There are some challenges for those who wish to clicker train their gundogs. But they are not insurmountable. It is good to be aware of areas which might cause you problems and to arm yourself with as much information as you can in dealing with these problems, before you begin to train. Preferably before you even bring home your pup.
Successful clicker training is absolutely dependent on controlling rewards. A dog will repeat the behaviour that gets him the best reward. There are no two ways about this. Unless you are prepared to control the rewards available to your dog, you will not be successful as a clicker trainer.
What this means in real terms is that if you wish to take your young dog for lots of ‘off lead’ walks in countryside full of gamey scent, rabbits to chase etc, you had better have an even more attractive reward ready than the ones your dog gets for himself. If you have a keen hunting dog, and most spaniels and many working bred Labradors fall into this category, this will not be easy. Your best option if you wish to clicker train your dog effectively as a working gundog, is to thoroughly control your dog’s exercise, so that he does not have access to free hunting and chasing behaviour.
This advice is also important to those who are training traditionally, but as a clicker trainer it is crucial. If you wish to avoid all forms of punishment, you will need to take particular care to avoid self rewarding behaviour, as once the dog has discovered the joys of intrinsic rewards, you will find it very difficult to compete with them.
Because of the opportunities in the field for self rewarding behaviours, distractions must therefore be introduced to the clicker trained gundog in very tiny steps and carefully monitored to maintain your standards.
The issue of introducing distraction is less of a problem for a traditional trainer who is willing to use the occasional well-timed correction, probably simply because the feedback from the correction is providing the dog with more information on which to base his choices, and modifies the need for a very powerful reward to follow the desired behaviour. Some trainers believe that dogs generalise corrections better than they generalise rewards, and that this therefore enables more rapid introduction to different locations and levels of distraction than does reward-only training.
In training a gundog for fieldwork, there are more opportunities for these ‘intrinsically rewarding behaviours than in any other dog related sport. This is probably one of the main reasons why clicker trainers have so far not reached the upper levels of gundog competitive work. If you wish to take on the challenge of clicker training your gundog, it will help you to consider how you are going to deal with these issues in a systematic and effective manner.
Lack of opportunities for extinction
The process of extinction which the positive-only trainer can make use of in controlled environments, is more difficult to generate in the field. You can read more about extinction and the science of canine behaviour in A game of consequences and in Operant conditioning in a nutshell for gundog trainers.
Lack of physical contact
Clicker training is very much a non-contact process. The clicker trained dog does not need to be poked, prodded, pushed or manipulated into positions. This is one of the advantages of clicker training but perversely, it can also be one of the disadvantages.
During the course of it’s working life a gundog may come into contact with a lot of handling. Dogs on a shoot day, particularly those working in the beating line, will be lifted in and out of trailers and landrovers, packed in with other dogs and strangers, and lifted out again, often unceremoniously, by the scruff.
Traditionally gundogs were used to this kind of handling and their tails will carry on wagging furiously as they are passed in and out a shoot truck or trailer. Clicker trained dogs who have never been physically pulled around in their lives may find this process rather upsetting, to begin with. Of course if you are aware of this, it is possible to get your dog used to being lifted about in this way, before taking him on a shoot.
Physical contact between dog and master, may help develop the bond between them and a clicker trainer needs to make sure that this contact takes place in addition to the training process. In a pet gundog this is unlikely to be an issue, but in a kennels with several working gundogs each getting a limited amount of human contact each day, it might be relevant.
Without a doubt, the biggest challenge for the gundog clicker trainer is in preventing the dog from rewarding himself for bad behaviour. If you are prepared to make the time and take the effort, to ensure that you control the rewards available to your dog, there is no reason why this challenge should not be overcome.