An ad in a recent issue of American Brittany magazine featured a photo of a big-time horseback trainer stroking the tail of a dog on point. The ad copy stated that the trainer was looking for dogs for summer camp. I looked at the ad and thought, What kind of message is this ad sending?
In the 1990s, I had an opportunity to train with Dave Walker. He had a rule: You never touched the tail while a dog was on point. It may be argued that this rule matters more to trainers working Brittanys, since they are a softer breed, but it goes hand in hand with the Bill West training method: The bird is the teacher, and the trainer stays out of the way. If you think about it, most good bird dogs seem to go into a trance when they are on point. It has to be distracting to have someone messing with their tails, and it can cause problems.
Last summer, a field trialer brought a couple of setters here to work in the training field. He was teaching them to be steady, and I noticed that every time one of his dogs went on point, he walked up and stroked the tail before walking in to flush. One of his dogs became obviously uncomfortable at his approach and started flagging. He began stroking her tail and the flagging went away. He thought he was fixing the problem; he didn’t realize he was actually causing it.
Dave Walker’s advice stuck with me, and over the years I’ve learned that the time to stroke a dog’s tail is not when the dog is on point, but when he no longer has scent of the bird and is watching it fly off. Stroking the tail as the dog watches the bird fly serves a purpose. It helps the dog remain calm, and at the same time praises him for standing still. It also creates a special moment between you and your dog that can be particularly important for field trial dogs which are not rewarded with birds being killed.
I would wager that one reason why amateur trainers stroke the tails of their dogs on point is because they see pro trainers doing it, just like in the American Brittany magazine ad, and they think it’s the right thing to do. Now, there are times when even the best pro trainers do this; something may be going on with the dog, and the trainer believes that stroking the tail is called for. But when pro trainers do it, they do it for a specific purpose, not just because the dog is on point.
The more dogs you work, the more you’ll begin to recognize how each dog is different. Some dogs love to watch birds fly; it’s a reward for them, and stroking their tails helps to reinforce this experience, and gives them a reason to remain standing. Other dogs are less visual, but they can learn to appreciate birds in the air by having their tails stroked as they watch.
When you begin formal training, if your dog is too excited to watch the bird fly, try gently stopping him with the check-cord once he has put the bird in the air so that he has time to watch it fly off. As your dog becomes more interested in watching and starts focusing on birds in the air, begin to stroke his tail. You will notice that you’re helping him remain calm, and at the same time, praising him for standing still. By waiting until your dog no longer has scent of the bird, you are building his confidence rather than taking away his intensity. And as you and your dog progress through the training process, these quiet moments you share with your dog will help him become steady.