Bad Habits are Easier to Prevent Than Cure

By Jim & Phyllis Dobbs and Alice Woodyard

We thought of subtitling this article, "Or, They Used to 'Break' Horses, Too." In horse training, the old idea was to take a wild 3-year old right off the range, truss him up, then let him buck himself to exhaustion--eventually "breaking" him to make a riding horse. Fortunately, a lot of trainers have replaced this approach in favor of an early, hands-on technique that gentles the horse and never breaks his spirit or makes him WANT to fight his job.

We like this gentle method with dogs, too.

The gentle method is made possible by a philosophy of "bringing a pup along," rather than letting him run totally wild for two years. After you've let him run wild for two years, you are put in a position of having to be hard on him to "break" him to the control aspects of what he must know as an adult (Whoa, steady to wing and shot, and handle).

What about the "not-so-birdie" dog?

Dogs aren't all out of the same mold, and good dog training requires you fit the program to the dog, not vice versa. Sometimes we do advise letting certain types of pups run and chase a lot of birds. We recommend this ONLY if the dog doesn't have much interest in birds, and just isn't going to WANT to get out there and hunt as an adult without a lot of unfettered "childhood experience."

This judgment call that requires assessing the individual dog. Then we plan a pup's program around the individual's temperament. There are some pups that we recommend be allowed to run and chase a lot of birds when they're young. These candidates are the extremely sensitive pups, or the not-very-birdie pups.

BUT WE DON'T RECOMMEND THIS FOR MOST BIRD DOG PUPS. What we're saying is this: Hunting desire is, to an important degree, the breeder's job. If you're blessed with a dog that has inherent desire for birds, you don't need to let him run wild for two years to end up with a mighty fine bird dog.

The Magic Balancing Act

Besides the fact that it's unnecessary, there is actually a good reason NOT to let a good dog run wild as a youngster, and it's called "balance." You need BALANCE as you develop a dog's skills. Remember, you need the desire and an aggressive hunting effort, but you also need the dog's acceptance of some rules. It's a lot easier to bring both elements along in tandem.

You should keep the hunting desire ALWAYS AHEAD of the "rules" for the young dog, but never let the first totally eclipse the second.

If you let a genetically birdie individual run wild for two years, and the habit of chasing becomes ingrained, he'll have hell to pay when that magic two-years-plus-one-day finally dawns and his owner decides now it's time to be "Whoa-broke." Suddenly the world he's grown up in is turned upside down. No more chasing birds. Harsh pressure is often used to get the needed control. This is real tough on a dog, and it is just not necessary to put him through this type of crude treatment if you've kept things balanced all along.

(Don't get us wrong. We don't keep the pup under wraps until he grows up. We take him out and let him run and hunt in the field, and we think chasing "tweety" birds is fine for a young pup. We just don't encourage him to chase game birds. This also goes for pigeons, which we might want to use as training birds, later. In other words, we don't encourage the quality pup to go chasing around after anything we'll later want him to point.)

Making Some Compromises for the Weaker Dogs

So why, then, do we say you SHOULD let the genetically weak (non-birdie) dog do a lot of bird chasing when he's a pup? If it's all right for him, why not for the naturally birdie one, too? Won't the non-birdie dog also have "hell to pay?"

Well, yes, he will. But in this case, trying to get a dog with little inherent desire to acquire that desire, and become some kind of bird dog, requires you make some pretty big compromises. If he wasn't born with what you want, you can, to some degree, put it into him by conditioning him to think that birds are a plaything, and chasing birds is party time. (If you don't let him do this, you won't have anything at all to hunt with later on.)

If, on the other hand, the breeder did his job, and you've got yourself a good one, why would you want to build him up with two years of doing something he doesn't need, just to have to tear it down?

Building Good Habits

"Habit" plays a real important part in dog training. Gradually developing dogs, incorporating the good habits as desire increases, is far kinder to them, and you end up with a more confident dog than you do with the "let-'em be wild then break-em" approach.

An overview of how we prefer to develop our young dogs prior to steadying them is covered in four of our previous articles. These are "Preventing Problems on the Flush" in the May/June, 1997 PDJ, "Chasing Birds" in the January/February, 1997 PDJ, "Gunfire -- 'Whoa,' Not 'Go!' " in the November/December, 1996 PDJ, "Indirect 'Whoa' Breaking" in the September/October, 1996 PDJ.

To sum up our philosophy, we believe that "plan ahead" is good advice to dog trainers. Developing a good bird dog takes a lot of time, and there's no good reason to let a quality pup develop a habit that you know good and well you'll want to reverse later. (We know how that "reversal" will most likely have be accomplished--through force and intimidation--and we don't like to see that crude stuff done to dogs when it's totally unnecessary and can produce severe side effects.)

All too often, especially with a sensitive dog, "break 'em" after they've had too much chasing can mean, "break 'em down." And you can end up with nothing but another one of the many dogs that aren't seen or heard from again.

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Dobbs Training Center
9627 Spring Valley Road
Marysville, CA 95901
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