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The Power of Your Energy in Dog Training

The energy you project can affect your bird dog's development and demeanor.

The Power of Your Energy in Dog Training

Dogs feed off of our energy, which means we have to keep ourselves (and our emotions) in check until it’s time to party. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

Having spent quite a bit of time with a wide variety of dog trainers, I can safely say one thing— they all tend to operate on the same wavelength energy-wise. Most of them are soft-spoken and relatively calm and this is not a coincidence.

The energy we project toward our dogs matters—a lot. As someone with twin nine-year-olds and a 4.5-month old Lab puppy, I’m reminded of this daily. How we project ourselves toward our dogs can often make a training session really hum or knock it right off the tracks. This is worth acknowledging and fully understanding because there are times when our energy should be subdued and times when we should go bonkers.

Fast or Slow? 

“These are not my words, but they absolutely apply to how we train,” professional dog trainer, Matt Mercereau, said when I asked him about energy projection and dog training. “We train fast dogs slow and slow dogs fast.”

With a low-drive dog, you might want to make every session feel like a party to get the motivation to kick in. With a high-drive dog, the opposite holds true. You don’t need to make a burner think that every little dog training win is the best thing in the world, and in fact, might need to downplay your energy.

Professional dog trainer Tom Dokken with a Labrador retriever
If you spend time around professional dog trainers, you’ll notice how calm they tend to be. They don’t get worked up over mistakes and tend to only really get excited when the dog has a win worth celebrating—a good lesson for amateur handlers. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

This is intuitive enough for most of us, at least when we look at it on paper. In the real world, where training distractions hit both us and our dogs, how we project ourselves to our dogs is important. In most cases, this all starts with the age of the puppy. There’s no harm in cheering on a three-month old when it does something simple like sit on command or stays steady for a few seconds. In either case, positive energy is a good thing. Crazy energy, isn’t. I don’t know how to describe this any other way, but I’ve got one daughter who handles our pup really well. The other, comes at the puppy like a runaway freight train complete with big noise, exaggerated movements, and an unnecessary enthusiasm.

She also, almost instantly, elicits a growly or pure wild response from our puppy. This often causes breaking, a little too much toothiness for my liking, and sets the pup up for failure. It drives me absolutely nuts, because it’s unnecessary and has the potential to change the tone of a training session in an instant. Now, she’s an extreme example of how the wrong energy projection is always a negative when dealing with puppies, but even on a subdued level it can be deleterious.

young girl with English cocker spaniel
Involving our kids in our dog training programs can be beneficial, so long as they control their excitement. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

Beyond Puppies 

When pups become full-grown dogs, there are different times when we want to manage how we are acting around them. A common scenario where we give them something that can cause them to misbehave or at least, not behave the way we’d like them to, is during a hunt.

A few usual suspects here are when birds are flushed out of range, staunch points become a little loose, or a downed bird evades their nose.

In these moments, our frustration turns into something that is not encouraging, and that is contagious. When your dog catches it, the odds of it searching properly for the wounded rooster, or suddenly performing well, are really low. While individual situations vary, a better bet when a downed ringneck is winning the hide-and-seek game is to start to party and be as encouraging as possible.

Training a Labrador retriever puppy
How we project our energy around all dogs, but especially young dogs matters. Too much aggression or misdirected hype during a training session can change the whole tone for the worse. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

If you think a dog doesn’t feed off of that, you’re wrong. They do, just like little kids at their first tee-ball game tend to respond better to overt enthusiasm than silence or worse, derision. Dogs and kindergarteners alike are perceptive, and when they sense something is amiss it doesn’t portend well for the task at hand. Even though it’s difficult to tamp down our in-the-moment anger or frustration, it doesn’t do the dog any good to interact with them in a way that could tank their momentum. It’s simply better to put on a positive show so that they’ll keep trying to work for you.

Party Timing 

As I’ve mentioned, every situation with dog and handler is different. Some call for hype, others for zen. The times to be excited, like great performance during training or hunting, are easy to recognize. The times when it’s best to be calm, often aren’t.

A good strategy here is to recognize that anger doesn’t do anyone any good. Neither does exciting a dog when it clearly doesn’t know what it’s doing. For example, sending a dog into the thick stuff for a blind retrieve when it’s never practiced blind retrieves in training, is a recipe for disaster. It doesn’t matter then how positive you are, or what energy you project. The whole thing is destined for failure. But there are other times, like when a dog seems to know what it’s supposed to do but hasn’t built in enough experience to be truly confident, when throwing a little puppy party is the right choice. They want to know you’re happy (hopefully), and if you’re happy, they’ll keep going.

This is where watching a professional work with a dog on a new task is truly enlightening. That monotone trainer who would make the average career accountant seem like a real firecracker, will suddenly light up and praise the dog like it just cured cancer. The body language change for the dog is almost instantaneous, and the whole session’s vibe will ratchet up one notch in the right direction.

Training a Labrador retriever puppy
Understanding the right moment to change your energy from even-keel to party is crucial to encouraging confidence and development in sporting dogs. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

This, just like with corrections, is all about timing. A dog that is working on a little win to build in some extra confidence needs that moment of praise and excitement, and it needs to come right when the win is most evident. Too early and it’ll throw the whole thing off. Too late, and the dog won’t understand why the party is happening and it’ll devalue this crucial aspect of training.

Your bird dog wants to do right by you—and it wants to know that it has done right by you. This means that there are opportunities every day to keep your body language and energy level in check, until the training or hunting moments when it’s time to cut loose. This is a skill that is practically ensconced in every professional sporting dog trainer. With amateur handlers, it’s usually not, but that’s not to say it can’t be acknowledged and fostered, but it can and should be.

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