A true story as told by Lonnie Spell, dog trainer, to The New Barker contributor Pam Stuart.
A gun dog is trained to find game for the handler/hunter, point the game, and retrieve the game when sent to retrieve by the handler/hunter. These scent hunters locate and point birds (quail, pheasant, chucker, and other game birds). The term “gun dog broke” can be defined as: “the performance standard of perfect manners in the field: standing steady and pointing upon finding a bird, staying while the bird flies off, and going out on the retrieve only when sent by the hunter.”
It was Spring 2010. George, myself and some others were having a pleasant conversation in the shade of the hay barn on a Sunday afternoon. George Hickox, a top dog trainer and handler, had come down to Sunset, Louisiana to lead a seminar on training bird dogs. We had been talking about what we’ve seen as professional trainers in the dogs that come our way; the good and the not so good. George remarked that sometimes a dog is so badly affected by misguided attempts at training that it is of no use in the field.
“That dog is not gun dog broke, that dog is just broken.”
One of the seminar students was waiting for him, so George politely excused himself. That’s when someone I knew, particularly by his reputation, stepped up and asked me a question.
“Hey, Lonnie, you want that piece of crap?”
George’s observation about broken dogs might have been what tipped this other man’s hand. He had more than a few dogs he was cutting from his string. They hadn’t gotten with his program so they had to go. And there was that one dog in particular.
I had to say yes. It would have been easier to say no, but sometimes the easy thing is not always the right thing. And ‘no’ would mean that pup was destined to be dumped in an after-hours outdoor run at a kill shelter with all the other dogs. It wasn’t my job to make his dump at the shelter easier, but taking that dog would be the right thing. It would save a life. And I knew that dog.
That ‘piece of crap’ was once my girl Belle’s puppy. I knew the field blood running through his veins. That’s why I bred that litter. By a twist of fate, Belle’s pup ended up with this man, who was now ready to throw him away. He deserved better than the dump. They all did. They always do.
I had to work on Monday, so I made arrangements for my friend, Bobby, to go and fetch him up. The next day I went over to Bobby’s. He warned me, “It’s been about a year since you’ve seen this pup. A lot can happen in a year.”
As we walked out back, I saw him. He stood there in the middle of the kennel run, scared and confused. Everything about his body language shouted fear. His tail was tucked tight between his legs and his ears were tense and set back, as if he was waiting for the next bomb to explode. I stood there, staring in disbelief at the dog before me. This was not Belle’s bold pup. This dog was terrified; snakebit by life and barely holding on. Belle and I had him for only eight weeks. After that, he had been living what I would not want to imagine during so many important stages in his young life. He had been named Justin. I never wanted him to hear that name again.
On the ride back to my place, I remembered why I bred this litter and the hopes I had for the pups. This dog was born with the gift of extraordinary genetics, going back to a top field Pointer named Honky Tonk Attitude. One year later, I wondered how and if I could find, under all that fear, that confident, happy puppy. Would we, he and I, be able to find his Attitude?
I left him alone and kept interaction to a minimum for the first week. He needed to settle in to a new place. I needed to give him time to feel safe and secure. His run was cleaned. He got fresh water and good food. No explosions here, buddy. You can relax.
Relax. Easier said than done. My other dogs would see a squirrel running to the tree line and start barking. He would run and hide. Before, barking meant trouble. Trouble meant punishment. Punishment. Just for being a dog. His fear grew out of knowing punishment. Overcoming fear meant overcoming the hardship of bad experiences.
Punishment is different from correction. Punishment springs from a well of anger. Correction is not from that well of anger. Correction is right for the situation and right for what the dog knows. You cannot correct a dog for something you have not trained.
In training, a dog will learn what to do, and what not to do. Just like in life, mistakes are good. Only by making mistakes do you have the opportunity to learn and truly grow. If I was to comfort him while he was in this fearful attitude, I would only reinforce fearful behavior with what he would interpret as praise. I certainly couldn’t bully him into an attitude of boldness. That would not be boldness but him aggressively defending himself from bullying. He’d had enough of that.
Little things would set him on edge. If I simply held him by the collar, he would squint his eyes as if something bad were going to happen. But he didn’t fight. He never growled or protested. He had given up. What was he afraid of? Might this be reversed or, as George had said could happen, was this dog really broken? If life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived, would I be able to solve this mystery?
Dogs have their truth: tasks they were bred to perform and aptitudes by virtue of their temperament and personality. Dogs also have an honesty by living closer to their truth, without all the complications that we people layer on top of our own lives. Sometimes we can pile on so much of the stuff of life that we lose sight of our own truth; it’s buried so deep we can’t find it. Not for a dog. A dog’s going let you know. You just have to pay attention.
Because this dog was not ready for any formal training, I decided to just be with him without any demands or expectations, and try to establish a relationship without fear. If he showed any sign of relaxation or acceptance, it was my goal to reward that behavior. But I could not correct any unwanted behavior as that might cause him to shut down even further. He needed only encouragement for those little signs of hope, and no corrections for any missteps.
We spent our time together just walking. No talking. No sounds. He was still scared enough just being on a loose lead by my side. I clipped one end of the lead to his collar and the other to my belt. I did not want to chance an accidental correction or any kind of action on my part that would cause him to retreat back into himself. I would not risk losing the trust I was working so hard to gain.
Not talking to him may have seemed unkind by some folks. But this was not so. We speak through our body language and our disposition. Actions do speak louder than words. And attitudes speak louder than words. This was our time to listen to each other. His time to show me what and who he was, and mine to find out his truth.
One day, while putting water in his dish, he came up to the fence of his run and licked my fingers. This was a sign of hope I had been waiting for. Not only did he offer a behavior unasked, it was a behavior of submission, respect, and acceptance. A truce was being made.
He started showing more behaviors that gave me hope – licking, playing, wagging his tail, and even looking up during our walks. I would touch him softly, or scratch him on the head. On a walk one day, he started jumping and playing, if only a for few moments. He found joy in being a dog. And joy in being.
Later that fall, I went over to his run, and when he saw me he stood up, wagged his tail and made eye contact. The patch of color on his left eye had always reminded me of the dog in the Our Gang series. That dog’s name was Petie. This dog was now ready for his name. Hey, Petie. Nice to finally meet you.
In the early winter, the first real cold front had come through and there were good scenting conditions. Petie was running at about half speed down a tree line with a strong north wind blowing across his path, when he hit the scent of birds and slammed onto point. I stood back and didn’t say a word. Petie’s head and tail lifted and he stood as tall as his legs let him. At that moment, he didn’t need me. That moment was between him, his instincts, and the scent. He found more birds that day, and with each find he ran stronger, pointed, and stood taller and more confident. He found his passion. That day, running in that field, he had run into his truth. Petie had found his Attitude.
My friend, Bobby had been there from the beginning. He was a regular visitor at the training sessions, and together we enjoyed watching Petie run in the field. So it was a natural fit that I should give Petie to Bobby and his family.
In the Fall of 2012, Petie, at three years old, was at an age more right to expect mature, gun dog behavior. Petie was now gun dog broke, not broken. And he was a winner, placing in the ribbons at field events, and qualifying to run at the Regionals. Bobby got a call from a professional field trialer who wanted to buy Petie and take him to Nationals.
Bobby said no. Sure, the money would’ve been nice. But money comes and money goes. Petie stayed put in his now and forever home. In the mornings, he sits with Bobby’s wife as she drinks coffee on the porch. He takes naps in the afternoon with Bobby out back. And he goes hunting with Bobby and his son.
Petie was finally at home. And he was loved.