Firelight Bird Dogs

Firelight Bird Dogs

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Sgt. Hulka, Andrew Marvell, And Early Setter Training

A week or so ago, a gun dog compatriot forwarded me a very sober, very detailed training description texted by an acquaintance with a (very) young dog.  My buddy is a rather staid, stoic veteran who was startled at the scope of his earnest correspondent's "program" with a puppy.  He presumed a reply was expected, but he confessed, "I'm just not sure what to say."

Me?  Lemme at 'im.  I either wanted to run and rescue that young setter or at least channel my inner Sergeant Hulka from the film Stripes and type to this person,  "Lighten up, Francis."

The two gravest errors we make with well-bred gun dog prospects are (a) not doing anything, (b) doing too much, too soon, and (C) colloquially speaking, bein' clueless about who's learnin' who what.

I get it.  We bought a BIRD dog, not a LhasoShizuDoodle.  We want to do birddoggery stuff - you know, with birds and pointing and gunfire and fetching and and and...

There's time for that.  Trust me.  There's time for that.  

But tempus is fugitting on other really important primary school matters.  How many folks do we see with young gun dogs who start doing field work being dragged to the session by an over-hyped English setter that doesn't know how to walk on a lead?  How many young dogs have gone into their first hunting season without a reliable recall, who don't look to their Person for partnership, let alone leadership?

When novices (and some who should know better) get gulled into asking me what they should be doing with their dog (hehehehe), they are always disappointed, mostly because the "work" I think they should be doing seems so boring:  Crate training.  Walking their dog on a lead.  Helping the dog be a good citizen in unfamiliar surroundings, with other people, with other dogs, cats, llamas, iguanas, etc..  How about reliably coming in when called...the first time?  Bonding, bonding, bonding, which means spending time doin' life together.  Learning together.

I'm stunned at how little time some would-be handlers really want  to spend with their dogs.  It is the human partner's fundamental obligation to understand her dog, which means spending the time and patience and thought it takes to establish that critical piece.  It's on us to understand how our dog sees her world;  it's on us to establish communication that runs both ways, which, frankly, should be the only kind of communication in which we're interested between others of our own species, let alone our dogs.

Every minute we spend with our dogs is a chance to learn something about them and about ourselves.  Our job is to take best advantage of that opportunity.

We do to young gun dogs exactly what our culture has been doing to our young people for years - never asking enough or asking too much too soon.  Only by being invested, by observing and being thoughtful, can we know what it is our learning partner is ready to tackle next.  That's the danger of many school curricula and, dare I say, cookbook dog training books and videos.  Such programs get applied without taking into account the individual.  That way frustration and heartache lie.

Lighten up, Francis.  The great advantage of not being a pro is your time isn't money in this venture.  This is your recreation.  So...DO that:  Re-create yourself as a collaborative learner with your dog, a deal where you learn how he communicates and try to get better at understanding that vernacular.  Learn how he receives communication from you which goes 'way, 'way, 'way beyond our insipid "commands" to every imaginable nuance of body language and vocal tone.  Establish rapport.  Roles.  Expectations.  Accountability.  Respect.  Love.

Live with your dog.  Learn your dog.  Support that dog early and often in walking at heel, accepting confinement, coming when she's called.  Do that with expectations commensurate with the dog's age and experience and opportunities.  There's world enough and time to do birddoggery stuff, Andrew Marvell.  For now, lighten up and learn to learn together.

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