Positive Dog Training Produces Great Gun Dogs

Buccleuch Ultra

After 9/11, I was tasked to rebuild a FEMA disaster search dog program in need of reworking. To begin I recruited 15 dog handlers of whom more than 50% were police and firefighters so that we got an emergency response culture. Then I bought young adult Labradog Retrievers and placed one with each handler. The dog lived with, and was trained by his handler. I trained the handlers to train the dogs. I had them 2 to 3 sessions per week for 2 ro 3 hours.

I started off with traditional compulsion training which was all that I knew at that time. After about 3 months I looked at our progress records and determined that at the rate we were going, it was going to take 18 months to get the team operational. In the world of emergency operations that is way too long. I had to find a faster training model. I looked around for a leading edge animal training program and found the US Navy’s Marine Mammal Training program. They were training dolphins to detect tethered anti-submarine mines several hundred feet beneath the ocean’s surface. The dolphins also had to conduct their searches through and around schools of fish. Since fish is their natural diet and also serves as the dolphins’ training rewards, the behavior being trained was very difficult. They are trained entirely with B.F. Skinners operant conditioning with positive reinforcement. I picked it for my search team.

The dog adaptation of B.F. Skinner’s positive training model is popularly termed clicker training. I adopted it and started training dogs and handlers to the new model. I loaded all the handlers on an airplane and we attended a national three-day clicker training seminar consisting of presentations from world class experts. I also followed up by bringing in two of these experts to conduct individual coaching with the handlers. The end result was the drastic reduction of the dog/handler training time. It went from 18 months to 6 months, a 300% reduction. That told me the positive training model is 3 times easier for novice trainers to master.

I have spent the past 10 years developing a training model that adapts the B.F. Skinner positive training model to retriever gundogs, and I have a come up with a very simple, workable model. I have used it on over 100 gundogs dogs very successfully, and have been teaching it to novice trainers with great success.
For a high probability of success with the training model there are two prerequisites:
(1) Fluency at coming when called – The dog should come on one cue (or command) consistently from 30 yards, even in the presence of moderate distraction. A good place to check this out or to train the distraction part is a dog park.
(2) Fluency at Delivery to hand – the dog should consistently deliver to hand.
Deficiencies in these two behaviors usually stem back to punishment that was unknowingly or inadvertently or accidentally delivered. Neither the how nor the why is relevant. The quickest fix is to give the dog lots of payments (highly desirable treats) for coming to you. If delivery to hand is a weakness, make sure you give the payment when the dog is all the way to you; his nose is within an inch of your leg.

Here is the training model:

1. Dummies before birds – Train the dog with dummies. Canvas is better. Canvas dummies are comfortable to carry and promote delivery to hand. When the behaviors are well established and fluent with dummies in the face of distraction, then you can work the dog on birds and have a low probability of encountering problems. Birds are simply a fairly high distraction level. Save them until the behaviors are fluent in moderate to high distraction levels. Then working with birds will not create problems.
2. Blinds before marks – Blind retrieves are of birds the dog has not seen fall. Marked retrieves are of birds that the dog has seen fall. The dog’s ancestors possessed an innate ability to go catch and eat a bird he saw land in a distant field. If he did not have this innate talent, then he died. Dog’s need very little training on this inherited marking behavior. However, because they trigger such a powerful primary instinct, marks are very disruptive to the training of the gundog’s self-control, impulse control and manners. Marks are like crack cocaine. If the dog has not found out how intoxicating marks are, then whistle stops and hand signals are much more easily trained, and the dog will like these and other control behaviors much more.
3. Steadiness is primary – A gundog’s primary job is to enhance his owner’s outdoor experience. That means he must be obedient and steady and calm when 100 ducks are working, duck calls are blaring and 6 shooters are shooting. During such periods of extreme excitement the gundog should be sitting calmly waiting for instructions. A blind filled with excited hunters and loaded guns is not the place for an over-excited, on-the-edge-of-out-of-control gundog.
The trick here is to let the dog learn from puppyhood that calmness pays (with a retrieve).
The dog should get no marked retrieves without a wait of at least three minutes as this is the average dissipation time of the neurochemicals that produce the excited emotional state. Sending the dog when he is calm applies the payment of the retrieve to the emotional account of calmness. To further promote calmness and steadiness, pick up most of the seen falls in training yourself.

Robert Milner

“When he stood up to speak, battalions of words issued forth from his mouth and scoured the countryside in search of an idea, and when they found one, they swiftly and thoroughly beat it to death.” —- -Anonymous

2 thoughts on “Positive Dog Training Produces Great Gun Dogs

  1. I have recently began using the operant conditioning system on my 10 month old lab, Kaz, (short for Kamikaze). This is my fourth, personal lab and I can honestly say that using this method is fast, easy and the results are amazing!! I’ve probably trained about 50-60 dogs using the classic, traditional training methods, since I’ve started using the “clicker method” I’ve seen a rapid increase in the dog’s ability to grasp new concepts while a huge reduction in training time. Thank you Mr. Milner for sharing your wisdom and experience.

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