5 Great Positive Gun Dog Training Resources

Gunner W. | Labrador Retriever

When Gunner grows up, he’s going to be somebody’s hunting buddy.

We meet dogs that serve many roles in their families: service dogs, lap dogs, running partners, you name it. We also meet hunting dogs. And before you start imagining dusty hounds living in a little dirt-floored kennel in the back yard, let me re-state that: we also meet hunting buddies. Loveable, happy, spoiled-rotten retrievers, flushing, and pointing dogs that are a big part of this outdoor tradition.

Sure, hunting isn’t for everyone. But we understand and appreciate the very special relationship shared between working field dogs and their handlers. One thing I’ve learned about this relationship is that many hunters are conflicted when it comes to the traditional methods used to train their dogs. While I can’t (and won’t) argue that dogs can effectively be trained using techniques like ear pinches, prong collars, heeling sticks, and shock collars, I’ve noticed that many hunting dog owner’s aren’t able to use negative reinforcement and other aversive techniques effectively because of the relationship they share with their dog. And because they refuse to hurt their dogs or otherwise damage this relationship, a lot of casual hunting dog owners either don’t train their dogs (because they think this is the only way to do it) or send their hunting buddy off to boarding school to let someone else do it the traditional way.

I’m happy to share that positive gun dog training techniques are finally making their way into the mainstream. There’s a long way to go, for sure, but gun dogs trained with exclusively positive techniques are earning field trial titles and leading their handlers into the forests and fields more and more these days.

Resources for new trainers are still a bit sparse, but there are more places to turn to every year. Here are a few of my favorites.

I’ve mentioned Dogmantics and Emily Larlham’s kikopup channel on youtube before. This is one of the best collections of positive training videos anywhere, and it’s free. You won’t find any hunting dog-specific info here, but it’s a solid introduction to positive-reinforcement clicker training that will help you lay a good foundation in any training program. Many of the techniques Emily uses to teach freestyle to her dogs can be adapted to the off-leash work required of hunting dogs, too.

Positive Gun DogsJim Barry’s Positive Gun Dogs is a great book based on Jim’s experience as an early-adopter of positive training techniques. Retrieving breeds are the book’s main focus, but pointing dog owners will find some good information here, as well.

The Positive GunDogs Yahoo Group is an active listserve that positive gun dog trainers from novice to expert use to share experiences, offer advice, and sometimes commiserate when things don’t work as planned. Click the Join Group button to start receiving emails. One of the more active members of the group, Lindsay Ridgeway, maintains The 2Q Retriever, a blog based on his experiences training and handling his dogs to field titles without aversive training techniques.

Clicker GundogPointing and versatile gun dog enthusiasts would be wise to check out Helen Phillips’ Clicker Gundog, which also includes positive approaches to training behaviors (like “whoa” and honoring point) that are expected of these breeds.

If you’ve got a new hunting dog pup–or an old dog that needs training, for that matter–consider using positive reinforcement training. Even some well-known mainstream trainers like George Hickox are starting to add clicker to the foundation of their training. And though most are still using it as a stepping stone to the shock collar, many are finding that positive reinforcement is far more effective than they once thought. I trained our oldest dog before I came around to the clicker, and our second with a blend of “old” and “new” as I was learning the power of positive training. After comparing them on many different levels,  I can honestly say I won’t be charging the E-collar or pinching any ears on the next hunting buddy we bring into our home.

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  1. Mark says:

    Modern psychologists have shown that positive reinforcement works much better than negative. In my opinion, the same holds true for dogs.

    • Dr. G says:

      Oh, absolutely! Zoo keepers have trained rhinos to pee in a cup for hormone analysis and taught crocodiles–CROCODILES–to walk up a ramp and into a holding crate for examination and blood sampling using only positive reinforcement (imagine trying to punish one of these creatures). I recently saw a great presentation by a veterinary student working with elephants in SE Asia. She took elephants trained using traditional aversives like the ankush (that “hook” that elephant handlers use) and quickly and painlessly taught them to present their trunk, let her squirt a couple ounces of liquid inside, and then spray it into a bag for tuberculosis testing. It’s hard to argue with success like this. I’m convinced that the reason we continue to use punishment and negative reinforcement in dogs is because we’re impatient and they’re tolerant enough to let us get away with it!

  2. Roz Dove says:

    It is very difficult to discuss positive dog training methods with traditional trainers. I did gun dog training many years ago before e collars. Now..that is all there is and if you are not on board they regard you as an idiot. Despite past sucesses.
    I am not sure how I am going to go on..but.. I will not shock my dog.
    Any ideas…?

    • Dr. G says:

      Old habits die hard, that’s for sure! Many areas around the country have small, active groups of positive gun dog trainers that may be helpful. You can sometimes find them by joining a more traditional training group and asking around. You can also find a positive reinforcement trainer and discuss your specific needs with them. Many of the techniques used to train other working breeds or service dogs can be adapted to gun dog training. Good luck!

    • Brian says:

      It’s tough in the states… there are tons of people that think force fetch is the only way but I find those types of methods including the E-collar lazy and washed up at best. in the UK there is a huge positive training movement already in full swing and their dogs are not ruined and they are fully capable dogs. Most people that make a stink about clicker training a gun dog have more than likely never seen a positive trained gun dog at work. I tried tons of traditional video and book series but I didn’t resonate with any of them, once I got into some online groups and was able to learn from the UK folks the light went on … make it fun and positive and the dog learns so quickly and the clicker cues the desired behavior so the dog clearly knows what action is being rewarded. Old methods would drag the dog back 30 or more seconds late to the starting point then scold the dog and by that point the dog is thoroughly confused as to what it did wrong… instead letting the dog know what it did right is way more productive. What I do now is take some of the structure from the USA traditional style with the timeline and drills and I replace the force with averse free methods, it works pretty well because one thing the UK style lacks is a concise set of steps to follow. If you are worried about getting on I would get in touch with a positive clicker trainer in your area (regardless of if they train gun dogs) then you can learn positive techniques and apply those to traditional gun dog drills without using any force. No riding crops, shock collars, check chords or any of that nonsense ever needs to be used.

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