A dog’s intelligence influences how he goes through training. Learning how to evaluate your dog’s intelligence early on will help you to anticipate what your dog is likely to do so you can do a better job. The training method doesn’t change—you just have to be on your toes and stay one step ahead in order to be successful when training an intelligent dog.
A while back, I asked a couple of pro trainers how they measure a dog’s intelligence. Dave Walker said that he believes intelligence and natural ability are one and the same. The more intelligent the dog, the more natural ability he has. A good example is delayed chase (see chapter 25 for more information). Delayed chase is when a dog returns to birds he previously found rather than continuing forward with the handler. Without a doubt, a dog that returns to birds demonstrates natural ability, as well as the skill to learn from experience.
Maurice Lindley noted that intelligent dogs figure things out faster. He described four new dogs he recently got in for training. “When I began check-cording them, one dog was still pulling against the pinch-collar after thirty minutes of walking him around. The other three were giving in to the pressure after five minutes. How quickly a dog figures out pinch-collar pressure tells me a lot about his intelligence. Dogs that require repeated firm pressure are not as intelligent as dogs that give in.”
I thought a lot about what these pro trainers told me and began paying closer attention to things like delayed chase and how dogs react to the pinch-collar.
I decided to run some pups together and let them find birds. Then, I waited a couple of days before running them again on the same course. I watched closely to see if any of them returned to spots where they had previously found birds. Some pups went right back to these spots, some slowed down as they went by, and others gave no indication. One pup actually pointed where he had previously found birds. I also paid attention to the pups around the kennel and watched to see which of them figured things out the fastest. When I introduced the pinch-collar in the training field, I noted which pups gave in to pressure first. These observations helped me to make informed decisions about the best training methods to pursue with each pup.
It’s very easy to make mistakes with intelligent dogs. You might be able to get away with repeating a training setup or leaving an occasional foot trail to a bird with an average dog, but an intelligent dog will figure it out quickly. These dogs remember where birds are planted. They learn to trail foot scent or four-wheeler tracks to find birds; some even start to get birdy when they come across scent left from the exhaust pipe where you stopped the four-wheeler to plant birds. They read your body language, and sometimes it feels like they can read your mind. Just when you feel like you’re getting a handle on anticipating their actions, they’ll surprise you yet again.
I had a pup last summer I’d determined was pretty intelligent. The second time I worked him on a pigeon in a releaser, he took off in the opposite direction of the bird flushing, running as fast as he could. It took another workout before I realized he wasn’t running away from the bird; he was running to intersect it. The first time I’d worked him on a releaser, he’d figured out that after the pigeon flushed, it flew in big circle before returning to the loft.
Most well-bred dogs are smart, but the really intelligent ones can test your skills as a trainer, especially if you’re an amateur. Being able to evaluate your dog’s intelligence while he is young will help you to anticipate how he will go through training, hopefully allowing you to stay one step ahead of him. Without a doubt, intelligent dogs make superior bird dogs. They can be more challenging to train, but they will sharpen your skills, keep you on your toes, and teach you a lot more than you teach them. To quote a successful horseback pro trainer: “Intelligent dogs are more fun to work.” I would add—if you know what you’re doing.