column By: Alec Sparks | March, 20
Truth be known, I started my professional career 28 years ago as a retriever-only trainer with a passionate interest (obsession?) with AKC retriever field trials. Around 1969 we were given a field trial washout, and the owner retained breeding rights. A year later, I was allowed to pick out a puppy for my own. Growing up in Vermont, I started hunting “partridge” and woodcock with that dog. That’s how I hunted and all I really knew, until the early ’90s when I started being around pointing breeds quite often.
I’ll admit, it’s a bit unusual as the majority of trainers are usually pretty much breed specific. The flushing breeds I train are strictly hunting dogs and not field trial dogs so that’s where my focus will be.
A flushing dog really only has to do one thing: stay in gun range.
“Wrong, Alec,” you say. “They have to find birds!” Well, not really.
If they are in range and just running around with no interest in birds, they will still most likely disturb them enough so they take wing, allowing us to support ammunition manufacturers. But having a higher degree of trained skill is actually pretty handy.
I grew up with leashes and choke chains, things I still saw used as foundation training tools well into the ’90s and even today. Later, prong collars made their way from the obedience/protection crowd to field trainers. Now “reward-based” (operant conditioning) training is slooooowly making inroads into field training. Please don’t mistake poor “treat training” with proper reward-based training (RBT). My experience is that quality RBT is actually far more difficult to execute properly than training a dog with a leash and collar. With leash and collar, it’s “Heel”/tug, “Sit”/tug, “Come”/tug. With RBT, it’s “mark” the behavior; properly deliver the reward.
RBT is very effective at teaching behaviors at any age, but it’s especially useful with a dog so young no one in their right mind would consider formal leash/collar work with it. Second, it puts a lot more in it for the dog. By and large for many trainers, field training has been a “my way or the highway” deal. Not only does RBT put more in it for the dog, but it also can actually change for the better the way a dog perceives training. I think done properly, RBT makes it actually easier for a trainer to be successful, while maintaining and fostering a great attitude with dogs that are more sensitive both mentally and physically. It certainly makes a great deal of sense with low-desire dogs that more quickly shut down when faced with even artfully applied compulsion foundation training. I believe it’s also a more fair way to instill foundation behaviors in dogs.
“Enough already, how do you actually do this RBT thing?” You’ve heard it called “clicker training.” Well, the “click” is what “marks” the behavior. I generally don’t use a clicker. I just use the word yes.
If we agree that sit/hup, heel and solid recall are desirable behaviors for our flushing dogs, we’ll start with heel. For example, use a piece of soft food the size of a green pea or slightly larger and something the dog really likes — ¼-inch thick slices of hot dog or cheese. It’s properly held under your thumb as it presses down on your first/second finger joint area. This allows you to “lure” the dog into position as it tries to access the food under your thumb.
Hold the food that way and walk along, your palm facing back with the side of your hand touching your leg. You cause the dog to heel as it tries to access the food. As you move together, you just say “yes,” followed by a ¼-second pause and then let the dog access the food. Do not set out to mark and reward simultaneously, but be aware that we all do that in the beginning. It may help to say “yes,” to think “reward” and then give the reward. I usually have a few pieces of food under my thumb so I can mete out rewards over several yards until I quickly reload.
Following your hand/reward, it’s super easy to get the heel position and lure the dog through turns. As you come to a stop, move your hand, touching the dog muzzle up and back over its head. Most dogs will sit, so if that happens, mark and reward. Reload and move off on heel. I hold off using verbal sit/heel commands until the dog has learned the positions.
To see these techniques in action and to get a better idea of the mechanics, please check out the foundation work videos at the Snowbound Kennels Facebook page.