How to Re-Train a Hunting Dog
September 28, 2015
The first question in a dog handler's mind when a dog is not doing what is expected should be "Why?" Why isn't the dog searching for coveys the way I expect? Why doesn't my dog bring back the downed bird? Why did that dog just flinch at the sound of my gun?
These questions start to swirl as the tension mounts and frustration builds during the course of an unsatisfying season. A dog's behavior is based on the associations that it has learned from experience. This means it's time to re-train a hunting dog.
Once the dog's health has been screened for any problems, the next step is to look at the dog's behavior. What are the conditions or cues prompting it?
Avoidance is a common behavior. When a dog avoids something, that act is usually the result of a negative association. For example, when a dog happens upon the scent cone of a bird, some will avoid going near that bird, known as "blinking."
Dogs that blink have learned to associate birds with something bad. At some point prior, the dog might have experienced pain in the presence of a bird, such as being corrected with an electronic collar or being clawed by a bird. Gun dogs are smart and quickly build associations like "birds equal pain."
Other unwanted behaviors can be related to a weak training foundation that is not being carried over into different scenarios. In her book Total Recall, Pippa Mattinson, a well-respected gun dog trainer in the UK, said that unlike people, dogs "don't ponder what you have taught them and apply this knowledge to new experiences." If you assume your dog is as capable as you at generalizing learned behavior to new situations, you will quickly learn you are wrong.
Many people have experienced this incorrect assumption when they take a "trained" dog to a dog park where it quickly "forgets" what it knows in the excitement of being among a bunch of other rowdy dogs. So even though your gun dog is working well with hand signals at home in the backyard, those fragile connections between command and behavior can quickly come apart in the field.
Understanding the reasons why the training is falling apart requires you to not only read what your dog is doing, but observe the surrounding conditions that might be causing the dog to falter.
As you get to know your dog and patiently read what is happening, the rehabilitation process will become much easier. All the information that you need to change your dog's behavior will be revealed as you analyze the situation. Professional gun dog trainer Brad Higgins says, "Watch your dog."
He teaches handlers how to read a dog's intent. When a pointing dog moves its feet at the shot, is the intent to chase or get a better view of the falling bird? A patient, observant handler will not hastily correct a dog without a clear understanding of the dog's reason for moving.
You do not want to correct a dog if his intention is to mark the fall of the bird. The ability to read a dog is the mark of a good dog handler.
Handle With Care
The authors of Positive Gun Dogs, Jim Barry, Mary Emmen and Susan Smith, say handler errors are very common. Smith says, "Although the actual act of hunting is usually motivating for a gun dog, the consequences of training may be a bigger motivator than the hunting itself."
She points to the critical importance of understanding the power of training methods. If the consequences are positive, the dog is more apt to learn to be cooperative in order to acquire what it desires. If the consequences are strongly negative, the dog might start to avoid hunting altogether.
Jim Barry sees poor timing and poor use of consequences as a major reason dogs stop hunting as expected. Additionally, he finds handlers push the dogs too rapidly and fail to understand the basis for the dog's behavior.
"The trick, whether one uses positive or negative reinforcement, is to set goals carefully, work in small increments and to be patient," he said.
Emmen watched someone trying to call his dog in after having retrieved a bird, but the dog did not want to. "By the time the dog finally came in, this guy was so frustrated that he yelled at and punched his dog the moment the dog got close to him'¦thereby teaching his dog that returning with the bird will result in punishment. This man created his own problems." Poor timing, harsh handling and poor use of consequences will result in a dog that will not retrieve a downed bird.
Care and patience are paramount when introducing a dog to guns. Many gun dog owners take their dogs to the range to introduce gunfire. This training technique is referred to as "flooding" because it repeatedly exposes a dog to an uncomfortable stimulus until he habituates to it.
Unfortunately, this technique often backfires, according to Barry: "In my experience, many dogs develop (gun) shyness from being pushed too rapidly or punished too harshly for not meeting the handler's expectations." Take your time, be patient and handle with care.
Back to Basics
Rehabilitating dogs that are bird shy, gun shy and/or won't retrieve comes down to two basic principles. First, gun dogs naturally want to hunt in a pack. Second, dogs also want to have fun.
Emmen says, "If your dog is having fun along the way, he will likely stay very motivated." Reconnecting a dog to its natural instincts and having fun will allow a dog to enjoy hunting with you. As a dog is rehabilitated, strong negative associations to birds, guns and handlers are undone while new, positive associations are created.
Gun dogs that have negative associations with birds need to be allowed to bump, chase and catch birds. In his book To The Point, Tom Davis states that allowing a pup to break and chase (birds) helps to increase their "boldness and confidence." The same can be said about bird-shy dogs also because they need to regain boldness and confidence around birds. Let the dog be a puppy again by getting back to the basics of the hunt, the predator-prey relationship.
A dog's basic desire to catch a bird in its mouth is powerful enough to overcome gun shyness too. In the Higgins' Method of training, the dog's bird desire is allowed to grow to a crescendo. At that peak of desire, the noise of a gun is introduced.
The timing is critical. The shot won't ring out until the instant the dog is about to capture the bird in its mouth. By establishing this association between something very positive with something considered negative, this counter-conditioning method can rehabilitate a gun shy dog.
Rehabilitating a dog that will not retrieve can also be an act of getting back to basics. Higgins says, "When a retrieve becomes an act of obedience, a dog can't help but feel competitive. A natural retrieve is more about an act of sharing; thus, the dog is not competitive or possessive."
If you've ever experienced a dog that drops a bird short or hesitates to come in all the way, then you may be witnessing a dog that is competing with you for this valuable resource. Katy Stuehm of Griffonpoint Wirehaired Pointing Griffons tells about one of the dogs she bred having a problem with not retrieving.
The owner got so frustrated that he gave the dog back to her. Once the dog was not subjected to the force-fetching techniques of the previous owner and was left to develop a natural retrieve, this young dog preformed as it should with the new owner/handler.
When a dog brings a bird to hand, it needs to be rewarded profusely as the entire moment becomes one of sharing between dog and handler. This relationship helps to tap into the basic instinct for pack members to share the quarry.
If All Else Fails
If reading your dog, handling with care and getting back to basics fails, then what? You might feel frustrated and a little bit angry about the way your hunting partner is performing. Don't give up; instead, look for ways to get unstuck by reaching out to other people.
First, you should talk to your dog's breeder. A reputable breeder does not want to see owners and dogs stuck in an unhappy relationship. Because he knows what characteristics he is breeding for, the breeder may have some sage advice. The breeder may also know additional resources you can consult, such as a breed-specific club, a trainer or a rescue organization. If all else fails, the breeder may offer to take the dog back to find it a different home.
Griffon breeder Katy says, "I'd much rather take one of my dogs back than see it live a life of unhappiness." Some dogs are perfectly happy to be pets only, but other dogs would much rather get the satisfaction of being in the field working synergistically with their handlers.
If you are still unable to achieve synergy, you can go to your local bird club. Watch how other dogs and handlers are working together and find someone who might be a good mentor for you.
That role model will be reading the dog well, handling with care and utilizing the basic principles of dog psychology. Connecting to other dog enthusiasts will give you an opportunity to vent a little, learn a little and hopefully get unstuck and your dog hunting properly.
Sometimes gun dog rehabilitation is all a matter of perspective and a matter of adjusting expectations. If you expect great things too fast and too soon, you will likely be disappointed. Rushing the training usually means that you will not be patient enough to properly read the dog and the situation.
Pushing a dog too hard will probably result in the poor use of consequences, the creation of counter-productive associations and a dog that will choose not to hunt with you. If your expectations are so high that you and your dog are not having fun along the way, then the hunt will be disastrous.
Look your dog in the eye and consider that he might be a nugget in the rough. Rehabilitating gun dogs is about removing the tarnish left by fingerprints of poor training methods. Gun dog rehabilitation can turn a hunting team that is faltering in the field into a well-oiled machine that fills the game bag with birds and fills the memory banks with joy.
Once those marks are polished away, what is left is a gleaming gun dog full of potential.