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Learning By Example

Old dogs can indeed mentor and teach puppies new tricks.

Learning By Example

A well-trained dog with a great temperamant will make a good mentor to a young puppy. (Mark Atwater photo)

As a young guy of 11 or 12, I would sneak off to the local sport shop/tobacco store to sit quietly off in a corner to listen to the wisdom of the old boys as they talked about hunting and fishing. My ears perked up particularly when the discussion went to dogs. One universally agreed on point was that you trained young beagles by letting them run with older, experienced dogs, but you never did this with the pointing dogs. They had to be trained individually, never with an older dog, for a ton of reasons. I figured the old boys were the authorities on all things to do with hunting, including dogs.  

Twenty years later, I was walking in a field with three dogs, two adult Griffons and one six-month-old youngster, just letting them stretch their legs. Both older dogs were trained to drop flat on a single whistle blast. The youngster was still working on general obedience and not yet exposed to the more demanding drop and stay command. A jackrabbit jumped up ahead of the dogs and the race was on. I blew the single blast and both adults stopped and lay flat on the ground as they were laboriously trained to do. The pup shot past them, slid to a stop, turned, and went back to lie down beside the older dogs, assuming the correct chin on the ground between front paws posture. I called up the three dogs, headed away from the hare and went back home. I thought the pup was just imitating the older dogs, but really, I had no idea what he was doing.

Then a few days later I was working him alone in the field and a cottontail flushed ahead of him. He started to chase and I reflexively blew the whistle. Surprise, he stopped dead, dropped flat to the ground, and stayed until I walked to him and released him to go on hunting in the field. He wasn’t imitating, he knew the command and did it with no individual training. From then on, I challenged him with flushed birds, more rabbits, a groundhog and one evening, a whitetail fawn. He had it all down pat. Taking his cues from the older dogs, he had learned a very complicated command from older, experienced dogs on one exposure. I had spent weeks teaching this to each of the two older dogs.

Pointing dog with puppies on point
Puppies do not simply imitate, rather, they take cues from older, more experienced dogs. (Mark Atwater photo)

The Art of Mentoring

Finally, I started to question the old boys’ wisdom on how to train bird dogs. The older dogs were teaching the youngster by setting a good example which I label as mentoring; defined as a more experienced dog teaching a less experienced one by example. There are elements of imitation in it, certainly, but there's a lot more going on than just imitation. There is all the association of the stimulus with the response and a payoff, a reward for doing it to make it stick as an established pattern of behavior. In the case of my pup, he heard the whistle, saw the hare, and saw what was expected because of what the older dogs did and put it all together instantly into “that is what I am supposed to do, just like the old dogs did.” The old dog is also getting positive feedback when the pup did what he did and is reinforced by the young dog not chasing but also stopping.  


We see this same “mentoring” when an experienced hunter and his dog take a young person or two on a hunt at an organized youth day pheasant hunt. The young person learns from the example set by the experienced person. A lecture on ethics, safety, or respect for the game you are killing isn’t needed and might be counterproductive. The example set by the mentor does it all far better than a lecture or repeat after me by the numbers exam. Dogs do exactly the same thing and learn in the same way as a young person. They profit from a good mentor. Domestication of the dog has implications we have yet to imagine and far beyond what we already know.

Learning by Example

Since that evening in my back field, I have seen all kinds of dogs learning examples of what I read as mentoring by an older, more experienced dog. In every case, it is the younger dog learning from the older dog. And in every case, it is a far better, more efficient way than I could have done it. The mentoring comes in lots of levels. Sometimes it is the older dog assisting the youngster in learning trained things like sit and stay or walking at heel. Sometimes it is perfecting something the pup learned in weeks seven through ten while still in the litter with its siblings, like how hard to bite when in a play/fight game compared to how hard to bite when being super predator sharp. It is often obvious in hunting situations like sitting on a muskrat house watching the sky for ducks or targeting the type of cover that is most apt to be holding birds. Mentoring is always learning by example that is set by the older, wiser, more experienced dog. It is an alternate meaning to the old adage, “experience is the best teacher.”

Bird hunter with two Labs and a rooster pheasant
Puppies can learn what cover to target for birds by watching seasoned gun dogs in the field. (Erik Peterson photo)

However, there is the inevitable other shoe waiting to drop. A mentor can also be a bad influence. A well-trained dog with a great temperament will make a good mentor, but conversely, a poorly trained dog with a poor temperament will be the wrong kind of mentor and will teach the pup all the things you wish it wouldn’t learn. We hear of “good boys” who got in with the wrong crowd and the difficulty to turn it around. Dogs under similar bad influences can be catastrophes beyond repair. But, when the mentor and the mentored are good buddies with total rapport and the mentor has the training and the good temperament necessary, you are indeed blessed. The relationship between the older and the younger dog works for the pup just as good rapport and good temperament between the human trainer and the pup makes life easier and learning better for a pup. A good dog mentor for your pup wins hands down over the relatively poor attempts by us every time.

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