Have you ever heard a dog trainer talk about a balanced dog, or wondered what this expression meant? The first time I heard the word balanced was when a horseback pro trainer told me my derby dog was not balanced. He explained that he was more mature on his game than on his ground race, and kept repeating that a good field trial dog had to be balanced. In an effort to be clearer, he held his right hand above his head to represent the dog’s bird work and his left hand below his hip to represent the dog’s ground race, which he said was reckless. He was correct; the dog didn’t listen. Then, he held both hands at chest level to indicate where the dog should be. This was his idea of a balanced dog, and to be honest, the conversation went right over my head at the time. Over the years, however, I’ve thought a lot about balance, and tried to understand it.
Since that conversation, I’ve been on the lookout for other trainers who use this word. When I started following Cesar Millan on the National Geographic Wild television show, Dog Whisperer, I noticed that he also talks a lot about balance. In his recent book, Cesar’s Rules, he describes a balanced dog as one that is comfortable in his environment, and in his own skin. I really like this description because it holds true for a good bird dog, but it was still hard for me to grasp. I needed a more specific way to think about it.
Ultimately I have come to understand that a balanced dog is simply a dog without weak links. If I think about a dog as a length of chain, the chain is only as strong as the weakest link. The Bill West method talks a lot about these shortcomings, and how they represent the weakest part of the dog’s training. The pro trainer who discussed balance with me twenty years ago was trying to explain that my derby dog wasn’t balanced because he had a weak link: He didn’t listen. The trainer was trying to tell me that I needed to get this dog balanced—paying attention and going with me—before developing his bird work. Finally, I was able to grasp the concept of balance and use it to become a better trainer.
The first thing I do with a new dog is take him to the field to see if he is balanced. I look for his weak links to tell me what type of training he needs. If he is a pup, I take him for a run and carefully observe him. Some pups may pay too much attention to me, or show little interest in hunting. These pups need to find birds to develop their prey drive and learn to hunt. Some pups are real independent and could care less about where I am. These pups need to learn to pay attention and find birds with me.
I take dogs that are older or already in training to the field and study them. Their weak links tell me how training is going, and what to do next. As I strengthen these weak links, the whole dog becomes stronger, and before long, I have a balanced dog that is comfortable in his environment and in his own skin.