At least when it comes to learning about dog training, I’m lucky in that I watch myself on TV a lot (hey, someone has to pump up the Nielsen ratings!). I learned to teach the same way – with video. It is a cruel but fair instructor, the small screen.

But you don’t need a camera to reflect on your actions and the messages they convey to your bird dog. Just think before you act, adjust your pace, temper your volume, experiment with the magnitude of your movements, and your dog will get the message. He gets it now but it’s often to your detriment, and you might not even know it.

When words are required, a whisper is often better than a growl. It certainly brings down the adrenaline levels, calming the situation. Like people, dogs will often pay closer attention to you if you make it hard for them to hear what you’re saying. Drop the volume level and you might be pleasantly surprised at the results.

Even physical praise has degrees. As I write this, I’m scratching my old guy’s neck following a quiet “here” command. It’s a slow, relaxing touch, light and low-key. He in turn, is lying down, expecting nothing but a chance to be near me as his reward for a small job well done – he showed up. A vigorous, two-hand rib tickle implies something else entirely, higher energy and more excitement. It might be just the ticket to jet-propel a long retrieve by my two-year-old … to get him going or as a well-earned reward.

A dog that forges ahead when walking at heel is often “corrected” with a violent jerk. He, in turn, pulls harder. A pup told “whoa” is held still by a taut check cord pulling on his neck. Relaxing that tension would actually put him more at ease and willing to follow the original direction.

My dog Manny simply cannot stand still when he first gets on the training table. I used to yank on his collar, yelling “whoa” at increasingly high volume. Now I speak calmly, slowly, sometimes from a sitting position, stroking his back until he settles – faster than he ever did when I engaged him in a battle of canine (half) wits.

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