In all of the great literature, seminars, workshops and lectures on training bird dogs I have encountered, not one is presented completely from the perspective of the dog. I often wonder what my three Brittanys think of my methods, commands and follow through, and how many times they have a doggie chuckle behind my back.
I swear I have witnessed looks passing between them that could only be interpreted as an eye roll, “here we go again” or “wonder how long it will take her to figure it out” sort of response. And then there is the classic, “I can’t believe you missed that shot” that I know all too well.
I keep saying that whenever there is a problem in training, it’s usually the human’s fault, though traits in some bird dogs make it easier for them to take advantage of human failings. My biggest error, I think, is that I tend to give mixed signals to my dogs without meaning to do so.
There are tons of books and seminars on dog body language and communication, and one of my favorite books is by Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas titled, “On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals,” which is now in its second edition. Rugaas explains dog-to-dog and dog-human communication. You will never look at your dog the same way again after reading her work.
But however you look at it, dog communication is an intricate sort of system and dogs are hypersensitive to nuance. That’s a problem for them when they live with human beings. We are not that refined in our understanding, which makes it so important for us to be clear in our training and commands to our intelligent bird dogs.
Repetition. Simplicity. Consistency. These are all good words to associate with bird dog training, but executing them can be a challenge, as can interpreting the dog’s response. So I can’t help but think if my dogs could verbalize a critique of my training and handling techniques, they would have a lot to say.
Not to put words in their mouths, but here are some possibilities from my bird dogs’ perspectives:
Lighten up. Hunting is supposed to be fun. How can I have fun when you are constantly yammering at me? I know what I’m doing. I was born for this.
Trust me to do my job. I have to get into some gnarly places where you can’t go to find birds. Isn’t that why you trained me to hunt with you in the first place? If you want birds, let me go out of sight into the puckerbrush and find them. After all, I know who holds my supper hostage.
Try a different method. If I didn’t understand what you wanted from me the first 10 times you tried to teach me, what makes you think I will ever understand it if you keep teaching it in the same way? Show some imagination, human!
Choose a meaning for a command and stick with it. Make. Up. Your. Mind. Don’t keep changing the meanings of commands on me. I’m not psychic. If you change the meaning, I just have to start all over again. And you know what that means — more training time.
Use the same whistle consistently, if you can. If you use the same whistle all of the time, I will learn the special sound it makes and if we get separated and I can’t remember where you are, I just have to listen for that sound. My hearing is really exceptional, so even if I can’t see you, I will hear your whistle and come back.
Be patient with me. I want to please you, but frankly I find humans a real challenge to understand. We are training and next thing I know, you are losing patience with me. For the love of dog, take a deep breath, let me know you aren’t angry with me, and get down to the business of teaching me the new moves by maybe breaking them down into smaller parts. I get all flustered if I think you are angry with me.
Don’t train with me when you’re super stressed over something that has nothing to do with me. You tend to overreact and yell at me when you’re stressed. I don’t know if it’s my fault or not, but even when I know it’s not, your tension gets in my head and I can’t think. Next thing I know, I’m messing up what I’m doing.
Play with me. When I bring you a toy, just play with me. It’s all I’m saying. It’s the best part of the day, unless we get to hunt or train. You learn about me and I learn about you when we play together. I just think someone who likes to play can be trusted, and even a good friend.
For heaven’s sake, keep my day-to-day life on a routine. You may not mind living in your own chaos, but I find it very upsetting to live that way. Meals should be on time, every time. I should be able to count on some exercise. A dog can’t sleep all the time. And bedtime is bedtime. That’s it. Simple enough for even a human to understand.
You’re not bad as humans go, and with time, I think you will come around and get things right. Just keep trying. I will help you as much as I can.
Well, my beautiful and intelligent Brittany bird dogs, you can be sure I will do my best.
Julie Murchison Harris is community editor at Bangor Daily News. She is widowed and shares her life with three Brittanys: Sassy, 12, Bullet, 10, and Quincy, 4 — in an old farmhouse in Hermon.