Hello Wired Dog

Permission to reprint.by Ed Bailey
First Published Gundog Magazine

In the fall, the local Thursday afternoon weeklies always carry ads like: Lost. Brittany spaniel, Cedar County. Dog’s name – Hurrykane’s Flash. Phone (somewhere out of state), or: German Shorthair, Blitz, lost in Knox County opening week of pheasant season. Phone (somewhere else out of state). And missing Wirehairs are listed too (the ad likely says Drahthaar), as well as pointers and setters, all lost the opening week of pheasant season.

Now, how can a Brittany – a breed originally close working, obedient, dependant, designed for the poacher sneaking onto the shooting grounds of Henry (the Fourteenth, or so) – be a lost dog? Or how about that skin-draped-over-bones, solid liver Shorthair that I saw on Al Niederklein’s farm the third week of November last fall when I stopped to renew an acquaintance and reaffirm permission to hunt on some land her farmed? He said the dog has appeared a week earlier. He had been feeding it, but the animal just wouldn’t calm down.

Or the exhausted Shorthair I found sleeping beside a pheasant pen on a research area; I returned it to a field trial going on four miles away. The dog really broke away on the break away. But a four-mile cast is a bit much for a Shorthair originally bred for affinity with the handler, for cooperation. Whatever happened to the poacher’s Brittany or the do-all-that-is-necessary Shorthair or Wirehair? Mostly, these lost dogs are the pointing breeds, rarely a retriever or Springer. So why are so many dogs of the pointing breeds so fired they go at speeds and distances far out of proportion for the breed and for individual well being, so uncooperative that they become lost dogs? How did we get these wired dogs that must be vigorously exercised several hours before hunting for us rather than for themselves? Like one fellow I noticed driving twice around a section with his Shorthair running flat out behind the pickup. I asked him why he did it. “It’s the only way to keep him inside the same section I’m hunting,” he said. These are not the dogs portrayed on the old Remington calendars.

At home or in a kennel, these dogs often pace constantly in a circle or they may be chewers, even chewing on themselves. With this hyperactive behaviour, they are impossible to have as house dogs. Yet, these breeds were selectively bred originally to be the dog for the hunter, the dog that lived at or in the house of its owner. How did we come up with so many dogs, nearly whole breeds in some cases, so wired that a professional trainer is required to make the dog do what it was purportedly bred to do? The ultimate cause or evolutionary pressure for hot-wired dogs is competition. The proximate or functional cause is we breed them that way, selecting against cooperation so the dogs are better competitors.

Before you whack me with your flushing whip, let me explain. It is not the competition per se, but what constitutes competition, that is the driving force, and we, in satisfying the vagaries of competition, are the driven. Add our need to exceed the normal expectations (our interpretation of competition) to our historical propensity for vicarious participation in the competition, and we have our dogs pushed to the limit. Our dogs become our champions, much like a professional athlete whom we pay megabucks to take up our cause, whatever it might be. Just as we push our kid into Little League and reward him or her with praise if he hammers another kid’s pitching or, in midget hockey, cheer as our kid high sticks or body checks the neighbour’s kid, so it is with our dogs. To win is all.

We enter the arena through our dogs, the field trial, the show ring or any other competition under various names or acronyms. Nothing wrong with a little friendly competition? This is a contradiction in terms, like a friendly war. The goal in entering competition is to win, to be the best. The price we pay: our dog’s cooperation.

But trials, tests, show by any other euphemism are intended, indeed designed, to bring out the best, to shake the jar and see what rises to the top. The rules are made to select the best and the judges presumably are the best people to interpret the rules. Through competition we select the best, and the best are bred to the best to produce better. Better must exceed the criteria that made a dog’s parents best. We then must upgrade the criteria by which the best is chosen. So what are those criteria?

Pointing, for example, is judged. The criteria; a point must be staunch, convincing, productive and a few other subjective adjectives. The judge tries to be objective and defines staunch as absolute granite; convincing is tail at 12 o’clock, eyes abulge, an obvious arrested explosion; productive means a bird (usually a dizzied, planted bird) is there to be flushed. The dog that best fits the definitions or most exceeds them gets highest marks for pointing.

But here’s a typical scenario: Joe Hunter has his pointing dog, probably one of the versatile breeds, with about a ton of field experience on wild game. He knows he has the best hunting dog in the world and perhaps the universe and wants to prove it in a trail. The dog finally gets into the bird field miles behind his field trail bracemate, gets wind of a dizzied, pen-raised bird deep in shock, points momentarily, steps in, picks up the bird and dutifully, joyfully returns it to his handler – a losing performance. To the experienced field dog that’s had hundreds of wild birds shot over it, this bird smells like a cripple and the dog did exactly the right thing for hunting: cooperated with the boss in finding and retrieving a crippled bird.

Search is another area that is judged. Criteria: forward going, aggressively independent style, desire for game contact, hits the objectives (my personal favourite trial jargon). Translation: fast, far, independent (dog neither knows nor cares where the handler is), out to the front. These will be scored highest. But our experienced, cooperative hunting dog that retrieved the dizzied bird quarters the open homogeneous cover seldom beyond MOD/IC range, carefully uses the wind along the fencerow, closes to 20 to 25 yards in tall weeds and bushy or wooded cover, checks out every possible scent, every clump of weeds where experience has taught him a bird might be and always maintains contact with the handler. The dog fits non of the criteria for search and doesn’t win. No one wants pups from a loser, so the dog is excluded from breeding programs. The genetic complement for cooperation is shelved. Cooperation in breeding programs will be against cooperation in favour of more competitive independent dogs.

This type of selection pressure means the average dog of each generation is faster, more independent, less cooperative and, in the hands of the average hunter, less controllable than the previous generation. But this selection pressure will produce dogs that win trials, or get prize one in the tests as indeed they should because they satisfy or exceed the established criteria. And such is the stuff or dream dogs are made of.

A good trainer can take uncooperative dogs and hack them in, he can steady them, can make them totally obedient. But no one can make them cooperative hunting dogs. The average hunter who buys one of these competitive, winning-line dogs – but has neither the time nor the expertise nor the desire to haul in a wired dog – will be placing an ad in the lost and found section of Thursday’s paper, usually in the dog’s second season, or the dog will simply be left to become the hide-over-bones boarder at a farmers place, trying to scarf a meal from a pig trough.

But what is this cooperation that is so badly overlooked in trials and tests? First, cooperation is the single most important characteristic of a hunting dog. A cooperative dog can be an exceptional hunting companion with a modicum of exposure and even less formal training, even though it might have just average scenting ability, desire, obedience, range, speed or anything else that is currently judged. Yet the concept of cooperation is foreign to most North Americans.

If considered at all, most will say it is obedience or biddability. Biddability is the ability to do the handler’s bidding, i.e. to be obedient. A recent issue of a versatile dog club newsletter carried a dog food ad wrongly defining cooperation as biddability. The tests sponsored by this club include judgement of cooperation, yet allowed cooperation to be equated with biddability. Cooperative dogs will appear obedient and biddable, but being obedience or biddable does not equate with being cooperative. Obedience or biddability can be trained in; cooperation must be bred in.

Cooperation is not easily understood; being cooperative is a more easily grasped concept. A dog that eats or buries a bird rather than gives it up to the handler is being uncooperative and, if being scored for cooperation, would lose some points unless the judge mistakes it for disobedience – and many do.

Obedience is a trained characteristic which can be instilled in any dog. Cooperation, however, is a genetically transmitted quality or potential for the quality of developing total rapport with the handler. No amount of training can make a dog cooperative; cooperation is in the genetic complement to a greater or lesser degree. Cooperation, this tendency for developing rapport with a human, can often be seen in pups by ten weeks of age (another reason why dogs should not be taken from the litter at the “magical” age of seven weeks). To have a pup demonstrate its cooperation, all one need do is sit on the lawn with a group of ten-week-olds and a few squeaky toys, or some dead dried frogs or small sticks or anything pups play with. The pup that repeatedly brings the playthings to you in a show-and-tell manner is the cooperative one.
Everything cooperative pups do tells you they want to share it with you and not keep it for themselves or share it with their brothers and sisters. A pup like this has the potential to be an outstanding hunting dog.

There won’t be any need to spend months force-training to retrieve, to walk by your knee on or off leash, to handle in the field. You won’t need check cords or shock collars to get control. There is little need for strict training, only some positive reinforcement to show that you are pleased when the dog works correctly. A cooperative dog will be reading you and responding to our thought at about the same time you start thinking it. Everything the dog does is for the benefit of the handler. It is altruism shown by an individual of one species for the benefit of an individual of another species. The cooperative dog modifies its search to maximize production of game for the hunter; it retrieves everything it finds, whether told to or not.

However, the dog does not discriminate between very dead, cold things and freshly shot things as though whatever the dog might eat will also please dog’s best friend. The cooperative dog will hold point until you get there. But if the situation is such that you can’t step in for the flush, it will leap in for you, yet will never leap in before you are ready for the shot. Some of this can be taught to the uncooperative dog by a very good trainer with labour-intensive techniques. Moderately cooperative dogs can be trained to do them with relative ease. The most cooperative dogs will require only exposure to the situation. The do it because they work for you; they like the job and do everything to keep it.

Cooperation then is not obedience, not biddability, not tractability, though these are very much affected by cooperation. How obedient, how biddable, how tractable a dog is are the results of cooperation, but cooperation in a dog is not the result of obedience or biddability or tractability, all of which mean how well the dog responds to a command. Cooperation is much more; it is a mindset and the potential for this mindset is genetically determined. Again, it cannot be created by training, only by selective breeding.

So why are increasing numbers of these wired dogs appearing in the lost-and-found section or as strays on pheasant country farms or lost from the game field? A major reason is that we have overlook cooperation in the breeding programs. We can’t blame it on competition rules. The blame is on us and our need to exceed, to get the rush of winning even when done vicariously. Cooperation is overlooked partly because it is measured by behavioural parameters. Few understand dog behaviour well enough to read cooperation even when it’s written in capital letters. Partly it is overlooked because it interferes with reaching the heights of pointing dog stardom in the competition fields, in the arena. Independence is an absolute requirement for pointing dog competition. We select for it and we are the best selectors every created. We easily exceed natural selection. We do in a few generations what natural selection works at for millennia.

We select for competitive dogs by taking advantage of their competitive nature as well. What dog does not run faster and farther when braced up with another fast, far ranging dog. But competition between dogs is not the major problem. Competition between dog and handler is. And, the competitive dog, like any competitive athlete, does not discriminate between sources of competition. It competes against it’s handler as against another dog. A non-competitive dog does not win in competitions any more than a non-competitive athlete wins Olympic medals. Selection for competition is selection against cooperation by default.

As we select against cooperation, however inadvertently, we increase the probability of Flash or Blitz becoming the subject of a classified ad and decrease the probability of a Belle or a Blue warming our grey stockinged feet while we run an oily rag over gun barrels of an evening after a perfect day of relaxed hunting.

Like an old Remington calendar, a collectors item.

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Updated 29th December 2004