The Human Factor in Dog Training

Hunting Dogs - The Human Factor - Shooting Sportsman Magazine
Ben O. Williams, author of Bird Dog, The Instinctive Training Method, preaches a more hands-off approach to training—letting dogs figure out things on their own. Photograph courtesy of Ben O. Williams.

 When you talk about factors that determine a bird dog’s success, you typically hear things like bloodlines, nose, exposure to wild birds and formal-training methods. Rarely, however, does someone mention the owner’s mindset. It’s an ambiguous, touchy-feely term that doesn’t easily fit into a hands-on project like training a dog, yet it can have as much to do with a dog’s performance as anything else.

If we’re honest, we sheepishly will admit that we are the reason for most of our dogs’ shortcomings. Human tendencies can undo the work of the best trainer and stand in the way of the strongest canine genetics. Why, then, is more of the sporting-dog discussion not focused on the human side of the equation?

It seems strange that scores of books and videos gloss over the topic, giving most of the page and screen time to techniques or methods of training. Maybe it’s a matter of giving people what they want; maybe it’s just not something that the authors think much about. Either way, it’s a disservice to dog owners, especially those bringing a pup into the home for the first time.

One notable exception is Ben O. Williams’ book Bird Dog: The Instinctive Training Method, which touches on the topic often. For years Williams has preached a more hands-off approach to training in favor of letting a dog figure out things on its own. This requires giving up a certain degree of attempted control and replacing it with patience, stifling the urge to immediately react and correct every mistake a dog makes.

“We make more mistakes than the dog,” Williams told me in a recent conversation. Given the relative levels of intelligence, this is so true it isn’t funny. Given the relative levels of instinct, it isn’t surprising. A dog from a good hunting pedigree has all the basics needed to become a hunter. Our job is to stay out of the way.

“We don’t know what’s going through dogs’ minds when we train them,” Williams said. Lacking this insight, we substitute what we think ought to go through their minds—or worse, what would be going through our own minds in the same situation. In short, we overthink it, and then we make it worse by falling back on another human tendency: We talk.

“Really good dog trainers don’t say much to their dogs,” Williams said. Outside of teaching dogs a few useful commands, there’s not much practical purpose in talking to them, since they don’t speak our language. Non-thinkers that we are, however, most of us string together sentences and try to tell our dogs what we want them to do—and then get frustrated when it doesn’t work.

Talking, especially in an agitated tone of voice, rarely accomplishes what you intend. Your frustration, not your desire, is what gets conveyed, and all this does is create confusion in the dog’s mind and raise the stress level. It’s just not helpful in any way. An interesting experiment would be to take this to the extreme: Try to go an entire day without speaking to your dog. Use body language, hand signals, points of contact, anything but words to communicate what you want. You’ll be surprised how often you actually talk to your dog.

What else goes on in that space between our ears that affects our dogs? Our presence—a combination of mood, attitude and temperament—is fundamental in how our dogs view us and react to what we’re trying to teach them.

A retired educator, Williams saw this play out in the classroom year after year. “When you walk into class on the first day,” he said, “you know within about 15 minutes what you’re going to get away with under that teacher and what you’re not going to get away with. Dogs have that same sense.” Some teachers can quiet a class with a glare; others can’t maintain control no matter how much they raise their voices. Think about the kind of dog owner you’d rather be, and in your best fake-it-till-you-make-it manner, be that owner. 

As for the most important part of training and owning a dog, Williams says without hesitation that it is to have fun. “I used to tell my basketball teams this,” he said. “It’s very important.” An old Steve Jobs expression about a blinding glimpse of the obvious comes to mind, but how many dog owners get so caught up in the performance of their animals that they forget to enjoy the moment? 

For most of us, our bird dogs are not our jobs, and our success in life does not depend on their performance. They are, however, a key piece of our sacred and scarce free time—a thin slice of our life that, if it’s not fun, we’re doing wrong. Keeping the fun in it goes a long way toward a mindset that gives your dog its best chance at success.

All of this is logic, but dog owners get so consumed with the process and the results that they don’t stop to think, logically, about how they’re acting and whether those actions are helping or hurting. Simply becoming aware of your voice, your mood and your attitude will go a long way toward ending behaviors that keep you from having a bird dog you can be proud of.  

Mark Coleman has owned bird dogs for 25 years and is still learning. Between lessons, he volunteers for The South Carolina Bobwhite Initiative, working to restore wild quail populations in his home state.

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