Is there a difference between a bird dog and a pet? (Photo By: Kali Parmley)
Many people fondly remember their father’s old hunting dog as the dog that was never allowed in the house, but instead kept in the kennel and only allowed to run loose while hunting. That construct, and the dogs it encompassed, has an allure like so many things from that bygone era, but it failed to describe the close bond that many experience with their dogs today.
Most old traditions stem from reason or necessity, and the old tradition of keeping the family’s bird dog in the kennel is no exception. Most bird dogs 75 years ago lived in rural settings, and yards were not designed to keep dogs in. A dog with a high prey drive would be liable to wander off as they hunted on their own. This behavior would inevitably cause trouble, particularly among neighbors with livestock. To maintain relations, it was best that the family bird dog be kept secure in a kennel where it would not be prone to chase chickens or the neighbor’s cat.
To minimize the daily chaos, a kennel was a safe means of keeping a dog from succumbing to his impulses. Times have changed. These days, most bird dogs live in rather sterile, urban environments void of wildlife and livestock. Contemporary bird dogs are largely house dogs for all but a few days of the year when they are taken to hunt. This habit of living with our bird dogs on a daily basis has strengthened the bond we feel with them, but it compels us to re-evaluate how our constant contact impacts the bird dog himself.
Rules & Boundaries
A few years ago, a seminar attendee asked Ronnie whether his bird dog could also be his pet. Not quite sure how to respond, Ronnie asked the bird dog owner to provide a definition of the difference between a bird dog and a pet. The response was essentially that a bird dog was bred for a purpose, had a driving desire to fulfill that purpose, and also had a need for boundaries and rules. Conversely, the attendee shared that a pet’s sole purpose was to provide affection, and had no other expectations or purposes associated with its life.
By those criteria, the answer was clear. “No sir, your bird dog cannot be your pet,” Ronnie answered. But the definition piqued our for pets in general, as animals tend to be healthy both and mentally with rules, and a purpose to fulfill boundaries.
We believe the responsibilities of dog ownership are similar to the responsibilities of raising children. Boundaries must be established so the dog or child knows what the expected behavior is, and how to be successful. Rules provide the guidelines for behavior. Learning new skills keeps the brain healthy, active, and responding positively. A provides direction for energy and an outlet for genetic tendencies and inherent desires. All in all, humans benefit from an education and a purpose in life, and we feel that our dogs do as well.
Dogs that have spent their lives without consistent rules, boundaries, and training tend to be more fearful in general and commonly exhibit neurotic behaviors. These behaviors include fear-based aggression and obsessive behavior (incessant licking of hot spots, constant hunting of bugs, fixation on rocks or on digging, etc.). Dogs that have consistent rules, boundaries, and training, on the other hand, tend to be level-headed, capable of confidently navigating new situations and environments, and remain generally less stressed through the course of their lives. Dogs that listen and comply with rules tend to be better behaved, get to go more places and experience more things. This in turn gives them more mental stimulation and confidence.
When a home environment is able to provide basic structures and boundaries, it becomes a healthy environment for any canine (bird dog or otherwise). When there is no structure, however, in a dog’s life, the quality of that life is compromised. In this situation, the dog that is not given boundaries will not get to participate in activities because it is difficult for him to be mannerly. As a result, said dog will frequently get left at home.
By not creating rules, structure, and boundaries, dog owners ignore the dog’s genetic canine traits. Dogs are pack animals; they are designed to be pack-oriented predators. Dogs function well in a pack that has a recognized, level-headed, fair leader that serves as a guide for what is appropriate behavior in varying situations. Without that leadership, dogs are forced on their own to constantly evaluate what is appropriate behavior, who is friend or foe, and when territory should be defended. Dogs that are forced to take on the role of pack leader feel the need to initiate reactions and are not in a mindset receptive to listening to their handler’s cues. These dogs are understandably more fearful and stressed.
As we navigate the line between pet and bird dog it is also important to note that a dog cannot be one individual at home and expected to be a completely different individual in the field. All the behavior that is allowed to exist in the home will transfer to the field. We cannot, therefore, lack behavioral standards for our dogs at home and then expect flawless performances on our hunts.
A common example of how home life transfers to behavior in the field is the retrieve. Most pets are given squeaky toys to chew on, play tug-a-war with, and even destroy while at home. When that same animal plays tug-a-war or chews on a bird in the field it becomes an immediate problem. If a dog doesn’t retrieve to hand at home, the chances of retrieving to hand in the field are virtually nil. The same with heeling and handling in the field. A good hunting performance from a pointing dog requires focus, the mindset of listening to the handler, going with the handler, coming to the handler, and of course, standing still in a composed manner (when pointing or honoring). A dog that is not expected to exhibit these behaviors in their “pet” role at home will not magically exhibit those behaviors in the field.
At Home Reinforcement
The balanced life of a bird dog that is also a “pet” requires an owner that provides, and reinforces, the right amount of structure, boundaries, and purpose for each individual dog. It is important to recognize that a dog that excels at lounging around the house, accepting attention with no expectations of behavior will likely not be the dog that is driven in the field. That dog may lose focus easily when birds are hard to find, may tend to be a little overweight and out of condition when hunting season rolls around. On the other hand, the dog that always seems ready and capable of producing that extra bird and giving that spectacular performance in the field may very well be the dog that is constantly on the go at home as well and is more difficult to live with as a pet. That energetic dog with high prey drive is a little more susceptible to developing obsessive behavior as an outlet for that massive prey drive. They often are the dogs that become visual and chase-oriented from incessantly watching squirrels run along the back fence and birds at the bird feeder. In that instance, life in the home has a clear detrimental impact on the dog’s ability to work well in the field. A visual dog in a pointing application will not locate game he should, as he will come to rely on his eyes more than his nose. A dog that has chased prey in the yard all summer long will not stand staunch on point when he encounters the game, and he will be much more likely to flush and chase in the bird field.
The answer to this initial question is ultimately based on what we expect of our dogs both at home and in the field. Each individual dog is different, and the environment created in each home is distinct. At RSK, our advice to clients is to evaluate expectations that they have for the dog, and ensure they are realistic for that individual dog. Continued evaluation of the dog’s mental health is important. If ever in doubt as to whether you should let an in-the-home behavior continue, try to visualize that specific behavior taking place in the hunting field. If the behavior is unacceptable in the hunting field, then modifying the behavior at the home is imperative.
So, can a bird dog be a pet? Yes, depending on definitions and expectations. But just as you would not assume that a professional athlete spends his whole off-season on the couch, you cannot assume that your dog can act in a manner that is contrary to his genetics and breeding. Allow your bird dog to be true to himself, give him guidance to be the healthiest version of that self in and out of the hunting season, and remember that your dog relies on you to provide the expectations and structure that his species requires.