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The Philosophy Behind Training All Dogs

A three-strand approach breeds success for gun dogs.

The Philosophy Behind Training All Dogs

Short-cutting on any of the three strands of training will weaken your dog's performance in the long run. (Dean Pearson photo)

What we really want is a dog who is a good citizen. One who won’t embarrass us. A dog we can live with who is always happy to see us—even when we are an hour late with the evening meal. We want a dog who can sooth nerves at the end of a bad day.

So why train our dogs? Simple: We train them to do the job we want done and to our liking—a nice pragmatic reason. We train, too, because we owe it to the dog to ensure his safety and well-being, to give him purpose, and to make him happy. Training is a responsibility we owe our dogs just as much as providing food and shelter.  

For hunting, we have retrievers, flushers, pointers, trackers, and the versatile breeds expected to do it all. Each has its own specific training requirements and most of our dogs are also family dogs. To further complicate things, each of these specialties might be trained for trials only, or for hunting only or for field tests only, and posssibly for a combination of two or more of these venues. Each venue has special requirements of emphasis. Yet, with all these diverse training needs for all the purposes and reasons we have gun dogs, a single three-strand thread encompasses the philosophy of training all dogs.


One strand applies to every dog for any given purpose. That is, some things must be more rigidly and less permissively trained for while other aspects can be more relaxed, less demanding, and less drilled. Commands that will potentially save a dog from harm or even save his life are those more necessary than others. Another example of this strand of the thread is a field trial pointer’s sit command doesn’t need be as perfect or demanding as a field trial retriever’s sit or a flusher’s sit. It is job specific and more necessary.

Progressive Steps

A second strand in all training is there needs to be an available fallback position as well as an available escalation of the concept of the command. There is always a need for a place we can go back to, when a dog’s understanding hits a wall. What this means is first that training needs to be done in small, gradually progressing steps, each building on the preceding and providing a base for the next. Learning does not go in a slender curve as we imagine, but in a series of understood progress and regressive plateaus.  

On the other end, we will need to over train for some scenarios, so we have several commands of increased reliability. For example, to stop the dog we could use his name, a verbal command, a whistle blast, a vibration on the collar, a prolonged stronger shock, all to mean stop right now.  Your dog might obey a verbal command when chasing a chipmunk but only a buzz on the collar will work if that dog is chasing deer. The command strength needs to match or better the stimulus strength to be reliable.

Hunter using a hand signal to command dog
Training does not follow a steady curve, but often a series of understood progress and regressive plateaus. (Chris Ingram photo)

Satisfaction of Work

The third strand in our philosophy of the training thread is to train in such a way that performing the task the dog has been trained for is in itself rewarding to the dog.  The “satisfaction” the dog gets from doing the job creates a desire to do it again and do it better. The idea is similar to how a person feels when he gets a bonus for doing a good job. He will try to do it better, anticipating a larger bonus. Dogs that get positive reinforcement will tend to improve and will be happy in their work. Nobody wants to be a volunteer forever for no compensation. Even a pat on the head says there is someone who appreciates your work. Dogs are no different. If the dog is rewarded for doing what he was told to do, he will associate the reward with what he did, and the job becomes more meaningful. By pairing the job with a reward, performance will become rewarding in itself because he anticipates the compensation.  

Whatever response a dog makes to a command will tend to be repeated if there is a positive payoff. If there is no payoff or a negative payoff the response will tend not to be repeated. Depending on what is most meaningful to the dog, the trainer must select what to use. All three strands of the training philosophy thread need to work together. Short-cutting on any one of them will weaken the whole of the training.

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