Hone Your Hunting Dog's Full Potential

Are you robbing your dog of its full potential? Find out how to encourage confidence in your dog from a pup on, to help it become a rock-star in the field.

The English setter in front of our small group was nice-looking and well-built, though she worked sluggishly and without enthusiasm. But at one point the setter forgot herself, shifted into high gear and hunted with a fine slashing style that belied her close-working, mechanical pattern. During those moments, she was a different dog; that is, until her owner hacked her back to close range.

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Far more telling than the setter's unspirited performance was her behavior when she couldn't absolutely pinpoint birds. When she hit scent in swirling or crossing winds, she'd swing her head from side to side, look at her owner and sit down. She wasn't "blinking" birds in the standard sense; rather, when faced with uncertainty she simply shut off. Apparently, her heavy-handed trainer had taught her it was safer to quit than make a mistake. Sadly, the setter had been stripped of confidence in her abilities—abilities that, given her breeding, were substantial.

Definitions of confidence tend to be human centered and, as such, fall short of the mark when applied to gun dogs. Indeed, it's easier to recognize the results of confidence––or the absence of it––in a dog than it is to define it. What's undeniable is that dogs lacking confidence rarely perform up to their potential. In an ideal world, all hunting dogs would approach their jobs with, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the calm confidence of a poker player holding four aces. Unfortunately, some dogs in our less-than-ideal world don't show up for work with a four-aces level of self-assurance.

As I said, when it comes to hunting dogs no one's precisely certain what confidence means, though we know it when we see it. Some trainers equate confidence with strength of personality, stubbornness or unquenchable drive. To others it's all of those subjective factors, or it might be none of them. However vague the notion of confidence is, the majority of canine experts agree dogs aren't born with it, that it must be developed and continually enhanced. They agree as well that the process should begin early on.

Begin With Good Quality
The starting point to owning a fine dog is to buy a well-bred puppy from a high-quality kennel. Responsible breeders have usually begun a youngster's initial socialization to people and at least a limited, casual exposure to the environment outside of a kennel. Such early, positive contacts are the first steps in developing a confident dog that's not intimidated by every new experience. Once you bring a pup home, it's your job to expand what the breeder already started by establishing comfort levels, understanding and confidence in dealing with a vast new world away from the pup's security of its mother and littermates.

How you interact with a pup during your first weeks and months together can dramatically affect how confidently a dog performs as it matures. From a pup's initial days in a new home through its introduction to obedience and hunting basics, it must develop the confidence to cope with whatever it confronts or it might lose enthusiasm and become an unstylish, lackluster performer.

At first, the primary objective is to spend time with a pup––at this stage, breed makes no difference––socializing and bonding with it as it learns different facets of the house, yard, kennel, whatever the physical circumstances. Then the pup can begin to explore its world beyond home, in the covers that will ultimately be its hunting environment. This "pre-training" period involves few expectations and no actual work or serious discipline. That said, never allow a pup to lose sight of its position in the pecking order. By keeping a pup's ever-expanding life exciting, fun and full of perks, you're not only building its self-assurance but also preparing it for actual training. The "easy does it" approach sets the stage for a confident, well-rounded dog.

A few years ago, I watched a group of retriever owners run their dogs through some drills. All went well until one young Labrador had to be dragged from its kennel. Throughout its performance, the dog's body language and behavior screamed that it wasn't having fun: its ears drooped, its tail was between its legs, its movements were hesitant and it constantly stopped and looked at its yelling, arm-waving, uptight owner for instructions. The Lab's confidence was so eroded by confusion and intimidation that, right or wrong, it was afraid to do anything.

A bit later, I overheard the owner say his Labrador had "showed real promise until it was 5 months old." Five months? Turns out this guy force-broke the pup at far too young an age, pressured it with complex multiple retrieves and then expected the youngster to perform like a veteran. When it didn't, he laid into it, both hands on and with a shock collar. If there's a faster way to crush a pup's spirit, thus confidence, and turn it off to bird work, I don't know what it is.

Easy Does It
It's probably human nature for hunters to want their pups up and running as quickly as possible. But giving in to the temptation to forge ahead too early can be a costly mistake. You can't recover time and opportunities that have passed, and you might not be able to repair problems you've created. Keep in mind dogs have short attention spans but are endowed with long memories. In other words, don't squander a pup's most impressionable months by pushing too hard. Keep your youngster's world view positive and its enthusiasm and confidence high. As training progresses there will almost certainly be stressful periods when its self-assurance will be tested. You don't want your pup to fall apart when you begin to demand more of it.

Another common error owners make is trying to speed up training by jumping from one step to the next before a dog fully grasps what it's supposed to be doing or, worse, by skipping steps entirely. By going too fast or eliminating essential building blocks of training, you short-circuit the process and end up with a dog that doesn't understand what you expect of it and can't complete the job you've given it––you've put your dog in the position where, no matter how hard it tries, it's going to fail. When that happens, its confidence level, in both itself and in you, can nose dive.

Wise trainers follow the commonsense adage that dog training is a step-by-step learning chain that proceeds from the simple to the complex––as complex as an owner desires or as a dog can handle. That means a dog should learn a task or drill thoroughly and perform it confidently and enthusiastically before moving to the next level. I'm not suggesting you repeat one drill until your dog quits from boredom, only that you shouldn't advance to a greater challenge until you're sure it can handle with complete confidence of success all you've done up to that point. Especially in the initial stages of training for bird work, you should allow a youngster to succeed as much as possible at whatever you ask of it. You want your gun dog to approach every task knowing what you expect and confident in its ability to accomplish that task.

One of the pleasures of owning a hunting dog is watching it perform with enthusiasm and style: a pointer, ears high and tail up, locked down on a bird; a spaniel driving in for an aggressive flush; a retriever running a straight, unhesitant line to a shot bird. And a key element in developing and maintaining such a high level of performance in a gun dog of any breed is to make sure it knows what it's supposed to do, is confident in its ability to do it and always thinks it's holding its version of four aces.

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