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.
Jim 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.
Pointing 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.