This season is the first for my 14 month-old lab Waylon. She has been doing much better than I expected. Especially because I didn’t follow many of the old dog training rules and was sure she would be out of control and hard to keep in range. As I reflect on this pheasant season, I think I know a few reasons the season went surprisingly well.
- Every Dog is Different and Every Dog’s the Same (Cue country music riff)
I have read multiple books and talked with a few dog trainers who believe in one method of training. Often this means to remain firm, enforce dominance, and to utilize punishment. These strategies work for many hard-charging dogs, and may have even worked with Waylon. However, this strategy also runs the risk of taking a mild dog and making it timid. Take it easy the first year, and figure out how it responds to pressure, punishment, and anger. Not all dogs are created equal.
- Be Patient Young Grasshopper (Slow head nod)
Imagine if you went to a foreign country, where you didn’t speak the language, and had to read the locals’ body language and facial expression all day long. You would get pretty good at telling when someone was upset, don’t you think? I believe dogs know when we are upset, happy, and excited more than we realize. So keep your cool as much as possible. A calm dog listens better and is less likely to make a mistake. Even when seething on the inside, keep your hands in your pockets, and your face relaxed. It is rare that I regret staying calm with my dog. Oftentimes she will redeem herself if she did something wrong, or isn’t learning a command quickly. Just relax and it will all work out.
Many of the poorly behaved dogs I meet have owners who scream at them for simple mistakes. It is ok to reprimand your dog, but don’t use the same level of punishment for chasing a car that you use for not sitting immediately. If you do, your dog will quickly become jaded and realize that your fits of rage don’t amount to much.
- Don’t Stop Believing (Cue Journey Chorus)
I will often hunt with friends who don’t have a dog or who haven’t hunted behind a dog. Typically these hunters won’t trust a young pup who barely listens and I don’t blame them. However, if you don’t believe in your dog, and constantly change your training strategy, you’re not giving your pup the chance to work things out and develop a system that works.
If I had to choose one rule for every dog trainer to follow, it would be to believe in your dog. It seems simple, but I hunt with many people who will doubt a dog after one mistake. Success in the field stems from believing that your dog will figure it out. You will be more calm, more patient, and use fewer drastic measures if you just tell yourself that you have a great dog.
So believe in your little buddy, who cares if your friends, wife, boss, and clients are all mad at you. That dog is giving you its best shot, and the least you can do is believe in it. Good luck out there.