part to make sure that he finds success through his effort and your input as far as teamwork is concerned.

yellow labrador retriever dog
Domestic dogs have thousands of years of human co-evolution in their genes, which means they are better at communicating with us than any other animal. (Photo By: Tony J. Peterson)

This is an intangible to training that doesn’t get a lot of play, but it should. Normally, the advice we hear is how to introduce a dog to a certain task or develop them through drills to be at a certain skill level. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it doesn’t often address our role in reading the dog, or more importantly, what we should be doing so that the dog can read us correctly. This is where true handler/dog communication levels up and creates the trust level that carries over from the training grounds to actual hunting scenarios.

Give and Take Communication  

A curious thing that happens with some bird dog owners is to go from an under-handler during training, to an over-handler during hunting. In other words, the dog is given some tasks with low standards for success or behavior while running drills, but then expected to be spot-on in the field.

This is mixed-message stuff and an absolute lose-lose for the dog. They learn that training isn’t that important and not much is expected of them, and that during the highly dynamic task of hunting wild birds, they are constantly wrong for employing the same style they adopted in training. What’s worse is that these changing expectations often lead to confusing and, occasionally, over-the-top corrections. Corrections the dog won’t be able to tie to a specific behavior because it doesn’t understand what it did wrong.

gun dog training
The more honest you are with your dog during training, the more it will trust you. (Photo By: Tony J. Peterson)

Beyond that train wreck scenario, it’s also important to remember that communication is a two-way street at all times. We like to think about how we tell a dog to do something and then the dog should do it. If the dog doesn’t, we’ve failed in the ask. But what about the communication from the dog that they just don’t understand the question?

A dog that is struggling will often exhibit behaviors you might view as undesirable, but it just might be their way of saying they don’t get it. They also don’t want to get corrected, but if they are clearly struggling to understand a drill or what behavior you’re looking for in a given environment, they will communicate that somehow.

It’s up to us as handlers to read that correctly and change our tact. This is give-and-take stuff, and it’s not something that can develop in a few months. It takes years of working together and listening to one another. It also helps to put yourself in situations where you’re learning as well as the dog, and success hinges upon communication through new experiences. The good news here is that the best way to do that is to hunt something new.

New Birds, New Language  

One of the easiest ways to watch a dog ask for your help is to knock a greenhead or a wood duck out of the sky in a way that your dog doesn’t get a good mark on it. When they get into the water without a clear direction, they often stop and look you directly in the eye so that you can give them hand signals. It’s as clear of a “help me out boss” look as you might get anywhere with a dog.

But you don’t have to pull on some chest waders to ramp up your mutual understanding with your bird dog. New hunts, like leaving behind the grouse woods to head south on a quail adventure, can really help you understand what your dog is saying to you in the field.

This is just speculation on my part, but success in unfamiliar territory often relies heavily on maxing out your dog’s skills, and your own. If you don’t learn together and do enough right to answer the questions that new environments and new birds ask, you won’t find them. This is a different experience than hunting the same strip of milo for roosters or visiting a familiar woodcock cover over and over throughout October. This is a challenge you can meet with your dog together, and you’ll need to say the right things to one another to succeed together.

I dealt with this the first time I specifically hunted quail with my Lab. My experience with bobwhites had come entirely from bumping into coveys while bowhunting deer, turkeys, and hogs. In other words, I was light on actual quail hunting experience and intel.

upland bird hunter with labrador dog and pheasant
Trust is a two-way street between you and your dog. This is best developed through proper training, and then fine-tuned in the field while hunting a variety of birds. (Photo By: Tony J. Peterson)

Luna was too, but we headed out together throughout a chunk of public CRP that was dotted with small islands of pines and plum thickets. When she stuck her nose under a lone conifer and her tail started going, I thought we were on a robin pattern. Even when she looked back at me, I didn’t believe her, and you know what happened next.

After that, she grew more confident on where to look for the birds, and I grew more confident when she told me she was on them. This has played out many times in our lives together and I say with utmost certainty that it has made our relationship better.

It’s also almost a yearly reminder to me that my dog doesn’t lie. She will placate me on a dumb ask because she’s a good girl, but she’ll also tell me as clearly as she can that what I think—and what she knows—are two different things. It’s at those times, like when a wounded rooster is doing his best to avoid a ride in your game bag, that trust really matters.  

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