Ever hear the expression — it’s a nothing? Ever wonder what it means and why it is an important part of dog training? Basically a nothing is something a dog does that you chose to ignore. In other words, you do not correct him and you do not praise him. You act as if it never happened. I first heard the term used by Dave Walker in the early 1990s. Dave had flown to Pennsylvania to do a seminar for us. After the seminar, Dave and I kicked back and were relaxing in a couple of chairs. I had an eight weeks old pup with me. He had found a dead quail and was lying under the table eating it. Feeling a little self-conscious about what to do, I glanced at Dave and he was watching the pup too.
“So what would you do,” I asked, pointing at the pup.
“Nothing,” he replied. “It’s a nothing.”
Dave went on to explain that if I took the bird away from the pup, the pup would remember, and next time he might be less willing to bring me a bird. On the other hand, if I praised him, I was sending him a message that would be a contradiction once the steadying process began. By treating it as a nothing and ignoring him, I kept myself from being involved and sending the pup mixed messages.
Over the years I have thought a lot about this exchange, and the concept of a nothing continues to help me in training. Just the other day one of my training buddies missed a correction. She felt badly and asked me what she should do. I told her to treat it like a nothing which is just what she did. She did not dwell on it. Instead, she ignored what her dog had done and was able to move to the next set-up quickly and get her dog back on track.
Maurice Lindley trained with Bill West and I asked Maurice if he was familiar with nothings. He said he knew all about them. “I think it takes people a long time to understand that most stuff is not that important. If a little mistake happens, they worry they are ruining their dogs. Bill West said that most people think if a dog catches a bird, it will set back them back thirty days. Bill said it set him back one workout, maybe two.”
So many times things happen in training that we cannot control. There are missed corrections, unusual situations, as well as times when we simply do not have a clue what to do. By treating these things as nothings, we do not make a big deal out of them. We do not get upset or try to correct or praise the dog. By ignoring what the dog did, we can move to the next set-up and the dog will most likely be fine. To quote Maurice again, “Training dogs is so much nicer when you can relax.”