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Helping You Get the Most From Your Hunting Dogs

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The head turned across the handler's leg and paw placed on his boot are clear signs of dominant behavior.
Photo by: Author
Body Actions
The action that goes hand-in-hand with the tucked tail is quivering/shivering. Obviously, this shivering can mean the dog is cold; but in most cases, when accompanied by the tucked tail, it is just another part of the act. Best to ignore it and quietly continue on. If you don’t react to it, the behavior will go away. It’s very important to not assign human feelings and emotions to dogs. They have their own language and emotions, and what means one thing in "human" may mean an entirely different thing in "canine." Translating the shivering into fear would assume we have given that dog a reason to fear us, which is our problem, not the dog’s. If a dog understands what we want and we are consistent in our behavior toward them, they will not fear us. At the opposite end of the spectrum, if a dog is quivering with tail held up or out, it means one thing: intensity. A dog standing with tail erect and body quivering will usually have the head held up or slightly forward, and this signifies that something has the dog’s undivided attention. This is normal and is insignificant as far as requiring a response from us. Intensity is a good thing, as long as it is shown in appropriate situations, such as on birds. It’s not so good when that intensity means there’s a porcupine in the cover and your dog’s about to make a grab for it!

We can predict that movement, too, by watching the position of the dog’s head. First, the nose will tip down, followed by lowering the head. This means the dog is thinking very seriously about making a move. If you can read that sign, you can predict the movement and stop it before it happens, whether it’s on birds or off game. Additionally, dogs will often lower their front end, putting their weight on the haunches just before they break. Usually, the head movements come just before or after the slight crouch in front. You’ll also notice a bunching up of the shoulder muscles. Any one or combination of these signs tells us to anticipate movement. When a dog crouches low to the ground with its entire body, it signals one of two things: defiance or submission. How do we decide whether it’s defiance or submission? Watch the tail. If the tail is held up or out, it’s sheer defiance. If the tail is very low or tucked, it’s submission.

Tail tucked and the ears, eyes, and mouth are telling us this dog is not confident about what is going on. Pushing too hard could confuse and frustrate him.
Photo by: Author
Head Actions
We can learn a lot about our dogs by paying close attention to their head. If the head is down and tail is down, the dog is sulky and sullen, much like a pouting child. When you ask your dog to respond to a command and they ignore you and look in the opposite direction, translate that to being "blown off." They’ve decided you don’t exist. On the flip side, when your dog turns its head in front of your leg while standing or walking beside you, it’s a dominance issue. This is a sure sign of defiance and being pushy. When a dog looks across or away from you as described above, it’s normally accompanied by some pretty strong body language as well. Often, this type of dog will lean its body into your leg, move in front of you when being led, and even stand with one paw on your foot. The body contact, whether with the paw or body, is happening for a couple of reasons:

First, the dog wants to keep track of you without having to pay attention to you. Body contact allows this to happen, since he can lean on your leg and look the other way.

Second, the dog is being dominant and will push or crowd you into taking its direction by cutting you off and forcing you to move over.

Interestingly, the paw placement on your foot is closely related to the dog putting its paws on your body or jumping on you. In "canine" language, the dog that is higher (kind of like "king of the hill") is the dominant dog, and your dog is trying to get higher than you.

The slight lowering of the shoulders is telling us this dog is about to break. A correction applied now can make all the difference.
Photo by: Author
Ear Position
Let’s go back to the head and facial expression for a moment. Watch your dog’s ears. When your dog is relaxed, the ears will hang naturally. If the ears are pulled back, looking rather like the wings on a jet, it signifies confusion and can be a sign of a dog about to bolt. This is sometimes accompanied by a narrowed, slant-eyed look to the eyes, due to the pull of the ears on the facial skin. Watch for this sign carefully, as it tells you to back up a step or two with whatever training you’re doing. A dog that is frustrated enough to consider bolting is not in a position to learn, and proceeding past this comfort level is going to set back your training. Two other ear positions to look for are: when the ears come up, the head comes up. When the ears go down, the head goes down a bit, as well. Ears that are hanging in a relaxed, natural manner signify a comfortable and contented dog.

All this body language is important to training and hunting a dog. Without the ability to read a dog and have some concept of what is going through its mind, we can’t react in time to prevent mistakes or problems. Good training is all about making the right things easy and the wrong things hard; and being able to anticipate a dog’s moves before they happen makes our job that much easier and makes learning much more successful for our dogs.

This cute but pushy pup is on his way to being a big pushy dog! Note the shoulder leaning against the handler's leg; this is easier to stop when the dog is small.
Photo by: Author
When training, it’s important to remember that you can’t make a mistake by going too slow. If we watch our dogs and listen to what they’re telling us, we can slow down when they’re confused or uncertain, and take charge when they try to be dominant. This makes the right responses come easy, and keeps our training fun.

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