Have you ever heard a dog trainer talk about a balanced dog or wondered what this expression meant? The first time I heard the word balance was when a horseback pro-trainer told me my derby dog was not balanced. He explained that he was more mature on his game than on his ground race and kept repeating that a good field trial dog had to be balanced. In an effort to be clearer, he held his right hand above his head to represent the dog’s bird work and his left hand below his hip to represent the dog’s ground race, which he said was reckless. He was correct. The dog did not listen. Then, he held both hands at chest level to indicate where the dog should be. This concept was his idea of a balanced dog, and to be honest, the conversation went over my head, but through the years I have thought a lot about balance and tried to understand it.
Since that conversation, I have been on the lookout for other trainers who used this word. When I started following Cesar Milan on the television show, The Dog Whisperer, I noticed he talked a lot about balance. In his recent book, Cesar’s Rules, he described a balanced dog as a dog that is comfortable in its environment and in its own skin. I really liked this description because a good bird dog has to be comfortable in its environment and in its own skin, but it was still hard for me to grasp. I needed a more specific way to think about it. I realized that maybe a balanced dog is simply a dog without weak links. If I thought about a dog as a length of chain, the chain is only as strong as the weakest link. In the West method, we talk a lot about weak links and how they are the weakest part of the dog’s training or a shortcoming or hole the dog has. The pro-trainer who had talked to me about balance twenty years ago was trying to explain that my derby dog was not balanced because he had a weak link—he did not listen. He was trying to tell me I needed to get this dog balanced—paying attention and going with me, before developing his bird work. Finally, I was able to grasp the concept of balance and use this concept to become a better trainer.
The first thing I do with a new dog is take him to the field to see if he is balanced. I look for his weak links to tell me what type of training he needs. If he is a pup, I take him for a run and carefully observe him. Some pups may pay too much attention to me or show little interest in hunting. These pups need to find birds to develop prey drive and learn to hunt. Some pups are real independent and care less about where I am. These pups need to learn to pay attention and find birds with me.
For a dog that is older or already in training, I take him to the field and study him. His weak links tell me how training is going and what to do next. And as I make these weak links stronger, the whole dog becomes stronger, and before long, I have a balanced dog that is comfortable in his environment and in his own skin.