With all the training I've been doing I've begun thinking about different traits I like in a dog and have pretty much come to the conclusion that if there was one trait I hold above all others it's Calmness. To be clear, calmness has nothing to do with drive, and the way the dog's motor propels it. A calm dog will hit the cover, or the water just as hard as any dog. A calm dog is just a dog that isn't overly excitable, and has learned that there is nothing wrong with pausing, taking a deep breath, and getting the job done right the first time. This kind of calmness most often seen in a well trained Labrador retriever, whose non-slip work is second nature. The kind of dog that sits patiently in the blind while ducks splash dog in front; often the result of age and wisdom.
A couple years ago, at a spaniel training clinic, David Lisett (if you haven't heard of David before, you could spend your time in a lot of ways worse than Googling) of Buccleuch Gundogs in Scotland told me of a theory he holds. David believes dogs have two modes of operation; "Thinking" and "Doing". A dog can rush right into a task without thinking; "Doing Mode", or a dog can pause for a second or two, think about what is needed, and then rush into a task; "Thinking Mode". Over time as I've reflected upon this, and have had opportunity to converse with other trainers, with other methods who may not agree with this, I've likened the "Doing and Thinking" theory to thinking before speaking in humans. Sure, we can all manage to communicate when we need to, but how about that time when you've needed to say something important, and stumbled on your words. Now, how about that time time you stopped, thought about what needed saying, chose your words perfectly, and sounded like a genius. This is what I interpreted David's theory as.
David Lisett works with a young Cocker from the U.P.
David's theory was for the most part illustrated in non-slip retrieving drills, where a bumper would be tossed, but the dog wouldn't be sent until it had relaxed, rather than from the rocked forward, locked and loaded position. It wasn't just a matter of making the dog wait, but rather letting the dog learn it wouldn't be allowed to proceed until relaxed. Ah. Calmness. I started instilling calmness in my springer, Ginger, from the day she got home. She was gently steadied when retrieving tennis balls in the hallway, steadied before being let out in the yard, steadied before being allowed to jump into or out of the car. In short order, with gentle steadying, she learned to be calm, and that good things were going to happen in due time. She learned that there was no reason to be wound up; she was going to get to do what she wanted. It resulted in having a a non-slip steady springer at 5 months of age, not by training, but rather by conditioning.
This calmness has manifest itself in other aspects of training and dog work. Steadying to wing, shot, and fall has all been made easier. Once a dog learns that it will be released from a stopped position, it becomes easier to get it to stop, and subsequently will learn that in order to be released it must be paying attention to you. Once you move into a more difficult training realm, perhaps long blind retrieves with cover, a calm dog will do wonders in calming a frustrated handler. Talk about a benefit.
I don't think there are too many breeds that wouldn't benefit from pups that were conditioned to be calm from the onset. Imagine a retriever trainer having a pup that he doesn't have to fight to steady, or a pointing dog that easily understands that it'll be released from a "whoa" when the time is right. Sure, depending on the breed you might have to do things in a different order, and some dogs may take longer than others, but all the training we do is a lifetime commitment, anyway. And lest you believe calmness will dampen drive, think about this; a dog will do a memory retrieve out to well over 100 yards with great gusto. Do you really think it will be any different if you insist the dog uncoil the mental spring for a moment? A process that takes no more than 30 seconds? All we're really conditioning the dog to do is to think before it speaks.