My Dog 'Training' Journey
For the three of you who follow my blog, recently renamed The TGK Blog, you will know that I enjoy spending time with my dogs. I’ve come to learn ‘training’ and hunting with them are simply different avenues to cultivate a stronger relationship with them as companions. I’ve ‘trained’ dogs since I was ten years old, and I learned as most of us have at that age by following an adult and using the method they used. It was easy to accept, as there didn’t seem to be any other way to go about ‘training’ a dog. The books that were available at the time only further supported the process. I remember when the Monks of New Skeet’s books were the hottest thing on dog training next to a branding iron ready to go…
I recall being introduced to ‘clicker’ training in the early 90’s when I lived in Alaska. The way it was presented made me more than just a skeptic, to be honest; I thought it was a joke. I did see there was intent to train without the use of force/pressure/use of harsh aversives. But I just didn’t get it.
It wasn’t until I moved to New Mexico and began training with Janet Miller that I saw ‘balanced training’ in action, and I immediately liked it. I saw the benefits of using things the dog liked to get them to perform versus just making them do it because it is what I wanted. When I got into agility with Shadow, my Golden, through Janet – that was all positive. But I wasn’t clever enough to recognize it at the time. Still, my time training with and learning from Janet redefined how I worked with and wanted to work with my dogs.
Years later I re-discovered the Drent and really wanted to make this bird dog thing happen. I read dozens of books on training a dog for field use. All of them required the use of force in one way or another. Nothing I was comfortable with, in fact, one book I ordered as a reprint of a famous out of print training book went into explicit detail on how to properly hit your dog with a 2”x4”! Feeling shocked, I recall throwing that book away. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to train with a few notable gundog guys in New Mexico and Washington. At the puppy end of their programs, it was all fun and games, but to get high trials levels of ‘performance’ aka steadiness, the need for the use of force was there. Still, they weren’t doing some of the incredibly harsh things some so-called trainers were doing. Things that were as shocking if not more so than the 2x4 guy… Fast forward a few years, my own style had become more and more LIMA (Least Invasive Minimally Aversive) through fits and starts in a clumsy haphazard way that tends to occur when a person is without a road map or mentor. I often wondered about how this could apply to the world of Gun Dogs. In the Gun Dog world Positive/Force Free/LIMA ‘training’ is rare as hen’s teeth, and as I have learned, a highly taboo topic.
When Jenna had lived in Western Washington state, she trained in a group that used the Gibbons-West method; a low-pressure, low-force way of training for her Fowler dog. This intrigued me – so it was possible! Why had I not heard of this? It made sense to me that training gun dogs should be able to be done without the use of force, after all in nearly all other facets of dog-sport the use of force in training is taboo these days. From Agility, Dog dancing, Flyball, frisbee, even in Mondioring and so many points in between people have been getting high drive dogs to do totally amazing things. More importantly, how have they done it? Well, the more amazing the behavior has been, the more likely it is that the handler/trainer has gotten the dog to offer the behavior and then rewarded the dog for doing so. Then the act of performing became rewarding for the dog. The dog chooses compliance…
Jenna suggested we try to train with Brad Higgins. Contact was made, and the appointment set. I don’t recall the last time I was so excited to learn something. From the moment you arrive, you are being educated. This I loved. I will not bore you with repeating the experience here, as I have written about it already. In short, I will say this, we both had a wonderful experience and came away with our eyes opened further and our heads reeling from trying to take in so much added information. We returned home with elevated expectations for the hunting season and how we would ‘train’ the following summer. Sadly, our original quail lady had elected to skip out on far more than producing quail for us, so our big summer of working with Ila and Tule was tabled. I did, however, add several books to my pile to read.
Just like leading up to our first Higgins experience dumping out old irrelevant information was without question the single greatest hurdle to learning the new. Learning is a journey, a fantastic one if you are ready and wanting to grow. I had become inspired and given the impetus to make another big step in the direction I had been pointed for a long time. This time with purpose and direction and possibly a mentor. With this experience fresh in my mind, I reread several canine behavior books – now with a whole new level of meaning and a much deeper level of understanding. I also joined force free training groups, added all kinds of books on learning theory, modern force free training methodology to my reading pile.
Over that summer I realized I, more than Ila, needed to go back to train with Brad. I returned to Nevada and with Brad’s help we focused intently on my handling. Brad videoed me and he critiqued my handling, missed queues, off timing, and the few things I did well. It was then he went from teacher to mentor. I had a lot of respect for Brad before, his care and passion are unmistakable, and dare I say it, palpable. We covered a lot of ground, I learned a great deal about myself and what I was doing, or rather what I thought I was doing. I spent those days so focused and deep in concentration I ended up with a truly crushing migraine – I had thrown everything I had at learning.
It should go without saying, Jenna and I had a great hunting season, better yet we had secured a new quail lady! Amanda has been fantastic. She works hard to deliver healthy strong birds for our program, and we are appreciative of her great attitude and commitment towards helping us achieve our goals. For this first summer of having a flight pen full of quail, we used Pharaoh quail. Amanda brought in a strain that was going to be edgier than the normal docile pharoah for us. While some were flightier, most were not so impressive. We learned the lighter color the bird was, the more likely it was to act wild. Ultra-rare it was when a rich-brown or dark grey one got up and left Dodge.
With the Higgins method it has been my observation that the use of pressure and harsh aversives are replaced with structure. To be successful with the Higgins method you need birds that will act wild, and you need to adhere to a deviously simple protocol. With some patience and a few good birds, the dog comes to understand you are critical to its success as a hunter. Better yet, the dog believes you are the key to his success! With this ‘truth’ installed in the dog’s mind his level of cooperation is amplified. All you have to do is not screw it up. This relationship is built upon trust and cooperation. The more this is allowed to grow, the higher the level of performance you will get from your dog: better bird management, points that are stauncher and more dramatic, and yes, even better retrieves. All by basically just slowing down, being quiet, paying attention and being calm - of course a gross oversimplification.
this may So back to our pharaohs. One of the more interesting and useful parts of the Higgins Method is allowing the dog to flush. Yes, it seems unusual and maybe even quite contrary. But after your dog has established its point, and you have situated yourself the dog is taught the “all right” queue, where the dog has permission to charge in and flush the bird, or simply relocate, or stand and defer to you. But in many cases one or two explosive steps is all it takes to get a bird to break and its game on. Do you like to shoot doubles? Here is your chance. What we learned in ‘training’ is our birds wouldn’t go and the girls would simply scoop the bird up on the “all right” – which technically is fair play, but what wild bird would let that happen? Moreover, this ninja grabbing became problematic for us, most notably Ila learned to stalk in like a panther and snatch the bird. There is a clear difference between when a dog is managing birds and creeping. Ila still didn’t have intent to put the bird up because if it flew, she stood steady, but if it sat tight, she would panther cruise in until the bird was in her mouth.
We consulted with Brad, and he confirmed our suspicions – we had a bird problem. To move forward we had to ditch “all right” at least temporarily. But what to do about Ila, the furry bird snatching glacier? Since we don’t use “whoa” or zap our dogs, just what were our options? Well truth be told; the solution was incredibly simple. I knew the difference between Ila managing a bird on the move, and when she had intent to cruise in for a snatch. This was the cornerstone to the fix. When she went into cruise mode, I simply recalled her, I knelt and praised her for returning and we left that bird alone and went to another. She was denied her reward, which is all. It took two times that day, and another on the following training day. She hasn’t cruised since. No yelling, no whistle bleating, no “whoa'ing", no zapping, no dramas; it was that simple.
In all we had a great summer of fun Ila, Tule, and I. We ‘trained’ three or four days a week. I honed my craft and improved my timing by taking video of most of our sessions. I did learn I am a terrible videographer, but what I managed to capture was adequate for its intended purpose, for me to learn and improve. Yes, with the Higgins Method the handler is held accountable for what goes on and how well the dog performs. We understand what the dog will do when they make associations. With consistency in handling, it becomes easy for the dog to make the associations we find desirable. In this case awesome points and steadiness, basically the dog becomes non-reactive to birds flying, gunfire, birds being shot, etc. Chasing is eliminated entirely. All the things I just mentioned become queues to remain steady for the dog, all done without drama, pressure, hollering a 'command', or zapping the dog. Early in the program dogs are helped to make the association that flying/flushing birds mean to be steady without verbal commands or queues be it verbal or electronic. We then make the association that they may flush the bird, but become steady again once the bird flies, again without command or queue from us, the flying bird is again our queue for steadiness. This is much easier than you might think.
Once the gun gets involved a lot of energy is added to the situation, and once we have added a bird tumbling to the ground, there is again even more energy added. For us, this isn’t an insurmountable obstacle for us, and one we can defeat without the use of any kind of harshness. Our dogs learn the gunfire is also a queue for steadiness. Even while hunting at our local preserve hunters in other fields shooting will cause our dogs to pause briefly. Typically, the opposite of dogs trained conventionally, who when they hear gunfire usually rocket off in the direction of the report of the shot! Because so many of our birds were very weak to get off the line, I had to put a bit more emphasis on gunfire, being a queue for steadiness to ensure the safety of the situation. Again, this was done without the use of force. I simply leaned a little further into the associations we had already built.
How did I do that? To be honest it was simple and based on modern learning theory. Done again in the Higgins way, as quietly as I am capable of. By emphasizing my return to the dog after the shot, varying the time to get back, and varying the time for release once I got back to the dog, my queue “hunt dead” was properly reinforced as the association I wanted to make. Releasing the dog is easy, there is a lot going on, a lot of energy and excitement in the air, and usually a downed bird to be found and retrieved. Once we had the release ironed out, on occasion I would let the girls go without returning to them, but only if they remained steady and turned to look for me – anticipate my return to them. This will be the area I focus on through the upcoming hunting season. I intend to be mindful of making a point to return to them on occasion before offering the “hunt dead” queue. Just a few times here and there will be all it takes to keep the whole thing together.
I ended my ‘training’ season by starting our Spinone pup using the Higgins Method with remarkable success and having two Drents that were dead nuts bang on steady to release.
With the few birds I had left I elected to try working Tule & Ila as a brace. They both played the game by the same set of ‘rules’, and they both used the same queues to the same level of fidelity no less. I wasn’t nervous about running them together at all. I just wanted to see how it would go down. Tule works closer, Ila tends to run bigger. As a pair it’s about perfect. They worked so well together, very cooperative! If Ila has the bird, Tule very naturally will honor her. Once I walked past her, she would resume working and either establish her own point or would again ‘honor’ depending on the wind or situation. Ila is by default of her personality is a risk taker, instead of ‘honoring’ she would work around and set her own point in her own way at the distance she thought was right for the situation – never with the intent to compete or interfere. Yeah, so just like that I now have a brace of Higgins dogs. Lucky me.
Haha, I say it like it just happened, but in some ways it did because we all just had a lot of fun over the course of last summer. We learned a lot from one another. Trust, timing, teamwork. I improved my handling, timing, and consistency. My patience and persistence grew by using the video because I stopped repeating mistakes, and even when I did repeat an error it was never to the degree it was before – improvement is the name of the game. So really it was through diligence and attention to detail I have a brace of Higgins Gundogs and an eight-month-old pup that performs better than most folks seasoned pros…
We even got to take our act on the road and offered guiding services for Sage Canyon Outfitters in Oregon where every client we took out made similar remarks about enjoying the slower more casual pace of the hunt, the quiet: no yelling or whistle bleating from me, and never hearing a dog squeal from being shocked – they all commented on that and how much it bothered them to see it happen to the other guys dogs. Additionally, they really liked being able to get set up around the dogs they watched work and with a ‘thumbs up’ all around the “all right” was given and easy shots presented to the guns.
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I'm just a guy suffering with an infatuation with gundogs since childhood. Forty some years later this is what you get.