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Shape & Mold: Riding lessons from a bird dog

You know how sometimes you hear or experience something at just the right time in your journey and all of a sudden the universe gets a little bit clearer? Maybe you've heard the same thing yelled at you from the center of the ring or written on your test sheet a hundred times, but you didn't get it until...the timing was right...you heard it said in a different way...or a new viewpoint made you see the big picture- like seeing a glass building from a new perspective and all of a sudden you can see through the glass to know what they are doing inside. That happened to me in 2023 when I embarked on my bird dog training adventure.


Walking one pole turned into two which eventually turned into trotting one pole and then two and...

It took me re-entering the solarplex of animal training as a rookie to see what my riding instructors have been trying to tell me for years. They’ve been trying to tell me that I often see the end result and not the steps necessary to get me there and that this is the root of my frustration. But like most of us middle aged habit seekers, I had been sucked into the rut and didn’t notice. The force that bumped my orbit was a tiny 2 month old Pudelpointer puppy named Ghillie. On the drive home from his breeder, I promised him that I would do my best to nurture his bird dog instincts instilled from hundreds of years of selective breeding. So, I entered the world of versatile hunting dogs at level one. It had been 14 years since my last puppy.



He and his sister (not by blood), Dora, rocketed my husband and I into a puppy training frenzy in July of 2023 when we found ourselves with 2 puppies instead of 1. We were dedicated to creating well balanced dogs during the short, opportunistic timespan of puppyhood, and in the process I learned a lot about horse training! We read a lot of books, watched YouTube videos, created spreadsheets, and shared theories. Along the way, I realized that dog trainers, and especially bird dog trainers, are exceptionally good at shaping and molding patterns of behavior whose end goal may be years away. I could see that from my naive perch at the bottom of the bird dog training ladder. In my experience, horse trainers are not as good at that! Or maybe I had missed some messages along the way. This says nothing about the quality of my instructors by the way.



I feel ridiculous about all of it! Telling you that I had some profound life changing idea that is NO secret feels stupid. Of course, any lofty goal is made of smaller steps, but now I know that those steps aren’t just bad versions of the end goal. A baby shapes and molds its motor neurons to ultimately learn how to run, but the steps look like sitting up, and then crawling, and then standing while holding a table. None of those things look like running. When training a pointing dog for versatile hunting dog utility testing [see North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association], think the equivalent of Grand Prix dressage or a finished cutting horse, there are literally thousands of steps along the way. If you think that the task that you're teaching your dog is small enough, you should probably cut it in half again! I realized that I wasn't cutting my horse training steps into the smallest pieces possible and enthusiastically rewarding the tiny tries along the way! Wow, was that valuable.


An educational post has been circulating on Facebook that nicely illustrates this same shape and mold concept. It’s an outline of a dressage horse and the author, Instytut Jazdy Konnej (January 2024 post) uses phrases like “lots of this” followed by “more or less of this” and “moments of this” referring to the horses changing balance over time. There’s no indication of how long each phase will take, it’s just a shaping and a molding process. When I saw it, I was like "oh that's bird dog training!" Silly, I know, but it resonated with me more because I had just experienced it from a different perspective. BTW, these images resonated with a lot of people. The post has been shared more than 5,000 times.



I’m going to use my new 2024 motto to improve a lot of things in my life and not just my dog and horse training. I can use this mindset to shape and mold my marriage for the better and even my job. It’s going to prevent me from being so frustrated when day one of lateral work doesn’t look like a half pass. This new mantra carries the weight of the moon's gravity pulling the oceans up and up and up. Share if you agree.




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