Louise Thayer learns a critical lesson about the beneficial role of tension.
I was posed a question this week by my boss and I couldn’t answer it right away. He asked me “What is tension?” I probably raised an eyebrow or repeated the question back to him, so he expounded cryptically, “There was no tension between you and your dog.”
We were out in an open hayfield, in the middle of a training exercise with one of many young bird (hunting) dogs. My initial gut reaction was that tension was a negative thing. My mind flicked through a litany of anxious scenarios I’ve faced in life … not least of all how to find out what the “correct” answer to the question in front of me was.
I’ve been around bird dogs and mounted field trials for almost seven years now but there’s still so much to learn. This is the first time I’ve been involved as a handler during this part of training, and with my own young dog too, so my tension level was initially pretty high.
That morning I had consciously tried my best to let go of the concern that I could make a fool of myself and, by association, of my dog. Mostly though, I had been mentally and physically tense because I knew how crucial it would be to get my timing right. I’m totally ok with being a beginner. I’m even ok with making a fool of myself, but I’m not so ok with the idea that after three years of gradually developing my good dog, I could potentially screw her up in a matter of weeks.
During the months of April and May we will be “breaking” multiple hunting and field trial dogs. We take young dogs through a process whereby the puppy days of chasing birds are over and their lives as useful and valuable bird dogs begin. Against their every well-bred and honed instinct, they now get to learn that only humans are allowed to go after the bird once they’ve pointed it.
The classic Pointer pose, (one leg of the dog tucked up so high it’s almost under their chin) doesn’t always happen. I’ve seen them stop stalking with one back leg off the ground as the scent of the bird hits their nose, or ‘point’ with no feet lifted at all. A ‘point’ is simply their stalk turned into a stop, and it’s very instinctive. Tiny bird dog puppies will point a bird, they just have to be exposed to them in the correct ways.
Eventually, puppies and untrained older dogs will get too excited by the prospect of the feathered snack in front of them and they’ll pounce and the bird will flush and be gone. That’s where the ability of humans to shoot birds comes in. If they’ll let us go in first, we may potentially shoot the bird for them.
Of course they don’t know the whole picture when they go through this training milestone. They get to experience each stage as it happens and just like us, faced with change and discomfort, they may seek a way out of the tension, and this is when tension can become fear if allowed to go unchecked.
We slowly but surely bring them through the concerns they have about human involvement in their hunting “game.” To be fair and consistent with the dogs we do our yard work well ahead of time so that they already know commands like “whoa,” “heel,” and “come,” but the big trick is to cause them to combine their obedience training with the thing they most want to do in the world. Even the most well trained dog can want something a little too much.
You can probably imagine that one wrongly timed correction or startling interruption at this vital time can cause a catastrophic misunderstanding of the situation for a juvenile dog. If too much pressure is applied or too much is shown to them at once, they can develop some truly unnatural habits. They can learn to avoid birds when humans are present for example … an issue we call ‘blinking.’ Once dogs start down the path of fear, it can take a lot of skill to bring them back to their desire to hunt, and it’s just plain better to not sour their experience in the first place.
My dog did nothing wrong. I don’t mean she was flawless, but her “mistakes” were down to this being her first real test of certain skills and my own inexperience. With guidance I helped her through it. What was obvious to me was that she was acting strangely detached from the situation, almost appearing bored. Knowing the dog and her love for birds it felt as though her lackluster demeanor stemmed from her desire to do the real thing … go out in the field and hunt and chase birds … rather than this whatever-it-was we were offering her. We worked with her a little more that day and some of her enthusiasm came back, but still not to a level I would like to have seen.
I wasn’t disappointed but I was confused. Hence John’s question. He likes to give me something to think about at the end of every session and this is what my mind has fathomed of this lesson so far.
In order for the dog to remain quiveringly eager to hunt birds when the rules change, we have to instill in them a sense of total urgency as well as the paradoxical need for their compliance and cooperation. Why do they allow themselves to be trained this way? I think the tension between handler and dog is like a symbiosis I’ve rarely seen elsewhere. In that moment, hunter locating the bird in the undergrowth, dog intensely focused on the scent, so much so that with a good dog you can tell if the bird moves by the swivel of his head or the flick of his eyes. His nostrils flare to catch the smallest scent molecule and his compressed excitement is palpable. He is the epitome of tense but he is also very still at his core, driven by the primal desire to survive, knowing that his best chance is to work as part of this partnership.
I have a great desire to be able to train these dogs and so I have to go through the fear of tension to a place of understanding—even if the understanding is that I could potentially screw up my good dog, because what if the one thing lacking between us that day, the tension, was the element that was wrong. I know I’m very excited to play with the aspects of tension I may have previously been afraid of because I do recognize that tension turned to fear is of very little use unless you’re in a dangerous situation, and even then it’s a quick burning fuel.
There’s a term used in Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy—“dynamic stillness,” which I interpret as potency stored, like lightning in a jar, ready to be unleashed in the transformation of compression to kinetic energy.
When a great bird dog points, he feels exactly like that to me—and the human handler needs to get on the same energetic wavelength or else get out of the way.
I learn from the day-to-day evolution of these dogs and the skillful way that they’re being guided into maturity by someone who has helped so many navigate this minefield before. I watch them learn to trust what they’re being asked to do, even if they don’t understand it. I see lightbulb moments as they are helped through some small trauma by their own fierce drive and the useful, not detrimental, addition of tension.
Rather than backing off the level of tension, we help these dogs find better and better ways to handle it, and their intensity grows proportionally with their confidence level. I learn a lot from dogs but this might be the biggest lesson yet. What is tension? Tension is wanting and yet waiting in the moment. It’s a powerful place to be.
Photo courtesy of author