Would you consider your gundog a valued member of the family? Or maybe even your buddy? Then maybe you should take some time to hear me out, because there is a better way to get a high-drive dog to perform like a rock star in the field than what is commonly accepted. The Higgins Method will help you to capitalize on the relationship you have with your dog, and only make it better by bringing you closer by building you and your dog as a team.
But before I get to that, I’d like to help frame up my personal experience and how I’ve come to this conclusion. I’ve trained dogs for about forty years now and to be honest, I still feel I have much to learn and improve upon. I acknowledge this and actively take active steps towards educating myself and developing my skill set. Done so by reading dozens of books, watching countless hours of videos, and seeking out hands-on training for myself. Part of this ‘mission’ of mine has led me to train with the best trainers and groups I could work myself into. Since I became serious about gundogs, and the training of gundogs, I have only redoubled my efforts in this arena. So, while the number of gundogs I have trained outright is not exactly an impressive number, I have learned by watching others and participating in the training of hundreds of dogs.
One of my gifts, or curses if you will, is to notice patterns where they don’t seem to exist. It happens most when I am at peace yet fully engaged. Suddenly the connections begin to appear. When it occurs, these connections help me to rather quickly rule out or rule in information, what is effective and what is not, identify trendlines, and so on. It is a quality of mine people have both loved and despised in my previous professional life…but that is a story for another day.
Getting back to it. I’ve had the opportunity to train and befriend some really notable gundog people, several with a presence on the national level. People who I am friends with and hold great respect for to this day. I saw why and where their method worked, the parts of their programs that were money in the bag, their overlaps and similarities; some parts being practically magical and then the parts that just worked be it for whatever reason: force of will is a commonality. And yes, the differences too.
Of particular interest, in dog sport, the ‘positive methodology’ (poorly named, hence it being so poorly understood by many) rules supreme! I mean really, pick a sport from Agility all the way to Tactical dog ‘training’ and just about every point in-between ‘positive’ is The Way, not just a way. With one notable exception, the gundog. The poor gundog, which spends most of its time as a humble family companion, is trained in a brutish old-world way. Why?
I’ll venture this – it’s tradition. Most or all other dog sports are relatively new, and therefore people haven’t been steeped in a particular mindset for a full generation, let alone multiple generations. On the other hand, we humans have been doing the gundog thing for a few hundred years now. The whole hunting over a gundog isn’t just an institution steeped in tradition, it’s been painted, and written about both academically and poetically. Training the gundog has been brought to a state of near mythical proportion. How do you change that?
The old way is centered on the perception that the handler must control the high-drive dog. This control must be absolute. Stop when I say stop, go when I say go, as if the handler knows better in all situations – anything else is disobedience and subject to punishment. That’s assuming the dog even understands why. We can get more into that later if you’d like. The use of force to get what the handler wants when the handler wants it is the easily moved forward backstop. When in doubt, add ‘stim’ seems to a tried and true panacea for all gundog problems. Maybe you even bought videos, books, or into a membership with some organization advocating the use of force. Worse yet, not just advocating the use of force but actively promoting and normalizing it. Some methods are better than others, but at a certain point they all neck down and follow a similar methodology which is wholly dependent on the use of force. How draconian a particular method is seems to be related to how much force the prolific trainer needed to use to generate “success” - then their followers’ line up eager to replicate what they perceived ‘worked’ for so and so. As always there is talk of washouts, dogs that couldn’t hack it, the abuse they don’t want to talk about. Yep, I said it, abuse. That and my sense of pattern-detection has kept me from being able to go all in with all the variations based in this old-world methodology.
Okay, now all the traditionalist out there are looking to burn my house down – that’s fine, it’s insured, its value it tracked appropriately, and we are looking to leave Washington. Just let me get my dogs out first, please. Trust me, I’m not being dramatic, the responses I’ve gotten on a variety of forums has only been met with varying degrees of hostility. One does not threaten tradition casually or make hamburgers from a sacred cow...but my grill is hot!
Okay, enough of that. Let’s talk about the Higgins Method. First and foremost, the Higgins method is entirely Force Free and capitalizes on the intelligence of the dog, the dog's natural desire to be cooperative, and energy management for dog and handler – wait, what!? Yep, that's it in a nutshell. In short, Brad uses a truck load of good flying birds presented to the dog in a way where the dog gains an understanding that in order to be fully successful it needs to cooperate with you, the handler – all without the use of force. Once the dog believes this, the rest is up to you. How long will it take for you to trust your dog and believe it will play its role for you? Once you have achieved the fifth stage of grief, also known as: acceptance, a team is born. Once dog and human are a team, hunting is a relaxing exercise in watching your dog perform. You’ll need to put your constricted chokes away and possibly consider adding spreader loads to your arsenal.
Ila has been brought up this way. We used compatible Force Free techniques to shape every behavior of hers leading up to her Higgins introduction. Afterall, it is hoped that she take over her mother’s role of being my Medical Response Dog at some point in the future. Ila is deeply in tune with me because of this, to the extent that her performance is tied to how true my handling is. If I do my job right, she will do hers right. Not that I look forward to becoming a sloppy handler, but as she continues to mature, her dependance upon my exact handling will lesson. For the record, she has been steady to wing, shot, fall and release since six-months of age – without a single zap. Wouldn’t you like to know what it feels like to bring a Gatling gun to a knife fight? If so, it’s time to ditch the old paradigm and step into the era of modern canine learning and bring this to your beloved gundog. Once you do, you can focus on your tactics, getting your dog get into the best cover, and supporting their effort to find every bird in the area for you. Sounds rough doesn’t it?
This is more or less a companion piece to the Higgins Gundogs review I made last year. We are clients of Higgins Gundogs, and receive no preference or benefit from writing anything ‘pro-Higgins’. To that end, Ila is still in pursuit of her Higgins Gundog title. Which will only be earned when she and I can unequivocally demonstrate our mastery of team dynamics. We are hoping to achieve this goal in early 2021.
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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.