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Keeping Your Dog Away from Off Game

How to trash-break your dog from “off game,” and why it's important.

Keeping Your Dog Away from Off Game
(Stephen Mcsweeny | Dreamstime)

Recently, there have been a good number of questions from readers regarding what I call “trash-breaking.” Raccoons, skunks, porcupines, snakes, or deer — any one of these critters can spoil your hunt. At the very least, these animals cause a distraction for your dog. Depending on the encounter, your dog can be injured, subject to secondary infection, and cost you a lot of money in vet bills. Even worse, a deer chase can end with a dog being lost or found dead at a road crossing.

Trash-breaking has been a general term in the sporting dog world for generations, and the technique I usually suggest as a work-around more or less works across the board when teaching a dog to avoid any of these wild animals.

My best results have been achieved by associating all aspects of the undesired animal — its sight, smell, and sound — with intense negative stimuli. I believe scientists call this technique “aversion training.” Be it a snake, porcupine, or a deer, our goal here is to make that animal totally aversive/repugnant to your dog.

Granted, if your dog is well trained and of moderate drive, you might be able to stop and handle him away from an encounter when you see it coming. But in most cases, you have no warning until it is too late, whereas successful aversion training sets your dog up to make the decision on his own.


I feel mammals like porcupines, raccoons, and deer present the bigger problem, because their strong scent can really crank up the prey drive in our hunting dogs. We’ve all seen it, and once the fight or chase is on, the predator instinct takes over. And trust me, if not brought in check, this thirst for the fight can consume your dog’s mind.

For example, one morning while hunting in northern Minnesota, my friend’s shorthair found and killed a porcupine. It took us 20-plus minutes of taking turns holding the dog and pulling what quills we could in preparation for a trip to the veterinarian for cleanup.

To my point, and honestly before I had turned and picked up my coat and gun, my friend’s dog was back on another porcupine — again full of quills, and enjoying every second of the fight. “Well, that’s a shorthair,” you say, and I do agree some breeds and family lines are more or less inclined to be a problem, yet most are going to show some level of interest in “off game.”

I’d like to use the “deer chase” as an example to point out a couple of approaches to trash-breaking. Before beginning either of the following tactics, be certain your dog is completely collar-conditioned, and that it clearly understands how to deal with remote pressure.

Obedience Option

As mentioned earlier, you can use commands coupled with remote pressure to stop the chase. This begins in the backyard with basic commands like “no” and “whoa,” assuring yourself of understanding and obedience. Then, move to a park or open-field area and continue repetitions as you check and reinforce progress.

You’ll find it takes quite a higher level of obedience to keep control of your dog as you change environments and are faced with the added excitement and distractions. Proportional, too, are problems of being able to enforce obedience if commands are ignored, or a response is slow. Timing here is every bit as critical, and corrections must be quick. In no uncertain terms your dog should realize there are no options—commands will be obeyed!

For advanced obedience work in open-field areas, I use Garmin remote training collars. They’re a safe way of staying in control at any distance, and possibly the single-best means of discouraging a dog from chasing deer.

I understand many of you may not encounter deer in your training area. But during your actual hunt, you will. So in either case, be prepared with a training collar in place. Work your dog through likely cover, be ready when the dog encounters deer, command the dog to stop, and if he doesn’t respond to your command, apply low stimulation with the e-collar.

With the first light “bump,” we’re trying to penetrate the dog’s awareness and turn his attention to us, so we can give another command to “whoa” or “come.” If he responds, we call him to “heel,” give praise, and then once collected, cast off in another direction.

On the other hand, if commands are ignored and a chase ensues, we’re forced to apply enough electrical stimulation to stop the dog and force his return to “heel” on command. Although unpleasant, it’s far better than the possible outcome of an extended chase.

True Aversion Training

With the above option, you’re depending on obedience and voice command, where you are part of the scenario. With true aversion training, you’re not in the picture, there are no commands, and remote pressure is at a high level.

In the same scenario I just discussed, when you’re certain your dog has committed to the chase, without commands you apply the highest level of continuous stimulation until the dog turns from the chase, at which point you simply cast off in a different direction to continue hunting. Pay close attention to your dog, as you’ll likely have more opportunities as the hunt continues to further reinforce the aversion training. Our goal here is to make the sight and smell of the critter totally abhorrent to the dog. Even if your dog, upon seeing a deer break cover, only throws his head up and takes a few steps in that direction, don’t say anything, immediately apply stimulation until he turns, and then cast him off in a different direction.

In southern areas, trainers actually keep live snakes on hand for aversion conditioning. The scenario is set up with a snake placed out in the grass. The dog, with a remote collar on, is brought in and the second he smells and sees the snake, high-level stimulation is applied and held until the dog turns away and pulls at his check rope to leave the area.

Keeping a pen full of deer, porcupines, or raccoons isn’t going to work, so our best bet there is capitalizing on an opportunity while hunting or training.

Timing is critical. Several years ago, I was working a young dog on his first grouse hunt. Luckily, I noticed a porcupine waddling along a trail behind a big log. As the young dog jumped the log, I was able to apply and hold high-level stimulation just as he landed on the trail and saw and smelled the porky. The pup jumped back, let out a yelp or two, turned to me, and soon continued hunting. Lucky as it was, the scenario couldn’t have been better. I was able to avoid an ugly encounter, and hopefully made the sight, smells, and sounds of porcupines aversive to my pup from the get-go.

The goal is to condition your dog to a point of making the decision, on his own, not to chase or fight and to get clear of the area with no commands needed. This method may seem overly severe to some of you, but where avoiding snakes, wild hogs, porcupine, or a deer chase are concerned, it might save your dog’s life.

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