To be a good dog trainer, you need to be self-aware. In other words, you need to monitor yourself for body-language and verbal cues that you’re unconsciously giving your dog during training.
Last month, a training buddy was working her ten-month-old pup on pigeons. She had become concerned that her pup was losing interest in birds. I suggested she bring the pup cross-wind to the bird so I could see what was going on. At first, the pup did not pick up scent. As she tried to work the pup into the scent, I noticed that she’d raised her right arm, the one holding the check-cord, above her head. As soon as she held the check-cord high, the pup appeared to get nervous.
I walked over and mentioned that she was holding the check-cord above her head. The comment surprised her; she had no idea she was making this gesture. Her pup did fine once she lowered her arm and began to focus on the pup and not where the bird was. For whatever reason, the pup had made a negative association with her body-language cue. As soon as she eliminated this gesture, the pup became more confident around birds.
I have another training buddy who has a bad habit of stopping when she gets close to the bird. She unconsciously stands still when she gets to an area where she hopes her dog will point. By stopping, she is giving a body-language cue to the dog and telling him birds are near. Sometimes, I find myself nagging her a bit—keep moving, keep moving. It can be a challenge to keep moving when you want your dog to stop.
With the Bill West method, you learn to be verbally quiet except for an occasional attention-getting Hey, or Here. Dave Walker tells a great story about a fellow who came to work dogs with him. Apparently, this fellow didn’t realize he was talking nonstop to his dog. Dave got a roll of duct tape, cut a short piece, and put it over this fellow’s mouth. It literally took duct tape for this fellow to realize how much he’d been talking to his dog.
It would be great to have a coach in the field to point out all the goofy things you do of which you are unaware. Since most trainers train alone, it’s up to you to monitor yourself every time you go afield.
I catch myself doing goofy things all the time. What helped me become more self-aware was helping others. As I tried to make my movements clearer to the person I was helping, I realized that, at the same time, my movements were becoming clearer to the dog. If you watch a Bill West or Maurice Lindley DVD (see Resources section), you will notice that their movements seem slower and more stylized. Good trainers give as few cues as possible to the dog about what they are thinking.
Every time you go afield, you are communicating to your dogs. The more you become aware of unnecessary body-language and verbal cues, the easier it is to eliminate them. Verbal cues are easy to fix with a piece of duct tape, but body-language cues take real self-awareness. Hmmm . . . I bet good dog trainers also make good poker players.