By Ronnie Smith & Susanna Love
Photograph Courtesy of Ronnie Smith Kennels
Dogs are champions at reading body language. It is the method they rely on the most for communication in life. The smallest movements, gestures, changes in posture or mood in people affect dogs’ mindsets and therefore their performance. As trainers and handlers of bird dogs, it is critical that we be aware of our impact on dogs as we interact with them on a daily basis.
People’s demeanors and emotions, good or bad, are directly reflected in the behavior of the dogs they regularly interact with. The most productive workouts we have with our dogs in training are those when we are “in the zone.” These are times when we are able to focus intently on each dog and be closely in tune with its needs and mental processes. We have found that this is when dogs tend to become willing and contented members of a working team. These workouts are the most effective for advancing dogs to new levels of training; bringing them out of fearful mindsets; teaching them to listen to even the slightest cues; and changing their overall outlooks to more positive, constructive mindsets.
The worst time for humans to work with animals is when they are frustrated, tired or mad about something. These emotions actually can cause a dog’s training to regress, sliding backward in confusion or with a new undesirable behavior showing up. Frustrated or poorly timed cues from a handler can result in unnecessary confusion—and confusion is a roadblock to learning and costs time in training. Once confusion sets in, all positive momentum stops until that confusion is addressed.
In order to facilitate an efficient training environment, think about your mindset before you begin. Are you calm and in a positive state of mind? Do you have a lesson plan and know what you are going to ask of the dog? Do you know what your correction will look like, if your dog makes an infraction? Do you have a goal to accomplish with your workout? If you can enter a training session with calm, focus and the conviction that you are the leader and teacher, progress is more likely to be smooth and you are more likely to facilitate the development of a healthy-minded animal. If you feel yourself getting frustrated, are unsure of how to respond to a dog’s behavior or find yourself distracted from training, back away and clear your mind. Good trainers have an instinctive understanding of when their state of mind is negatively impacting workouts.
Every moment with a dog is a teachable one, and we should recognize that there is no interaction that doesn’t shape how a dog views and reacts to us. Every time we touch a dog, we shape it—either to the dog’s benefit or detriment. As professional trainers, we are hypersensitive to that and strive to make every interaction a positive, healthy experience.
Understanding canine psychology requires careful observation, an open mind and the understanding that dogs do not hide anything. They do not lie or deceive. When they get it, they get it, and when they don’t, they don’t. If you watch their behavior closely, they will tell you exactly what they are feeling and what they need in order to be successful.
The primary goal of a trainer is to create scenarios in which the dog understands what behavior is being asked for and to provide conditions in which the right behavior is easy and the wrong behavior is more difficult to carry out. The ultimate goal is to help dogs consistently make good decisions.
Dogs come in for formal training with a set of default behaviors that they use in their daily interactions with humans. Common behaviors that pointing dogs demonstrate are jumping up on people, sitting or laying down, and ignoring cues and commands. These behaviors generally change as the relationship with trainers moves forward, because the dog learns that there are behaviors that are not allowed. The dog and trainer have a clean slate in deciding how the relationship will progress and what behaviors will be intertwined within that relationship. Interestingly, old behaviors often reappear when the prior handler or owner steps back into the picture, because there is a history of those behaviors being part of that relationship. The dog easily can slide back to its set of old behaviors, if allowed. If the newly trained behaviors are going to be part of the old relationship, there has to be a transition period where the new boundaries and routines are established within that relationship.
The concept of default behaviors is an interesting and important one. Often, whether intentionally or not, we are able to instill a set of behaviors that may appear at unintended moments. The most common is the “Sit” command, which many owners can be successful teaching early in a dog’s life. This behavior often becomes deeply instilled in the dog’s routine and a strong part of its relationship with that person. As we start to build out new or different behaviors and to ask the dog to perform new skills, the dog often reverts to its defaults.
Often in training classes we wrestle with the reappearance of default behaviors from previous relationships. One example was with a Drahthaar that was almost halfway through his training. He was a nice young dog that had been making a lot of progress when his owner visited to watch him in the field. The pup had a solid point on his first bird contact that morning, and then the unthinkable happened: The dog sat. When we started discussing what might have caused him to do that, the owner gave us the missing piece of the puzzle. He had worked extensively at home to develop the dog’s sit. The dog sat before he ate, before going out a door, when on a lead and his owner stopped, before unloading from a vehicle, and when petted. Basically, he was a very obedient dog that had a fully developed default to sit, and that default showed up in his bird work in the presence of his owner. To keep this dog standing on point, we had to train the correct behavior, incorporate the owner into the workouts and reshape the owner-and-dog relationship.
Success in training stems from a well-laid plan and proven teaching methods, but underlying these is an understanding of mindset and the impact our actions have on our dog’s behavior and performance.
Understanding that every interaction is tied to our dog’s behavior opens a new realm of understanding. When we are able to assess our own mindset and actions as well as our dog’s, we are able to accurately interpret where we are in the learning and teaching processes and where to go from there. With this understanding, we can most effectively utilize our time and energy, making our training more efficient and enjoyable.