I originally published this article in February 2013. I am updating it today – almost a year later, because I have some great news. But you’ll have to read down to the end to find out what it is!
Yesterday morning I noticed another comment on this site from a gundog owner that has had a disappointing experience with a professional gundog trainer.
Sadly such complaints are a regular feature in my email inbox.
This lady, a competent clicker trainer wishing to get involved with gundog work, was turned down by the first gundog trainer she approached, and told by the second that clicker training is a ‘passing fashion’.
And the trainer’s reason for not wishing her students to use clicker training was given as ‘dogs don’t click each other’.
It is difficult to know where to begin with that one! But I’ll give it a go!
Dog’s don’t click each other
Dogs don’t retrieve for each other, dogs don’t teach one another to sit on command, dogs don’t put leads on one another, dog’s don’t actively mark or reward one another’s behaviour in any kind of organised or considered manner either.[wp_ad_camp_1]What dogs do with one another has little relevance in a training relationship between a dog and his owner.
We change a dog’s behaviour by altering the consequences of that behaviour.
And we sometimes have to do that in tiny incremental steps.
Imagine trying to teach a therapy dog to unload a washing machine, or even to switch on a light, in one step.
It would be impossible!
What does that have to do with gundogs? I hope that will become clear in a moment.
Moving the goalposts
With complex skills we first need to reward all the stages in learning along the way. From simply looking at the light switch to actually moving towards it, touching it, and so on. We gradually ‘move the goal posts’, getting nearer and nearer to the final behaviour. And many of these changes in behaviour along the way are small and ‘fleeting’ events.
We often need a marker to identify these events so that the dog can learn what we want him to do and so that we can reward him for it. The alternative is to give the reward (be it praise, food, a retrieve etc) immediately after the event, or, to keep punishing the wrong behaviours until the dog settles upon the right one.
Of course in many cases, it isn’t possible to accurately reward a dog immediately after the event. Especially when we are looking for tiny and fleeting changes in behaviour. That is where a clicker comes in handy, and it is the purpose for which it was developed.
Clickers are excellent event/reward markers and are used internationally by animals trainers in teaching complex skills in many different fields, including therapy dogs, obedience, agility, military, police, guide dogs, circus dogs and canine film stars.
Our knowledge and understanding of clicker training has grown immeasurably in the last few decades. And gundog trainers have nothing to fear from this useful addition to any trainer’s toolbox.
Of course it is absolutely acceptable for a trainer to specify what methods will be used in her classes. But
For any dog trainer to simply reject the accumulated knowledge of the last forty years in the field of animal behaviour and training, as a ‘passing fashion’, is beyond silly.
That is my quote by the way, I just wanted to emphasise it!
So are gundog trainers stuck in a rut? And if so, why?
Specialist gundog training
Gundog training requires a very specific set of skills. And those skills haven’t changed much in the last forty years. This means that the old methods that gundog trainers used back then, still work now.
Many gundogs have instinctive behaviours that enable them to complete the tasks required of them, hunting and retrieving for example. We have all seen some pretty wild and poorly trained gundogs making a reasonable job of flushing a bird and even retrieving it.
Much of the training that goes into a gundog is about controlling those instincts and teaching the dog to delay his impulsiveness and wait for a command. When we get this right, we get a beautiful partnership between man and dog.
This can be done without event markers.
However, the use of an event marker (such as a clicker) can assist in certain aspects of training, and enable complex chains of tasks like the completed retrieving chain, to be taught to dogs that are perhaps deficient in a particular aspect of the chain. Sometimes this can be faster than traditional methods, sometimes it is slower.
Gundog trainers don’t need clickers
Even though some of the dogs they may train can benefit from their use, gundog trainers don’t need clickers. They can choose which dogs to train and which to give up on. And there are ‘force’ alternatives for many of the skills that we can teach with a clicker.
You can be a brilliant gundog trainer without ever going near a clicker and experienced gundog trainers have a huge amount to offer those just starting out with gundog fieldwork. Not just with problem solving and dealing with difficult dogs, but in teaching people fieldcraft, how to work with the wind, and to use the dog’s natural ability.
However, if a gundog trainer is to participate in encouraging the growing interest in gundog fieldwork amongst pet dog owners, he or she does need to recognise that attitudes towards dogs and dog training have changed.
Many people no longer wish to punish their dogs. Some don’t want to correct their dogs at all. And these dog owners have heard that there is a way to train that can make their wish come true. Not unreasonably, they want to give it a go, and are very confused to be told by one person that it can’t be done, and by another person, that it can.
Let’s be clear, there are aspects of gundog work that do not lend themselves to ‘positive-only’ training. Largely because of the difficulties in controlling the environment in which a gundog works. Whilst I personally enjoy learning new skills like clicker training, it is not a ‘replacement’ for all of our traditional skills. There are gundog skills I have not yet been able to teach without some form of correction. The sit to flush for example. There are other skills that I find too time consuming to teach without any corrections.
And I suspect that a clicker trained FTCH spaniel will be a very long time coming…
But for gundog trainers to deny the existence of different way to train, because they don’t want to bother learning new skills, or cannot believe that there is any way other than their way, is probably not a good idea in the long run. For their own business, and for the future of gundog fieldwork.
Let’s be objective
What is needed is objectivity and honesty. Clicker training works. There are people out there right now teaching animals incredibly complex tasks using clicker techniques. There are FTCH retrievers that have been clicker trained. There are still some gundog trainers out there with their heads in the sand over this one. Come on out! It’s nicer out here in the sun.
You don’t need to clicker train in order to train a gundog. You probably won’t ever win a spaniel trial if you are unwilling to use corrections in training. But that is OK.
Give people a chance
There is a place for those with pet gundogs that just want to have a go at training a working gundog with the minimum of force.
Let’s encourage them and support them.
How hard can it be to help people to be nice to their dogs? They will discover the limitations of their techniques and abilities soon enough. And who knows, that new student might teach us a a thing or two. She might even be the next dog training ‘legend’ in the making.
No-one is ever so accomplished, so skilled, that they cannot learn from trying out new techniques and listening to what others have to say.
But there is hope!
There are professional gundog trainers who recognise that clicker training has its uses, even if they are not interesting in becoming skilled at it themselves. Even though the misinformation I hear about on this site and in my email inbox, is still being trotted out on an almost daily basis.
There are even gundog trainers now that use clicker techniques and that teach them to their students. And there are many more gundog trainers that will try and help their students train using positive reinforcement where possible, and to work with a minimum of corrections.
The pace of change
There have been so many advances and developments in applied animal behaviour science over the last twenty years that I guess it is unreasonable to expect everyone to have kept up. And of course literally anyone can be a dog trainer.
You don’t need any kind of qualification, knowledge, skills or experience in order to offer a dog training service to the public. So inevitably there are people out there with huge gaps in their knowledge.
I am disappointed that more gundog trainers are not interested in learning about clicker training. Not so much for their own benefit, as they already have a system that works well for them. But because so many dog owners nowadays want to train this way, and because a technique which facilitates the training of complex skills will always have the potential to reduce the number of dogs that ‘don’t make it’ as gundogs.
I also think that a professional dog trainer in any field, really should be knowledgeable about canine behaviour generally, even those aspects which he may chose not to use.
I do think it is rather unprofessional for a dog trainer to offer incorrect or misleading information about clicker training. And to fail to take the time and trouble to at least find out how the system works and who is using it.
Things are changing. Particularly amongst retriever trainers.
We now have a clicker trained FTCH retriever FTCH Levenghyll Beetle (Jinks) and a number of retriever trainers successfully competing at high levels with clicker trained dogs. The Positive Gundogs Facebook Group is a good place to keep up with the latest in force free gundog training
Unfortunately, the pace of change is sometime slow, but as new young trainers come through I believe that those changes will accelerate.
So hang on in there any clicker training enthusiasts reading this. Some gundog trainers may be ‘stuck in a rut’ but many are not. I do believe that there will be a gundog trainer near you quite soon, that will help you in your quest to get as far as you can with your dog, using methods you feel comfortable with.
I am delighted to be updating this article in June 2014.
The Gundog Club now have two very experienced positive-reinforcement trainers on their affiliate register of Accredited Gundog Instructors
You can find our more here
Clicker Gundog Trainer at Evesham
Clicker Gundog Trainer in the Channel Islands
They also have another positive-reinforcement trainer joining soon, and enquiries from clicker trainers is increasing. This is great news for students in these areas, and the Gundog Club looks forward to being able to offer clicker training opportunities in many more regions in the future .
If you enjoy my articles, you might like my new book: The Happy Puppy Handbook – a definitive guide to early puppy care and training.
Emma Warren says
How can I set about finding a positive reinforcement gun dog trainer locally? Berks/Bucks/ Oxon border.
David Murray says
The ” Click ” is a secondary reinforcer used as a bridge between the desired behavior and the delivery of a primary reinforcer, if one is being used in the training sequence. If the dog is conditioned to the clicker one can take the dummy, or game, delivered to hand, click and reinforce the behavior, then present the primary reinforcer (food) with some small delay to account for the mechanics, without fear of reinforcing something other than the targeted behavior. Sometimes it seems we run out of hands when using a clicker while accepting the delivery and trying to “treat” at the same time. It gets easier with practice, but the important thing to remember is the bridging characteristic of this secondary reinforcer, and it’s consistent, unambiguous meaning to a conditioned dog.
Polmaise Gundogs says
Good article. Yes there are many trainers using many tools in the box.Central Scotland Gundog Club will have a seminar on Positive training techniques including Clicker Training at their next Club on 16th Feb event http://www.centralscotlandgundogclub.co.uk/training.htm
Thanks for that Robert, I’ll put that event up on the TG facebook page
marion gibbins says
I find I don’t have enough hands for clicker training as such !!So I make the noise with my tongue in the roof of my mouth ,my hands are use for stroking the dog ,I don’t give treats whilst working the dog 1) the retrieve is a reward for a working dog 2) I don’t want the dog to be tempted to drop the dummy for a treat .It hasn’t happened yet BUT ;;;;;
I agree that the retrieve is a reward for a working dog, however, there are some situations in early retrieve training where a part of the retrieving chain breaks down and food is a great way of getting past this. Dropping the dummy for a treat is not a problem with a structured clicker retrieve, in fact, it can be a good solution for dogs that drop the dummy on delivery
Seen Philippa Williams display at Myerscough Open day, its an interesting half hour. I have adopted some of the techniques and stuck with traditional methods too. Always learning.
Thanks for your input Peter. Willing to be always learning is the key to success.
Pippa, the website you linked to is no longer relevant
Thank you for your comment and feedback, and share your hopes. I have updated the page and I hope you understand why I have edited your comment 🙂
Deb Gillard says
As the aforementioned gun dog owner I was delighted to read your article. Whilst I agree that it’s not necessary to use a clicker, I did at least think the gun dog trainers concerned would have used some sort of positive reinforcement and not the continual nagging lead jerking that I witnessed with one of them. I have booked my first lesson with Philippa Williams in a couple of weeks time and am so looking forward to it. Reading your article has really cheered me up! Thank you!
Enjoy your lesson Deb! And tell us about it if you have time 🙂
David Murray says
I’ve found the “virtual” company of many like minded trainers on Robert Milner’s Duckhill Kennel forum. The community is growing, but is still spread so thin here that the group-work (dogs and handlers) that is so necessary is quite hard to find. Most of the training groups in my area are not in the same book, let alone on the same page as I am. We’re looking for the synergy of ideas, not just tolerance 🙂
Thanks for listening,
Thanks for sharing your thoughts David.
David Murray says
Here in North America the most popular “event-marker” for field training remains the e-collar. It has a long history of success and, at least, is a more effective application of operant learning principles than the old habit of “post-event” beating and whipping. The idea of forcing an animal to bend to your will is still synonymous with “training” in some minds, and a culture of “machismo” is pervasive. The pursuit of a rough and ready outdoor lifestyle, accessorized by firearms, lends itself to the continuation of a traditional force based protocol . This is supported, in no small part, by a massive commercial and promotional industry.
I am “pet” owner whose Labrador’s pedigree contains bench to field titles at about a ten to one ratio. He is happily and eagerly progressing through the hierarchy of working tests. He started his clicker training at about ten weeks and we have been non-force partners ever since. In some training circles I am dismissed as a “citizen”; not a serious trainer.
I sometimes need to remind them that this parallel tradition of training produces canines and marine mammals which perform reliably in the critical fields of search and rescue and threat detection in environments which regularly include actual warfare.
THESE ARE NOT CIRCUS TRICKS!
And, in the scheme of things, mean a lot more than a few ducks or trophies.
Judging by a few threads on RTF lately, non-collar techniques are tolerated better (if not embraced) than they were a couple of years ago. Pippa
Louise Welsford says
I live in South Africa and have been training my field trial labrador retrievers using the clicker and positive reinforcement for the past 11 years, with great success. What saddens me most about detractors, some of whom are high profile trainers – authors of books and DVD’s – is that not only do they not seem to understand the principles behind using a clicker to train they also deride and make fun of the clicker as a training tool. I watched the video of the gundog display at Crufts in 2012 and was absolutely delighted at the joy with which the dogs worked. This is always the hallmark of dogs trained with positive reinforcement using the clicker as a bridging stimulus.
Louise from South Africa.
Hi Louise, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think maybe people are naturally inclined to deride what they don’t understand. I too enjoyed the displays at Crufts last year. I hope they do something similar this year too. Pippa