Learning Steadiness From the Birds

Here is a link to a video of a young dog we worked this morning. This is Griffonpoint Z Shaka with her owner Warren. Shaka is now steady until released on birds she has pointed. This scenario was a little different. There was no wind on a warm morning making scent scarce and difficult to work. On these kind of days, dogs often end up much closer to the birds before they can pick up any scent. This makes the birds nervous causing some to flush before the dog has an opportunity to point them. In these conditions, with just a bit of experience, the dogs learn to be very stealthy and careful. In this video, she scents a bird and it begins to run. You can see when she located the scent, she started to decelerate to stop and point but it was too late, the bird flushed (a great bird). She knows that a flushing bird is a cue to stop but she decides to pursue this one. If a dog chases a bird, we don’t reward them by shooting it. We stop the chase and set up a situation where we can reward them for being steady on the next bird. Unlike obedience based training methods, we don’t punish mistakes. We show them how to be successful and allow them the free will to choose the strategy that works best. This is exactly how young pack predators learn to hunt in the wild.

In the video, I don’t use a stop, “down” or “whoa” command. That would be pressure or punishment directly associated to the bird and the flush. I don’t want her building any negative associations to the bird because that can cause a decrease in drive, style or intensity. I simply give her a different command (here) that she clearly understands and is comfortable with in the field, at home and in any situation. In other words, I give her a command that she won’t associated directly to the bird or the hunting scenario. She learns that she is in control. The way she sees it, If she chases, she gives herself a “here” command. No pressure. On the next bird, she was a rock.


Encouraging a Natural Retrieve

This video shows how we encourage a natural retrieve. It’s natural because I leave the pups free will intact and allow her to choose her options. This is how we build trust and really see a dogs natural talent and abilities.


Proofing a Steady Dog

Higgins Gundogs are trained and managed to a high level. They must be able to adapt to new and unusual situations and control their excitement level. We want to see all their style and intensity, but they must choose to remain steady. Here, we’re proofing a seasoned dog. This is Greg Belanger and his dog HGD Harry. This was filmed a while ago during one of our training hunts. While Harry is managing a moving pheasant, we release a young, untrained pup. The pup goes out and bumps and chases Harry’s bird. What is Harry’s response? He doesn’t break, he manages his energy. He is steady to flush, shot and kill. He is able to do this because he has learned to trust us. He knows, with our help, he will get his bird.


The Unique Higgins Method, Falconry for Dogs

Here is a photo of Jeremy Kessler’s prairie falcon on a pheasant with his dog Grizz

 

As many of you know, I train dogs for use in wingshooting and falconry. What makes the Higgins Method unique is that, instead of conventional obedience based methods, I train the dogs using the same method I use to successfully train hawks and falcons.

Along with the dog training, I’ve been a master falconer for more years than I care to share. That’s where I learned about the predator mind. Hawks, falcons and dogs, when it comes to hunting, they all think the same. As with most experienced falconers, I can trap a wild hawk or falcon and have it cooperating and successfully hunting game with me in 2 to 3 weeks. With the dogs, because I train them like the falcons, they’re even easier. I don’t have to tame them first! Falcon style training for the dogs obviously works.

My method of training (falconry for dogs) is readily understood and accepted by the dogs. The reason is, my method and falconry are both based on the building of trust, not obedience. There can be no denying it. To help understand, I’ve included some truths about falconry and working with the birds. Here, you will see the similarities between my method and the training of hawks and falcons.

First and foremost, when training and hunting with a hawk or falcon, they must have free will. Free will is the opportunity to make natural choices with no negative associations tied to the handler (falconer). You can’t use obedience or coerce them into doing anything. You cannot use any pressure or punishment. If you do, they will simply leave. You can’t get frustrated, or lose your temper. There are no vocal commands or hand signals. Done correctly, there is no training through repetition.

To show the similarities between my method and the training and flying of hawks and falcons (falconry), let me show you the definitions of  some old school falconry terms. The similarities will become obvious.

Bagged Quarry:  “Captive prey which is released under a hawk during training or when game is scarce to insure a flight for the hawk.” This is what I do during training and on early hunts with the dogs.

Creance: “A line or cord attached to the hawk during early training”. This is my personal favorite. This is how I use a “checkcord”. It’s not about obedience. Once I show them how to be successful using the creance (checkcord), it is removed and they are “flown free”. There is no pressure or obedience here. In early training, I’m simply managing success.

Entering: “To fly a hawk at quarry for the first time or to arrange a situation such that a hawk has an easy opportunity to be successful.” Sounds like when I first begin dropping the creance.

Hack: “A process of allowing a newly fledged eyess (young, inexperienced bird) to fly at liberty with purpose of reaching it’s full power of flight under a simulated natural wild situation.” This is how I introduce the pups to the field and birds. “At liberty” is the key word here.

Lure: “An object which is made of feathers, leather plastic, etc., used as a means of recall.” I always have a live quail on a string in my vest. It’s a great tool to use with the dogs on occasion when teaching a recall. They come running to see if there might be a bird. The secret is in using it sparingly. Dogs, and predators in general, are gamblers. Success in this case is not guaranteed. They come in to the handler happy every time, just in case.

Make Hawk:  “An older, more experienced hawk which is flown with an eyess (young, inexperienced hawk or falcon) to serve as an example or for encouragement.” In early training, I often run the pups with an older, experienced dog.

Man (manning): ” To accustom a hawk to men, to handling, and to strange sights and sounds.”  Similar to socializing a young pup when he first comes home.

Serve: “To flush or put up quarry under a hawk”. I encourage the dogs to flush/stop on my cue. I guess it could be seen as “self serve”.

Wait on: “To circle overhead of the falconer waiting for quarry to be flushed.” The way I see it with the dogs, this is similar to their “point”.

Predators have the talent and the tools to be successful hunters. It’s their dance. For the best results, we have to play by their rules. The bottom line is, you are asking them to include you in their hunt. They will accept you as a viable partner in the hunt when they trust that you are there to help them be successful.

 

 

 

 


Using the Training Line

I had a question in a forum about the difference in how I use the training line (a 12′ rope). Here is my response:

A major difference in my method is in the use of the training line. I always talk about giving the dogs free will to make choices and decisions. I use the training line in the beginning to slow the dogs down and show them how I can help them be successful in getting that bird in their mouth. I believe they need to see the final goal first, so they have the information necessary to begin making decisions. I want them to know what success looks like first (I guess from the point of view of the obedience based methods, I would be seen as training a dog backwards). Once they understand how to be successful, I drop the line and give them their head. I never punish them for trying things or making mistakes. There is no “whoa”. The only punishment used, if you could call it that, is in the lack of success. And that’s between the dog and the bird. I’m still the good guy!


Choosing a Hunting Strategy

Here is Moose. He is a Chocolate Lab/German Shorthair mix. This is a clip from a video I’m working on. It shows Moose when he was learning my flush/stop cue.

I enjoy watching flusher/pointer mixes develop their particular hunting strategy. Will he stalk and point (like a pointer) or will he smell a bird, accelerate and flush (like a flushing breed)? Before I agree to work with these clients, I require that they accept whichever hunting strategy their dog chooses. If he decides, with some experience, that he wants to flush his birds, we will help him develop that strategy. If, on the other hand, he decides stalking and pointing is his preferred strategy, then so be it. I have one goal for all the dogs. Give me all you have, whatever that may be, every time. I want to see all the style, intensity and drive he possesses. Moose is a good example.

I posted this video on a forum and got an interesting response. I was asked how I can establish what the true nature (his chosen hunting strategy) of a dog might be without influencing the outcome. Here is my answer:

“Good, thoughtful question. Before any steadiness training, I introduce these type of dogs to the field. Let them learn about the birds, play bump and chase. This gives me a good idea what strategies they prefer. You are right that I can have a lot of influence at this time regarding their hunting styles. I always try and keep it simple. In this case, I leave it between the dog and the birds. I’m just an observer. After a few flash points and chases with no reward, some will begin trying a stalking, pointing strategy. Sometimes, the flushing drive is so strong, some individuals will build more and more excitement with every flush (flushing strategy). As a handler, I watch carefully, from a distance. I look for the change in their energy when they get in a bird place. When their energy spikes (upon making scent), they will do one of two things. They will accelerate (flushing strategy) or decelerate (pointing strategy). When I see this, I know we’re ready to begin the steadiness process.

I start by using a checkcord while working loose birds in the field. I begin to manage their success. The flushers will smell the bird, accelerate and give me that beautiful, aggressive flush. As soon as the bird flushes, I manage them with the checkcord to prevent any chasing. The shooter kills the bird, brings it back and gives it to the dog. Now we take a walk. With the pointing dogs, it starts out the same, with the checkcord. I always use good flying, wild acting birds. The dog smells the bird but instead of accelerating, he decelerates into a stalk or point. If he gets at all pushy, the bird flushed and he loses. At this point, I do something a bit different. I want all the pointing dogs to flush the birds, but only on my “alright” cue. When he is steady and on point, I say “alright”. I go in with him and we flush the bird as you saw Moose and I do in the video. We both stop as soon as the bird is in the air. The shooter kills the bird and brings it back to the dog. We go for a walk. Doesn’t take but a few birds and I can say “alright” from a distance and he will aggressively flush/stop all on his own.

The foundation of my method is based on building trust and cooperation through managing success (a bird in their mouth). It’s exciting when they show me all their natural style and intensity. I get to see who they are when they have experienced no handler induces pressure. It’s truly training with no handprint.


Black Brace

Had a couple of the black pointers in the field today. They’re putting it together. Handling well, good pace and drive. The collars you see them wearing are for tracking. No e-collars are used.

Here is a great quote from a book about the origins and history of the Pointer.

“The chief glory of the sport is to shoot over a brace of raking pointers, matched for speed and style, sweeping over the rough places like swallows, and passing each other as if they were fine ladies not introduced. Let one of them get a point and the other will, as if connected by an invisible wire, instantly point at him (i.e. back him); and as the pointing dog advances to make sure of the birds, the backer will do the same- often with an absolute mimicry of his leader’s movements.” (Quotation from William Arkwright, The Pointer and His Predecessors, 1906)


Creeping vs Stalking

I had a recent question on our community page about the difference between creeping and stalking.

I talk about how our Higgins Gundogs, once in a bird area, are allowed to manage or stalk their birds (a good thing). Other trainers and owners see any movement toward the bird after first scent, as creeping (being unsteady, a bad thing).

Creeping, as other trainers would explain, is moving toward the bird with the intent to catch, or flush it and chase. With our Higgins Gundogs, stalking (managing) is moving toward the bird with the intent to get in a position to flush it (pounce) when asked. To get as close as the bird will allow before being pressured into flight. A predator can’t be successful when he pounces, unless he knows where the target is. It’s a beautiful balancing act. Too little pressure on the bird and it will keep running. Too much pressure, the bird flushes and all is lost.

Being steady or unsteadiness is not about movement. It’s about intent.


Natural Learning By Association

Here are a couple of young Griffon pups, Fox and Griffonpoint Y Lucy, learning that the sound of gunfire is a good thing. I help them with this by associating the noise to the best thing in the world, a bird in their mouths. The primary way predators learn, dogs included, is by association. Associations can be based on things they smell, see, taste and feel. Associations can also be related to time, distance, location, etc. When done correctly, these associations can be built immediately. The most important association they make is with me. I am the good guy that has the ability to kill the bird for them. A relationship built on trust and cooperation (pack dynamics). No repetition, obedience or pressure required or necessary.

Now that the pups have been introduced to the gun, I will associate gunfire, with birds, in a couple of different hunting fields. I don’t want them to believe that this bird/gun association is specific to this one location. I did the same as I introduced them to different upland birds (quail, pheasant, etc.). Again, always building positive associations. This is not repetition (obedience training) because it is always changing and building on past, positive experiences.

Cooperation is built and encouraged with positive associations. Obedience on the other hand, is built and commanded with repetition. This is the fundamental difference between my method of training and others. The Higgins Method encourages the dogs to use their free will. They learn to trust that I will help them be successful. Other methods are based on replacing a dog’s cooperative nature with obedience. Basically removing free will, choice, and natural cooperation (pack dynamics). With obedience, you can make a dog obey you but you can’t make him trust you. Trust is something that must be earned. It can’t be taken, only freely given.

These pups are now ready to begin learning that steadiness, not chasing, will lead to success (a bird in her mouth). They have built the necessary associations to be successful hunters. The associations are 1: That wonderful smell is a bird. 2: That smell flows downwind. 3: Ground scent is not predicated on wind direction. 4: Gunfire and birds are related in a positive way. Now all I have to do is simply help them change their current hunting strategy from bump and chase, to stalking and steadiness. From now on, steadiness, not chasing, will be associated with success (a bird in the mouth).


Handling Katy Woof

This video shows Ben and Leslie’s dog Katie during a recent training hunt. Ben is the shooter and Leslie is handling. I’m the one barking orders as usual. Katie handles the bird well and does a beautiful “flush/stop” on Leslie’s cue. And yes, Ben killed the bird.