For as long as I've been learning about bird dog training philosophies, I've heard about Maurice (affectionately known as "Mo") Lindley, a South Carolina kennel owner and dog trainer. Mo is one of the leading disciples/masters of what's referred to as the West/Gibbons training methodology. As a result of Ménière's disease, Mo is now almost completely deaf. Interestingly, though, the affliction seems only to have further developed his gift for understanding and communicating with dogs. Most good trainers will concede that verbal commands are the most difficult for a dog to understand and the West/Gibbons/Lindley training style puts this fact to great use. It heavily privileges silent commands and relies on body language, action, and light ecollar stimulation that is not in any way meant to be punitive, but intended simply as a way to get a dog's attention and/or serve as a way to communicate remotely with a dog in the field.
Amazingly lucky for me, it turns out that Mo regularly does exactly one, three-day, two-part (foundation and advanced) seminar a year and it's hosted by Martha Greenlee, the author of the book that details Mo's training methods, Training with Mo, at Martha's kennel and farm, Piney Run (a dog-lover's and bird hunter's little slice of heaven if ever there was one), just outside of South Hill, Virginia, and only about 90 minutes from my home. My friend Chip and I met Martha last fall at Lincoln's first fun trial, where she told us about the seminar. After I got over the happenstance of getting an unexpected chance to meet Martha (I'd read her book, Amateurs Training with Professionals, early in my Brittany training research), I immediately asked to put down a deposit for the April seminar and Chip and I both managed to secure reservations at one of the most sought-after annual training workshops in all of birddogdom.
The Steady with Style website and its associated Facebook community are the best online homes for all things related to this training methodology, but the method is less a step-by-step, paint-by-numbers sort of system (though it does prescribe a plan of action from puppy introductory work through the process of finishing a dog), than about developing non-verbal and intuitive communication between a dog and his or her trainer/handler. While there's some recommended equipment, it's easy to tell that there really isn't a whole lot of interest in merchandizing it and selling it (duct tape for the mouth of a chattering human handler is decidedly affordable). Overall, compared to some of the other major systems I've considered, all of which seem to boast and achieve some regular success in getting the job done, it's sort of the anti-system bird dog training system. It is probably the least formulaic of the training styles out there for a new bird dog handler/trainer to explore and consider and is heavily based on gaining an intuitive read of a dog, in how he or she is reacting to training pressure and what the dog's emotional energy and drive says about the best ways to employ training methods in any given situation or point of continuum of bird dog development. It certainly has some core philosophical tenets but, more than most training systems, emphasizes innovation, intution, improvisation, and a general evolutionary trajectory from harsher "old-school" dog training methods, to ones that involve less iron-fisted handlers and aversive techniques. It asks handlers and trainers to lean into the idea that the preferred techniques are generally the gentler ones and the ones that seem to make the most sense to the dogs themselves. This in turn means they are more likely to convince the dog that the human handler is appropriately in charge and worthy of the canine respect needed for the dog to willingly comply with training and commands.
For a beginner, this is all both a blessing and a challenge. It's a challenge because newbies like me are often desperate to find a clear and concise and step-by-step formula to learn what are the daunting and complicated challenges of dog training and getting our dogs to understand and obey us. It's a blessing because the method moves us instead to first seek to understand our dogs and doesn't let the beginner off the hook in realizing just how daunting and complicated the task of understanding our dogs is. It also leads us to the revelation that it is daunting and complicated because an interspecies relationship and understanding and the development of one's intuition about the alien geography of a dog's mind are at the heart of the task. We're not programming robots, we're learning to bridge an inter-species communication gap. While that gap is smaller between co-evolved domesticated dogs and humans than between humans and any other non-primate species, a dog's mind is still not easily intuited by a human, nor vice-versa. We therefore have to unlearn some of what serves us well and easily when communicating with other people, but with at least some of the same level of respect we afford our fellow human beings.
Mo readily recounts his own evolution from the old-school, harsh, handler-will-over-the-dog sort of methods, "which will get your dog to either run off or bite your ass when he's got half a chance," to ones that seek to develop a friendlier and respectful partnership between handler and dog, based on the possibility of the development of a shared sense of trust and fairness between us. While it's far from extreme (aversive techniques are not entirely eschewed), you do get the sense at least with Mo's execution of the method that it's still developing and still moving in a direction of gentleness and partnership and away from more forceful applications. Even after three decades of expert work as a master of the art of bird dog training, with literally thousands of dogs, it is striking that Mo is still actively learning and seeking to try new applications of and derivations of the method himself as he continues to test and challenge his own understandings of the dog mind with each new dog he encounters and trains. I guess that's what attracts me the most about this method: even the experts are humble and take seriously the challenge of bringing any given dog along in ways that respect the individuality of these wonderful creatures and do not reduce them to being mere tools in the service of bagging birds or winning at a sport. In fact, the method might be said to suggest that shifting the training focus to working with the individual dog, respecting it as a conscious and willful individual being that can actively choose either to resist us or to partner with us, is considerably more likely to increase our success in the aforementioned goals than diminish our chances of achieving them. As a guy who found a secondary love for upland bird hunting through the primary love of a specific dog, this general disposition in thought about training of course appeals very much to me and it's easy to see and deeply admire the gentle, full-hearted spirit and love for dogs that its teachers and most enthusiastic adherents bring to the pursuit.
My expectations for this seminar were high but it somehow managed to exceed them and I just can't say enough about the value of the immersive experience with Mo, Dave "Jonesy" Jones, and Martha and all the other wonderful dogs there and their owners for someone just beginning to internalize this method. I'd read Martha's book on Mo and had watched most of the recorded 2016 seminar before attending this year's seminar, but spending three days in back and forth dialogue with other handlers/owners/trainers and Mo, Jonesy, and Martha, and seeing them work with several different breeds of bird dogs in various stages of development, and asking my own questions and experiencing them working with Lincoln and having them coach me working with him in several exercises, brought me considerably further along in beginning to feel like I am getting a clue in various aspects of this philosophy and method. Being in their presence this past weekend and with fellow students so much further along than me, I walk away humbled about how much I currently know and yet paradoxically also more hopeful that my love for Lincoln and my joy at seeing him develop will afford me some grace in whatever mistakes I may make in my own learning curve. I also walk away with a deeper appreciation that understanding and training dogs are by their richness and rewards worthy of a life-long journey of however many days we each have left. Surely, such a journey is one that demands to be consciously experienced and enjoyed all along the way in the precious short time we are privileged to love, be loved by, and joined by these amazing animals in the intimacy of hearth and home and in the heart-pounding thrill of pursuit through the sublime wonders of the field.
Just a few of the amazing dogs and good people assembled for the 2018 seminar