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Now that most every season is closed, we lean toward introspection. Our own performance in the field, and possibly our dogs’, is under the microscope. We Monday-morning quarterback every hunt, parse every missed shot. Then, it’s the dogs’ turn. Boy, if they could talk! If they could go beyond the occasional howl or bark, I bet this tip would be high on their list.

We see it all the time in the field, in the duck blind, on TV (even I’m guilty), and in the show ring. A praiseworthy performance merits a ruffled ear, scratch, back stroke, food treat or “good boy,” and the dog is outta there. The problem is, he shouldn’t be—yet.

We get ourselves in deep kimchi when praise becomes a release command. Think about it: the dog does well, we praise, and he learns to scoot away as if we’d said “okay.” How does that impact longer, more complex skills that require stops and starts? Particularly during the training process?

Take the retrieve, for instance. We first teach a dog to hold the bird. While he holds, we praise. Eventually, he is taught to go out, pick up, and bring back that bird, still holding until we ask for it. At each point in the training process we praise his performance—it’s how we build skills and encourage the dog. But if you’ve been a little careless, he might interpret your praise word as “all done,” drop the bird or bumper, and go off to play or hunt more.

Worse, what about while standing a bird? Once our pointer is steady and we murmur “good dog” or stroke the underside of his tail, he may bust the bird if he thinks your praise is the same as “okay.”

To me, praise has a lexicon all its own. It has a time and place, and involves a complex vocabulary. But it has no relation to my release word. So there is never a doubt in my—or my dogs’—minds about what is expected of both parties. Think about your own interactions with your dog: are you unknowingly telling your dog to misbehave?

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