By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter
Teaching a bird dog the art of being a bird dog is a messy business. There are plenty of books on the subject and plenty of experts who look really good standing next to a statuesque sporting dog that resembles an oil painting from the Renaissance. How, I often wonder, do I get my unruly English setters to not eat my mail, roll in mud and fart uncontrollably, much less do the honorable and sophisticated things for which they were bred. It takes a lot of time and practice, but eventually, they will stand still for the photo.
When there are five puppies to raise and train, the difficulty is confounded. Not just because they outnumber me, but because they have formed a team. They are a superpack. In the wild, they might take down a moose. In the yard, they have been known to wrestle me dangerously close to a pile of poo. My partner has given me helpful advice, such as, “Don’t let them do that.” Instead of following this advice, I decided to learn more about my new generation of puppies so that I could better teach to their personal values and aspirations.
My dog family includes not just the five littermates, but also a few other dogs of various breeds and ages. In order to assess the yard dynamics, I had to take into consideration the diversity of the yard as well as all three of the generations represented — the Baby Benign Tumors, Generation Ex-Lax and the Ex-Lax Maximum Strength Generation. The Maximum Strengthers, like the human Millennials, were the first generation to be raised in a daycare environment. Because of this, they work better as a team. They are also more tech-savvy and more inclined to jobs that allow them a work-life balance.
The older dogs didn’t have things like GPS collars, electric fences and dog booties when they started their careers. They remember the days of choke collars, high-fat treats and standing over a fax machine to receive a message on thermal paper. Somehow, they made it through life without a high-speed Internet connection and organic puppy treats. When they watch the younger dogs being trained with positive reinforcement, they think, “Kids today.” When they were kids they had to work hard for every treat. Now everyone gets a prize for participation.
This generational division in the yard has caused the superpack of puppies to form an even stronger bond. If one of the older dogs tries to tell a story about making a blind retrieve in a snowstorm, the puppies attack. They are not going to compromise their personal safety to strive for career success. While the older dogs feel that the younger generation is spoiled and lazy, the puppies are confident in their abilities and feel that they can only be loyal and dedicated to pursuits that are true to their personal values of health and safety, time allocation and family relationships.
With my new understanding, I changed my approach. Instead of commanding the puppies, I let them know their work mattered. I provided a flexible training arrangement so they could spend more time with their friends. I took an interest in their individual aspirations.
When the adult dogs jumped up on me, I used to say, “Down!” and bring up my knee. But, when the puppies (who were no longer puppies) jumped on me, I would say, “Now, puppies, when you jump on me I am less inclined to give you a treat.” My partner looked on in amazement. I wondered why the puppies weren’t jumping on him. “How are you getting the puppies to behave without them compromising their genuine selves?” I asked.
“I don’t let them,” he said, as if he were repeating himself.
I thought about his approach. Maybe he was right. Maybe my hypersensitivity to their generational position in the world was slightly ridiculous. Maybe it was my generation that was the problem. Either way, training dogs is a messy business. Somehow, with enough time and determination, we hunt together in the field and everything comes together in a perfect moment. When that happens, I wonder how they ever got me to do it.
Christine Cunningham was born in Alaska and has lived on the Kenai Peninsula for the last 20 years, where she enjoys fishing, hunting and outdoors recreation. Her book, “Women Hunting Alaska,” was released by Northern Publishing. She can be reached at email@example.com. For up-to-date information on the “Women Hunting Alaska” book, visit Northern Publishing online or Women Hunting Alaska on Facebook.