Higgins Gundogs & The Higgins Method

I’ve been going to a few of the gundog training forums to answer questions about our method of training. It’s obvious most don’t understand the differences in our dogs and our training. Here is a copy of a recent post I submitted. It’s in response to questions about field trials and obedience training. Read more…


Raising your puppy

Yes, they are six months old now!  Your puppy might be feeling its oats and even be starting to feel the naughtiness of adolescence encouraging them to act in ways their former baby sweetness did not.

If this is the case we will give you some tips for handling these behaviors which can include: counter surfing, nipping, biting while playing rough, playing rough, rushing through doors, molesting windows and doors , knocking people down when going up or down stairs, making inappropriate noise while crated, etc.

If your puppy is exhibiting any of these behaviors you are not alone, most puppies go through this stage and it is a matter of management (not necessarily getting them tired) to get them through it.

The first thing we recommend is that you look at this video and do it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I3FEQcCY1E0  The Higgins training method is not only for gundogs, it is a dog behavior philosophy based on how dogs think, not how humans wish they would think.

If you have any questions about the leash, we can send you one. Other leashes will not work. It needs to be a simple, plastic lead with a noose. Fancier collars will not be the right weight or stiffness.

This Walk is the place where you earn your puppy’s trust and show them that you can claim space from them. They are hardwired as pack predators to understand this and after the ‘hissy fit’ on this leash, they will be calm and happy. In fact, they will be more calm and will have learned to manage their own energy through this exercise which is half of the battle with puppy energy.

Once they understand the Walk, you will also be able to claim space in the home. When we have a puppy who is noisy in the crate, we simply put them into the crate, open door to the crate and claim the room. Their job is now to stay in the crate. Suddenly their energy is focused on staying in the crate so they stop letting their energy exit as noise and fretting. They become calm and take a nap. 

Whenever you have to break your puppy’s focus to change their behavior, use a noise that sounds like a growl—‘Ach!’. This noise is more effective than english as it is a noise that they understand from infancy from their mother. Whenever your puppy is thinking bad thoughts (like counter surfing) use this noise while reinforcing it by inserting your body between them and the counter, backing them up to their dog bed or crate or out of the room they are in. After they have made the association between your ‘Ach’ and you claiming space, you will be able to claim space from a distance. (example: you are at your computer when you hear the wastepaper basket rustle, you give a loud ‘Ach’ and the puppy walks away from the rubbish.) Basically, ‘Ach’ means ‘stop whatever it is you’re doing!’. It replaces all of the obedience words that you have been trying to teach but give up on because it is too much work and the dog doesn’t listen anyhow. ‘Ach’ means: stop jumping on my mother-in-law, stop running through the door when I open it, stop begging, stop chewing on the coffee table, stop eating the Christmas roast, stop chewing on me, stop nipping a the children, stop playing rough, stop running away from me, etc.

Of course, ‘Ach’ won’t mean anything until you have shown them that you can claim space. This is where the Walk is essential, it is the foundation for your elevation in the household. If you don’t do this, you are another pack member who can be molested and ignored until you show them that you can accelerate and claim space. This is not about obedience, this is simply about earning trust. None of the dogs in my house know a single obedience command yet they leave the staircase when I or my children place a foot on it, they stay in contact while I’m in the field with them, they don’t jump on guests or counter surf. 

Also, it is important to manage their space by not allowing them to have the run of the house until they have earned their freedom. This means that if we are actively playing with, giving attention to or am generally aware of a young pup, s/he is loose in the room we are in. As soon as we need to focus on my kids or do some chores where we will lose track of them, we put them someplace where they are managed so they cannot go chew on the curtains or execute some clever scheme to trip us in the middle of the night somewhere out of sight. we use an ex-pen in our living room for our young Griffons.

Once they have consistently shown that they know the boundaries, they have more and more time loose in the house. At the moment, only our seven and four year old girls have the run of the house when we are not home. Ithaca and Tidbit are only a year old and just beginning to get more freedom in the house. There is nothing wrong with crating them for an hour if you need some space. Especially if you have given them plenty of exercise.


Great Training Day

Wow, what a training day! Pete’s puppies keep surprising us.

Ithaca (Pete x Holly) and her littermates have been impressive from the moment their eyes opened, but this girl is mind blowing. She isn’t ten months old yet and yesterday she was steady to wing, shot and kill without any hesitation or question. She has never worn an e-collar and has never experienced pressure or obedience training, she is the most cooperative and intuitive dog. Brad and I had her in the field with good flying chukar. She was handling beautifully to front, quartering naturally, ranging out but never disconnecting. When she found and pointed her first bird her point was intense and solid. We gave her a moment to see if she was going to work her way up the scent cone as she was about 20 feet from likely cover and the day was super hot and dry, but she was a rock. So I went to front to kick around the cover. As I passed her, she gave me that flash of the eye saying, “you’re on, go get it!”. When the bird ran out of the cover I looked back to see if she was loading up or had changed her intent from holding to helping me flush, but she was still solid! I flushed the bird, checked once more to see that she was still steady and then shot the bird. She was a statue except for her tail 🙂 All of Holly’s and Pete’s puppies are super easy to read, their tails give them away. Brad and I were quiet for a while while continuing the hunt. We had to digest what we had just observed. This nine month old Griffon had just hunted with style and intensity and then been completely steady. He commented that in the many, many dogs that he has trained he can’t remember one so green that so clearly understood its role in the hunt. He said that she had just acted like an eight year old guide dog. It wash’t the fact that she was steady, many of our dogs are steady at this age, it was how clearly she understood her role and how she had no desire to challenge my role or require any extra help in staying steady.

We also worked with Monkey, Honey and Valentine. They are Pete’s and Periwinkle’s puppies and are five months old now. They are also exceptional puppies. Monkey (who now belongs to Scott and Mei) was in the field loose with quail for the first time. He handled super well so we let him work into a bird. When he found and pointed his first bird, Dustin shot it, Monkey hopped once at fall to mark where it landed and I gave him a little growl to remind him to stay still. He was solid on his second bird. Nice shooting Dustin!!

Honey was solid on the Brush Pile and will be practicing what she has learned in the field this week. She was steady to flush, shot and kill and didn’t move a bit while birds were flushing directly over her head. Valentine has another trip to the Brush Pile and will be in the field with her siblings. She ended this session with birds flying overhead and remaining steady to flush, shot and fall.

It is quite amazing to see young Griffons show such keen understanding of their roles in the hunt. It would be impossible without this method of training and this quality of pedigree. The Higgins Method works on the foundation of gregarious predator behavior. It can be used with young, sensitive dogs because it does not use pressure to make a dog comply, rather it gives dogs the incentive to cooperate because they will be successful if they do. We are also using this method to help shape our breeding program. By showing young dogs success with the Brush Pile, we can record their natural tendency to defer to the shooter. A pup who naturally recognizes that their success increases when they defer is one who will try fewer unsuccessful options while learning. A naturally deferring dog tends to be well balanced socially. Selecting natural deferrers in our program is producing puppies like Ithaca, Sophie, Monkey, etc. etc.


Gundog Breeding with the Higgins Method

Where should we start?

Since training can depend upon breeding and breeding should depend (in part) upon training, these notes will go full circle.

Ideally, after a litter is born we allow the bitch to rear her litter as naturally as possible. We begin offering palatable foods when the pups begin to show some motility, some coordination and an interest and ability to eat solids as well as nurse. We don’t interfere with the bitch’s nursing schedule, she will wean them when she is ready. When we interfere, we remove opportunities for the bitch to teach her pups valuable lessons about boundaries. Even before the pups have opened their eyes, we serve the bitch freshly killed prey (generally quail, pheasant and chukar) in her nest so that the pups’ most receptive organ (nose) begins to receive information about prey and food. Once their eyes are open and they are able to move about the nest with some coordination, we begin to serve them some freshly killed prey (quail) that they smell, mouth, carry, and chew. Their dam will be permitted to occasionally bring fresh prey into the nest herself, often alive, to present to her pups. By the time the pups are ready to leave the nest, they can identify viable quarry. It is amazing to see the results of this method of rearing puppies compared to puppies who are merely presented with a few bird wings at 7 to 10 weeks of age or who were weaned at a predetermined age. Those with later, arbitrary bird exposure often take longer to learn that birds are prey, those who are weaned on a breeder’s schedule miss opportunities to learn boundaries from their dam.

In our program we begin by looking to the nature of the dog to decide how and when to proceed with gun dog training. The Higgins Method lays the foundation of early learning opportunities by initially allowing pups to hunt and play in groups. While with their siblings, pups learn to hunt from watching each other’s successes, they test one another’s temperaments and learn to read dog behaviors. Pups who are taken from their litter mates early (6-9 weeks old) do not benefit from this interaction.  As predators who are hard wired to work in groups when necessary, dogs learn to exploit one another’s skills to increase their odds of success. When pups demonstrate that they are actively hunting, have learned to associate other pups’ signals with success (example: one pup is pointing, another pup recognizes the meaning of the point and runs over to point or flush the quarry), like birds and have learned that guns are positive, they are ready to hunt with us. They are ready to learn that we also have a skill that they can exploit; we can kill and then share the quarry.

Conversely, the goal of conventional methodology is to use the dog as an obedient tool to find the quarry so that the handler can kill and keep the quarry. In that method, the dog’s incentive to work with the trainer/handler is eliminated. The dog is made to be steady through obedience. If he does not obey field commands, the handler applies pressure until the dog either complies or shuts down.

It is important to recognize and understand the differences in these two, different acts. In the first, we acknowledge the dog’s nature (a gregarious predator) and his ability to do something that we cannot (find the bird). We show him that we can help to make him successful if he chooses to exploit our ability to kill the quarry. The other, conventional method, focuses on telling the dog to find the quarry so that we can kill it for ourselves, creating a sense of competition rather than synergy. These are two completely different activities from the dog’s point of view. The first is an example of a synergistic relationship, the other is an example of a conventional relationship where there is a director who gives commands and a subordinate who must obey.

To be continued…