Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Turning the Corner

Recently, I was talking to Maurice Lindley about a dog I was teaching to be steady-to-wing-and-shot.
“I think Chalk has turned the corner,” I said.
“What did he do to make you think that?” Maurice asked.
“He’s calmer,” I replied.
“Good,” he said. “A calm dog is what you look for. A fresh-broke dog should go from being bug-eyed and intense to calm and composed in the presence of game. If you watch a young dog on point, every fiber and nerve is on high alert and poised to pounce. Then, as more training takes place, you notice the dog’s composure changes when he is pointing. He becomes more confident in his job, and confident that you know your job, too. The intensity is still there, but something has changed. To me, the dog just looks different.”
Maurice was describing exactly what I was seeing in Chalk. For the first time since the steadying process began, Chalk was becoming calmer around his game. Earlier in the summer, he was pointing and pouncing on pigeons still on the ground, or pointing and chasing them once they flew. The times he stood steady, either his whole body was vibrating with intensity, or his tail was moving in a quick ticking motion. On occasion, he pointed and lifted a front paw as if he wanted to take a step but knew better. For most of the summer, he followed a pattern of two steps forward and one step back, acting broke for a couple of workouts and then returning to pouncing or chasing again. The one thing I had not seen in him was a calm demeanor. Now, for the first time, I was seeing it.
Well-bred bird dogs can lose their minds when they are worked on birds; they can become totally focused on finding them, tuning everything else out. They are hunting for themselves. As dogs become calmer around game, they begin to accept training, and their attitudes change. They pay attention better. Dogs that once dragged you around the training field stop pulling as hard on the check-cord. They start coming to you and going with you when you ask, and the amount of e-collar you need to use to correct them becomes less.
While Chalk was nowhere close to being broke, he was getting calmer. Each dog goes through training differently. Some take longer than others, and good trainers learn to adjust to each dog, progressing only as fast as the dog can go. It takes time to build a good foundation, but once it is built, it will be solid, with no gaps or holes to go back and fix. Looking for the dog to become calm around his game is an early clue that he is giving in to training and wants to be broke. When you reach this stage, training gets easier.
A word of caution if you think your dog is turning the corner: Be observant. A dog that is becoming calm may resemble a concerned dog that is developing a problem. For example, a dog’s energy level may drop as he becomes calm, but it can also drop from too much pressure. There’s a fine line between calm and concerned. A calm dog is confident and maintains his intensity on point. A concerned dog loses his intensity on point. He is less enthusiastic about working in the training field, and may listen to you almost too well. Often, he is more comfortable walking at your side than walking in front of you, pulling on the check-cord. Anytime you see these types of changes, be aware that you may have a problem.
Dogs don’t become calm around game overnight; it takes time. A dog has to go from wanting to find birds for himself to wanting to find them for you, and this process goes against his predatory nature and need to survive. In Chalk’s case, he had spent many weeks in the training field working on pigeons before I noticed he was becoming calmer. He still had a long way to go, and once he moved to quail, he would go through the whole process again, but hopefully training would be easier during this next phase. Seeing Chalk turn the corner was an exciting moment; I knew he was on his way to becoming a finished dog.