We were in an open hayfield in the middle of a training exercise with one of many young bird dogs when John, my boss, asked me, “What is tension?” When I looked at him quizzically, he said, “There was no tension between you and your dog.”
Though I’ve been around bird dogs and mounted field trials for almost seven years now, I still have much to learn. Because it was my first time as a handler during this part of the training process, my own tension level was initially pretty high.
Earlier, I had consciously tried to let go of the concern that I would make a fool of myself and, by association, of my dog. Mostly, though, I was mentally and physically tense because I knew how crucial it was to get my timing right. I’m fine with being a beginner, I’m even fine with making a fool of myself. What I’m not so fine with is the idea that after three years of gradually developing my good dog, I could potentially screw her up in a matter of weeks.
Young bird dogs are taken through a process that transitions them from their puppy days of chasing birds to their lives as functional and valuable hunting partners. Against their every well-honed instinct, they learn that only humans are allowed to go after the bird once they’ve pointed it.
The classic Pointer pose (one leg tucked up so high that it’s almost under the dog’s chin) doesn’t always happen. I’ve seen dogs stop stalking with a back leg off the ground as the scent of the bird hits their nose, or point with no foot-lifting at all. A point is simply a stalk turned into a stop, and it’s instinctive—tiny bird-dog puppies point.
Eventually, puppies and untrained older dogs become overexcited by the prospect of the feathered snack in front of them and pounce, which flushes the bird. If they let us go first, we may bag the bird for them. Of course, they don’t know the whole picture as they go through their training milestones. They experience each stage as it happens and, just like us when faced with change, they may seek a way out of the tension. This is when tension can become fear if allowed to go unchecked.
We slowly but surely bring them through the concerns they have about human involvement in their hunting “game.” To be fair and consistent with the dogs, we do our yard work well ahead of time so that they already know commands like “whoa,” “heel” and “come.” The big trick is to teach them to combine this obedience training with the thing they most want to do. Even the best-trained dog can want something a little too much.
A single badly timed cue or jarring interruption at this vital stage can cause juvenile dogs to catastrophically misunderstand the situation. If too much pressure is applied, or if they are expected to take in too much information too quickly, they can develop some truly unnatural habits. For example, they can learn to avoid birds when humans are present, an issue we call “blinking.” Once dogs start down the path of fear, it takes a lot of skill to bring back their desire to hunt.
During our initial exercise, my dog did nothing wrong. I don’t mean she was flawless, but her mistakes were down to this being her first real test of specialized skills and to my own inexperience. However, it was obvious that she was strangely detached from the situation; she appeared to be almost bored. I wondered if her lackluster demeanor stemmed from her desire to do the real thing—to go out in the field and hunt and chase birds—rather than what we were offering her. We worked with her a little more that day and some of her enthusiasm came back, but still not to a level I would have liked to have seen.
I wasn’t disappointed, but I was confused. Hence, John’s question. My initial gut reaction was that tension was a negative thing. I mentally flicked through a litany of anxious scenarios I’ve faced in life, not least of which was how to figure out the “correct” answer to the situation in front of me. Eventually, I came to the following conclusion: in order for dogs to remain quiveringly eager to hunt birds when the rules change, we have to instill in them a sense of urgency as well as the paradoxical need for compliance and cooperation—in other words, a very specific and productive type of tension.