Praise is one type of reward you use to train a dog. Food treats, tossing a ball and an excited voice are examples of other types of rewards. Trainers who compete in dogs sports such as obedience, agility and tracking use a variety of rewards to let the dog know he did what the trainer asked. However, training a pointing dog is different. These dogs are bred with a strong desire to find birds, so finding birds is already a powerful reward, and it gets them excited. The key to training a pointing dog is to give praise as a reward when your dog does what you asked. Unlike most rewards, praise can be given in ways that don’t increase your dog’s level of excitement. The calmer you can keep your dog around birds, the less pressure you will need to redirect his focus back to training.
Years ago, a field trialer told me a story that illustrates the complexities of rewarding your dog around birds. Mike was having trouble getting his dog around clean at field trials. After exhausting every piece of training advice he’d been given, he decided to reward his dog with a chunk of hotdog every time the dog stood steady on a bird. The training was going great and Mike was ready to enter him in a field trial again. On the first find, his dog stood rock solid. Mike walked in confidently, flushed the bird and fired, but as he started back to his dog, he noticed the dog’s entire rear-end was wagging in anticipation of the hotdog. The judge informed Mike his dog had started wagging as soon as Mike walked in front of him. Since wagging on point is frowned on in field trials, the judge ordered Mike to pick up his dog.
Bill West got it right when he gave praise as a reward around birds. In the Bill West method, anytime your dog does what you ask, you silently praise him with long gentle strokes of your hand. This type of stroking is different than patting. Pats get your dog excited while strokes help him calm down. To stroke your dog, gently slide your hand along the entire length of his body beginning at the withers. Using your hand in this manner not only makes your dog calmer but it also builds his confidence. When you go to praise your dog, be sure to approach him in a slow and easy way so you appear calm and confident and then stroke him a couple of times.
Timing of praise is critical and varies with each situation. In the early stages of formal training, you praise your dog immediately after he gives you what you want. You aren’t looking for perfection; rather you are looking for opportunities to encourage your dog and make the training clearer. For example, if you are teaching the stand command and you ask your dog to stop with a pinch-collar tug, the moment your dog stands still, lean down and stroke him a couple of times. If he chases a bird to the end of the check-cord and stops, stroke him as he is standing still. If you are teaching the e-collar and he stops when you cue him with momentary stimulation, stroke him after he stops to let him know he did what you asked.
As your dog becomes steady on birds and he’s pointing or backing, don’t interrupt his concentration. Wait until the situation is over and then stroke him a couple of times as he remains standing. As training advances and he is working birds further away from you, you may begin to notice that when you walk back to him, he has a new air of confidence about him. Not only is he calmer but he seems pleased with himself. When you see this change in your dog, you know he is accepting training and wants to work for you.
Anytime you teach your dog something new, be sure to give him praise when he has success. While it’s fine to get more animated and tell your dog, “Good boy” and pat him up when you call him to you, you might save these excited types of rewards for the end of the workout. During the workout, try not to increase his level of excitement. By rewarding him in a way that helps him calm down and also builds confidence, you will need less pressure to train him, training will go easier, and your dog will be a lot happier.