The Basic Order for Every Dog

And especially gundogs, for safety's sake, is to come when called.  Wilson Stephens, who believes that the responsibility is with the dog on the day, not its owner, suggests ways to instil this relationship in early training.

The message system between dog and man is governed by 'not what you say, but the way that you say it'.  Since the vocal medium, man to dog, is not words but sounds, the degrees of meaning must be separated from each other by something other than the syntax which governs human speech.  Tone fulfils this function.  It is of all-transcending importance in communicating with dogs.  They are susceptible to its smallest nuances, including those not intended.

When it is said that a trainer must control himself before he can control his dog (than which nothing is more true), three-quarters of the meaning is that he must control his voice.  More will be conveyed by its pitch and timbre than by the most carefully thought out combinations of syllables and vowel sounds.  Failure to think out the use of the voice is productive of many difficulties.

In the first place, how much voice should be used?  The answer is as little as possible - in terms of both volume and frequency.  Gundogs (indeed, any dogs) should be spoken to quietly.  There is no mystic reason for this, but a very practical one which a moment's consideration will make clear.

Those who habitually address their dogs in a parade-ground roar leave themselves little room for extra emphasis.  Since they are already splitting the ear-drums of all and sundry, there is no way by which they can increase the impact in emergency.  Furthermore the dog that is always addressed fortissimo will ignore loud commands as readily as any others.  The strength of voice used should be rather less than the minimum estimated to be audible by the dog at whatever range it happens to be.  Dogs have better hearing than we have, until deafness supervenes with old age.

I'm listening!Nothing is gained by trying to make it easier for a dog to hear its orders.  If a dog is not responding, the voice should be lowered, not raised.  The dog will then listen more carefully, for fear of failing to hear something to its advantage - provided, of course, that it thinks the handler interesting enough to be given continued attention.  This sequence of action and reaction can be turned to good account by any trainer with a dog which lets it concentration wander (I have yet to meet the dog that did not).  All that is needed is to use an especially quiet voice for the orders which the dog most wishes to hear: to come out for exercise, to go for a retrieve, to flush a rabbit known to be in a particular seat, to come for its food, for examples.

This does not mean that a loud voice should be used for the orders which the dog least wishes to hear.  Far from it.  A loud voice should not be used at all, it being almost invariably counter-productive except in one urgent circumstance.  If it is never used at other times, a loud voice can by virtue of its surprise-factor be invaluable in saving a dog from danger by attracting its attention.  A running pheasant, having been hunted into and along a hedgerow, crosses a lane ahead of an approaching car.  A loud shout can break a questing dog's contact with the line so that an immediate, quieter command to drop can save it from running under the car.

The counter-productive effect of voice used loudly results from it being so often a medium for the user's frustration and anger.  Who has not heard the decibels build up as some increasingly irate sportsman tries to call in a dog which is evidently enjoying itself on an enterprise which is untimely, illegal, or both?  The tones which began by being merely virile mount through the stentorian to the crescendo, and from menace towards rage.  Still the dog does not return.  No need to wonder why.

When the first 'Come in' was barked out the dog had better things to do (in its own opinion).  So absorbing were these matters that repetition was likewise ignored.  Louder yet and louder came the subsequent summonses, with an increasing element of anger, which becomes more difficult to conceal as the voice is raised.  At that stage a dog can be understood if it concludes that in his present mood its master may not prove an agreeable companion, and is best left to cool down for a bit.  The voice, in short, instead of attracting the dog as the handler intended, has increased to a degree which repelled it.  The louder the initial commands, the sooner this situation will be reached; the softer, the less likely that it will be reached at all.

A soft tone, in addition, is more easily kept level.  Gundogs, long bred for 'biddability' which is short for readiness to absorb a message, seldom need the higher-pitched wheedling tones seemingly required to convince other breeds that they are being addressed.  Though sometimes needed to gain the confidence of a difficult puppy, these should be discontinued as soon as possible.  If excessively used, they have the effect of stirring up and exciting a dog which, believing that its human companion is playing the fool, proceeds to do likewise.  If a dog is to become sensible, and remain so, the voice it hears must be sensible, too.  A gundog cannot be a purposeful worker and simultaneously play that role of court jester which is expected of many a family dog.

A trainer eases his task if he consciously practises the use of his voice, drilling himself so that suddenly developing problems will not disturb his control of it.  Indeed, his voice in many ways equates with a horseman's hands; both should be calm and steady.  Just as fidgeting upsets a horse, nagging unsettles a dog.

Having considered the nature of voice, man to dog, the obvious sequel is to consider what it should say.  Here we encounter that combined watershed and litmus test of the man-dog relationship, the dog's name.  The human attitude to it is a great give-away.  Nothing more readily reveals a non-sophisticate than the question, when meeting a dog for the first time, "What's his name?"  It does not matter.  The name is insignificant, one of the least important things about a dog, even to the dog itself.  Those who set great store by knowing it reveal that they know very little else.

A dog must, of course, have a name; but for two reasons only.  First, to identify it when referred to in conversation or writing; secondly, to enable it to be called from a group of other dogs to the exclusion of the rest, which is what huntsmen, when they want a single hound from a pack of 20 couple, call 'drawing'.  A dog does not require to be identified in its own mind, so its name is to itself of limited importance only and, if properly trained and handled, the dog seldom hears it except in this particular circumstance.

However limited their use, gundogs' names must be properly chosen.  Whether they are agreeable for a man to utter is one calculation; whether they are ear-worthy for a dog to recognise is another.  The proper choice is more insistent to the dog's hearing than a bright colour-pattern would be noticeable to its eye.  Dogs being little aware of consonants, other than sibilants, our words are to them what Chinese surnames are to other races - sequences of vowel sounds.  A dog's name consisting of only one vowel sound should be avoided as it will not be easily distinguished from the other words which its owner uses; nor will a repetition of the same vowel be so distinctive as two that are different.

To be most readily intelligible to a dog, a name must have at least two syllables.  Hence many gundogs are called Whisky or Sherry, but very few Port or Gin.  The connotations are equally inspiring, but the former two names are readily answered while the latter two are not.  These examples demonstrate a further weakness.  To be fully effective, the vowel sounds in di-syllabic names should contrast more strongly than those quoted, as in Ru-by or Si-mon.  Given contrast in vowel sequence, two syllables are enough to provide non-confusable permutations for three or four gundogs in a household.  Huntsmen, with ten times as many names to find, for long insisted on three syllables.  This led to the euphony of English hound names which is one of the minor beauties of the hunting field.

Once the significance of vowels, and the non-significance of consonants, in man-dog linguistics is appreciated, the hazard becomes apparent of choosing a name, the vowels in which, to the canine ear, are also those of a word of command.  Thus there are various grids through which a proposed name must be tested for vowel-value.  Are the sounds sufficiently different from each other?  Are they capable of confusion with those already allotted to another dog in the kennel?  Do they, when dissociated from their consonants, resemble an established word of command for which they might be mistaken in the heat of a moment?

Having now named about a hundred dogs, experience has taught me that only a limited number of names are 'safe' for gundogs, which explains why they consequently recur.  To take an innocent example, there will always be a Trigger, a Wigeon, and a Brandy.  Having chosen a name, the next consideration is the use and misuse to which it may be put.  Over-reliance on the name is the source of many difficulties which fade away when the place of the name in man-dog communication is seen in its true perspective.

To a dog which is not taken seriously, his name is the word he will hear most often throughout his life; so often indeed that the time when he will take no notice of it is unlikely to be long delayed.  A trained dog hears his name only in exceptional circumstances.  His name will not be used, for instance, as if it were a summons to approach.  For that purpose a whistle is preferable; it is less obtrusive to nearby humans, more imperative, and carries further.  At close quarters a click of the tongue has the same effect.

Those who rely on the reiteration of the name in calling up their dogs provide an object lesson in faulty man-dog technique.  The situation is familiar, on a shoot, on a walk, anywhere.  A dog is missing.  Its owner is calling its name in an effort to re-establish contact.  His voice registers in turn impatience, anxiety, irritation, beguilement, false optimism, despair - the gamut of feelings which all of us have had in those circumstances.

But what of the dog's feelings?  It has evidently found something to command its interest which for the moment outweighs its interest in the handler, than whom the dog is in a much more enviable position.  The handler does not know where the dog is, and is consequently worried; the dog cannot fail to know where the handler is, so has not a care in the world.  When he has finished whatever he is doing, he has only to go to wherever the voice is coming from, and join up with his alter ego, his sense of security unimpaired.

By continually advertising his location, the handler has surrendered even his rarity value.  He has made three errors - two serious, one gross.  He has used the dog's name too much; he has used his own voice too much; worst of all, he has accepted for himself the duty of maintaining contact with the dog, instead of establishing it as the dog's duty to maintain contact with him.

When once this elementary point is settled the man-dog relationship begins to take on a new and saner character, saner at least from the human viewpoint.  For the man is not the servant of the dog, as he has allowed himself to become in this instance. The dog should be the servant of the man, in small things as in great, as much in off-duty moments as when working to the gun.  The causes and the remedies analyse themselves quite simply

friends sometimes ask me, rather flatteringly, why my dogs 'always come first time' when called.  This is something of an exaggeration; they do not 'always' come first time; I wish they did.  But perhaps they come first time more often than some of the other dogs in the village, and to this extent the short answer to the question is that they come first time because I do not call them a second time.  If, when they are out of my sight, or out of their permitted range, they are called up it is their job to find me; it is not my job to find them, nor to constitute myself a kind of homing beacon, guiding them in by sonic signals.  They are 'called' in not by voice, but by whistle, the use of the name having been avoided after early puppyhood.

Again, the perspective must be reversed, and the matter appreciated from the dog's side, to reveal the full truth of the matter.  If the use of the dog's name is overworked, by being employed for purposes other than its function as already defined, its only effect is to interrupt the dog's concentration.  To the dog, the concept of a name as a specific title applicable only to itself is impossible to grasp.  It accepts it merely as another sound pattern, albeit a familiar one.  In time it arouses its attention and its affection, not because of itself but because of the tones in which it is sometimes uttered.

When its name is used out of context, the dog finds it can ignore it without loss.  If, in early training, it had been given the impression that it would indeed be its own loss if it did not keep its eye on its trainer, the dog would have grown up in the belief that its trainer (or subsequent master) needed watching, and could not be relied upon to remain where expected if left to his own devices for too long.

Because of the age of early training, eight to 18 months, such an impression would have gone deep enough to last for life.  Its effect would have been to change the direction of the dog's attention from outward to inward, flowing from the perimeter of its active radius towards its handler as the magnet in the centre.  Without such early indoctrination of inward flow, the dog is at liberty to regard the world as its oyster, through which the handler's destiny is to follow, acting as an omnipresent help in trouble, and at other times condemned to a low profile.  To establish inward flow, some simple ploys can be put into effect while the dog is young enough to be impressed by them.

It is obvious that no clear distinction can be drawn between right and wrong until the dog has acted each way, and brought the consequence of doing wrong on its own head - if possible without human intervention.  In the present instance there is no point in exercising a young dog in a routine manner, the handler announcing his continued presence by voice or whistle whenever the creature goes out of sight.  What is needed on his part is imagination, opportunism, a lack of self-consciousness, and waterproof clothing.

If the puppy is allowed freedom to behave precisely as it likes in surroundings of safety, three desirable effects will follow.  It will learn boldness and enterprise; it will develop its style and movement; and it will get itself lost.  It does not have to go far to do the latter, just far enough to be aware of having broken contact with its handler.  He, having learned wisdom, will then promptly vanish, maintain total silence, and let the puppy find him.

How to vanish presents few problems, apart from appreciation of the fact that the puppy will not be looking for his master, but smelling for him.  In long grass, bracken or heather, merely lie flat - ignoring the surprise of passers-by who have a knack of turning up at such moments.  Where there are trees, step behind one, downwind of the dog.  The proviso may seem superfluous.  It is a fact, however, that many people training dogs are more often aware of the time of day, which does not matter, than of the set of the wind, which matters very much.

Sometimes, though not often, the reactions of the puppy can then be watched, and they are good value.  Surprisingly soon, the puppy will be looking eagerly round for company; then eagerness will be superseded by anxiety.  An agitated search will begin, and when it ends the tail-wagging and the licking will be graphic evidence of the puppy's relief.  If its name had been called, or a whistle blown, it might have continued disobeying to its heart's content.  But silence cannot be disobeyed, nor separation ignored.

If this minor stratagem is repeated a time or two, the puppy will keep its eyes on the handler as a routine precaution, never knowing when he will disappear.  In most cases one is kept under such close surveillance that the vanishing act ceases to be possible.  When a puppy finds me, I make a point of not speaking, but give it a pat or some other indication of approval.  I do not otherwise move for perhaps five minutes.  I let the puppy come as close to me as it wishes.  This is generally very close.  Sometimes I allow it to put its nose up the sleeve of my jacket, a trick I was taught in boyhood by my grandfather.  Puppies will sometimes remain so for several minutes on end, quite motionless, evidently in great contentment.  I believe the bond between us is thereby strengthened.

It may be asked what happens if the puppy does not seek out its trainer, but pursues its own affairs or, as has twice happened in my experience, merely goes home.  In the former case the trainer has not made himself sufficiently interesting to be essential to the puppy, for whom the landscape does not seem empty without him, as it should; he has some more self-projection to do.  In the latter case the same applies, with the added deduction that this is a nervous puppy requiring a build-up of confidence by being allowed free running on unfamiliar ground.

This exercise exemplifies how the effect of the voice can be enhanced by withholding it, leading the dog to desire what it has not got - indication of the trainer's whereabouts and continued goodwill.  As in all else, that which is in over-abundant supply eventually becomes devalued.

Extracted from Gundog Sense and Sensibility, by Wilson Stephens, its fourth edition now published by Swan Hill, priced £12.99.  Reproduced here by kind permission of Wilson Stephens and St Martin's Magazines plc.


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