Common Ground: Bird (dog) is the word

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Communication is key in training bird dogs — once you learn to speak their particular language.

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Communication is key in training bird dogs — once you learn to speak their particular language.

By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter

Bird dogs are sophisticated in the way they understand words. Just as the ancient Greeks recognized six different varieties of the word “love,” a bird dog recognizes many different meanings for a number of simple commands. They will sometimes cock their heads when “No” is yelled because they are not sure which of the word’s 126 meanings is intended.

“How,” they muse, “are we supposed to know how to satisfy a command when humans have not moved beyond their limited vocabulary?” Trans-species communication can transcend many barriers, but the biggest hurdle identified by eight out of 10 bird dogs is “multiple word meanings.” The other two dogs identify “overuse of the exclamation point in basic dog commands.” This survey was performed using homemade ginger treats and may not reflect the views of all dogs.

“Sit,” the first command taught to many dogs, comes from the Old English “sittan,” meaning “to occupy a seat, be seated, sit down, seat oneself; remain, continue; settle, encamp, occupy; lie in wait; besiege.” It can also mean to be inactive, withhold applause, to do nothing or to sit pretty. It’s no wonder the word causes confusion.

Many dogs will lie down and fall asleep in order to demonstrate the word’s Proto-Germanic origins. The word can be frightening, as it involves a lack of action. It would stress me out to be commanded to, “Do nothing!” while my back end was pushed down and I was offered a treat. Given the word’s etymology, I wouldn’t know if I was supposed to put my butt on the floor or run for office.

“Come!” This word is so complex that Middle English scribal habits have transformed the spelling, and the word’s frequent use in combination with other words have rendered it frightening in some cases. A well-educated dog may not know if he or she should come, go or be born in the archaic Lithuanian sense of the word. Many trainers use a leash to lead a dog toward the trainer. An astute dog will ask itself how much of this comradely word is meant to elicit an attack (come at!) or a show of seriousness (come on!).

A reward for being dragged into close proximity evokes a frightening loss of control, resulting in a comeback, which is a return to the former position. This is often done after the treat has been dispensed.

The nautical use of “Stay!” insinuated the order to “secure by stays and supports” and had nothing to do with “sit down next to me.” Water dogs may find the word particularly troublesome if it is yelled in proximity to the ocean, and they might attempt to fasten ropes to stabilize a mastlike object. If you then back away, a seafaring dog might well imagine that you are the captain going down with the ship. These dogs are not strangers to the ultimate experiences had at sea, and to do nothing in a time of crisis goes against the norms of maritime tradition. No treat can overcome their valor.

“Heel!” has been the most difficult command for any of the dogs I know to master. It isn’t because it refers to a shoe or a contemptible person. I am not calling names or demanding to be medically treated. It’s just a difficult word for many reasons. One of my favorite canines thinks the word means “walk ahead of me about three feet and sneak farther ahead as time elapses.” There is no history of this use of “heel” in the literature. However, it is possibly a figurative usage from the Old English hweol, meaning “wheel.”

It’s no surprise to me that dogs seek out expansive meanings in order to fulfill their own needs. Just as the human art of love has its own sophisticated vocabulary, the art of basic dog commands has a dynamic component that transcends a narrowly defined word. What I’ve learned is that spending more time with the dog in order to understand what possible extension of meaning he is deriving from my intentions hasn’t really helped the training. But, there’s not one right way to do any kind of relationship. The trick is to look up a lot of words in the dictionary and then not trust them.

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 For information on her book, visit Northern Publishing online or Women Hunting Alaska on Facebook.


1 Comment

Filed under Common Ground, humor, hunting, pets

One response to “Common Ground: Bird (dog) is the word

  1. Now I understand & I never had a clue that my dog is smarter than I am! No wonder he can’t figure out my commands, maybe I’m the one that needs dog training classes

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