Friday, February 1, 2013

Dog Time

Dog time is one of my favorite expressions. It means living in the present and not thinking about the past or the future. No phone calls to return, no chores to do, no list of things to accomplish. If you spend time with dogs, you already know dog time.
Yesterday I let a nine-week-old pup into the kennel yard and worked her on her first quail. I had pulled some flight feathers so the quail could only fly a short distance, and I brought the pup in to where she could see the bird. Then I went and found a comfortable place to sit down. The pup’s first reaction was to stare at the quail and jump back, but curiosity soon got the best of her, and she returned. She jumped back again and began barking. She wanted to get closer but was afraid. She kept barking and jumping, and I could see the excitement building. Soon she was getting her nose close enough to smell the bird, but she was still afraid.
The quail had not moved, and, possibly sensing the pup’s building excitement, it decided to get out of there. As soon as it moved, the pup was on it like the predator she was. Grabbing it in her mouth, she raised her head high and began to prance. As she pranced, she accidentally dropped the quail and it started to run. She grabbed it again. This soon became a game of letting it go and grabbing it again. Finally the pup lay down and started chewing on it. I bet I watched her with that quail for several minutes and never said a word. I had no expectations of what should happen, or any concerns about what might happen. We were on dog time.
A couple of years ago I was participating in some field trials in Georgia. My friend was hoping to get her dog handling better before the next trial and asked if I’d ride with her as she ran him between events. I agreed, and we saddled up our horses. Her dog was young and independent, and right from the start I knew my friend was wound too tight. As soon as we broke away, she began riding hard and screaming, “Here—here!” Even I could sense the fear in her voice. Her dog was wearing both an e-collar and a tracking collar, so it was pretty clear he wasn’t going to get lost, but her efforts to control him were making the situation worse.
I rode over and talked to her about dog time. I suggested she relax, let her dog go, and see what happened. My friend settled down, stopped yelling, and we slowed our pace. It wasn’t long before he began making beautiful swings in front of us. My friend was amazed. She was trying to make things happen instead of being present in the moment and letting the dog do what he was bred to do. A couple of times when the dog got behind, my friend gave a calm “Hey,” and he turned and swung to the front. The dog was happy and my friend was happy. We were on dog time.
Now, I’m not saying that you don’t need to have a plan before taking your dog afield—you should always have a plan—but once you begin to train, allow that plan to change. Try to focus on your dog and relax. Live in the present. Let your dog react to the situation at hand rather than trying to control it. A plan that includes ten drills in thirty minutes is not a good way to train a pointing dog. Drills imply a mind-set that is all about making the dog do multiple repetitions of a task rather than allowing the training to unfold naturally, letting the dog react, and anticipating or reacting to what the dog is going to do.
Dogs remind me of Alfred E. Neuman from Mad magazine. Do you remember the caption, What—me worry? For dogs, everything is okay. Life is a game. Being on dog time involves getting down on your dog’s level and seeing things through his eyes. It’s a state of mind, and an important way to think about training. As you will learn (or may already know), these times in the field with your dog, away from life’s realities, are some of the best times that life has to offer.