The Power of Listening


When it comes to training your bird dog, listening – a lot – is the path to more success

By Tim Otto
Everything I ever needed to know about dog training I learned from my cousin Jimmy when I was about 12. 

At that age I talked – a lot – and I’d love to have a dollar for every time Jimmy said to me, “You learn a lot more by listening than you do by talking.” While he wasn’t much of a dog trainer (sorry Jimmy if you’re reading), that day he gave me the best advice I may have ever gotten, and it stuck with me more than 20 years later when I started training my own hunting dogs on a regular basis. 

With that in mind, I’d like to focus on the power of listening.

Maybe you’ve been training dogs for a few years or many. Perhaps you’ve trained with NAVHDA (the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association) or some other training/testing organization. Could be that you have trained your own dogs in your backyard without any input from others. 

Regardless, over the years you’ve picked up a number of techniques, tips, and theories regarding the ways you prefer to train. Then one day you train with someone new, who may have a different set of tools in his/her bag, and different ideas about fundamentals of training. We’ve all been in that situation, and all too often the knee-jerk response is something like “Well, what we do is….” without hearing them out. 

I admit freely I’ve been on both sides of this coin – the guy not listening and the guy not being heard. And no matter what side of the coin I was on, if I wasn’t listening I often learned later that I missed something important. Not always, but often enough to hammer home the importance of Jimmy’s lesson when I was 12.
Always remember that, yes, maybe you know a lot, but you can always learn something new, incorporate a new twist, or have someone pick up on a weakness in your training program. We often get so ingrained with our own “system” that counter-opinions are just not heard or considered. Big mistake!
On the flip side, we’ve all worked with that person who is looking for help to solve a problem. For example their dog won’t stop busting birds, or won’t expand on a duck search. But they just won’t stop talking long enough to hear your opinion. Most of these problems are solvable, often easily solvable, and having the knowledge base within an organization like NAVHDA to address these issues represents one of the fundamentally wonderful aspects of the organization.
So if you’ve got a problem, stop talking. Listen. And most importantly, digest the opinions you’re given, no matter who they come from. Maybe after seriously considering any particular idea you might conclude that it is not the best path for your dog. That’s okay, but you really can’t reasonably draw that conclusion until you’ve really heard and thought about that advice. 

So seek multiple opinions. Weigh your options. Then figure out what’s best for your dog and follow through. 

A particularly valuable time when you can apply the power of listening is while following a dog and handler in the gallery during their fieldwork while training. I urge everyone to walk with as many handlers as you can during training. Focus while you do. Keep your eyes open, your mouth shut, and watch and listen to the handler. You’ll be surprised how much your training and handling skills will improve simply by watching and hearing what does, and does not, work for others in the field. 
Bottom line? “You learn a lot more by listening than you do by talking.” Thanks Jimmy.

Tim Otto is Director of Publications for NAVHDA.

Photo credit Perry Masotti.

In January, NAVHDA and Pheasants Forever forged a new partnership to promote hunting heritage and habitat. As part of that agreement, NAVHDA will be providing occasional dog-related content for Pheasants Forever Stories. This article has been adapted from one first appearing in Versatile Hunting Dog, November 2018.