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.

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.

Steadiness Taught by the Birds, Part 1

Here is one of our black pointer pups learning my flush/stop cue. You’ll see in the video, when she gets in a birdy area and begins to stalk, I physically connect her to me via a clamp on my vest to the checkcord. I do this in part, because I am not only the handler, but also the shooter. I need to help her understand that steadiness is necessary, both before and after the flush in order to be successful. It also makes it possible to show her that success requires she wait to retrieve until my “fetch” release. You’ll see I didn’t shoot until she was finished flushing and had stopped. Steadiness based on when a bird flushes, when the gun goes off or when the bird falls will soon become irrelevant. We will have a free running dog hunting the field, beautiful stalking and pointing, a flush/stop on cue and steadiness until released.

In the first part of the video, you’ll see just before I gave her the flush/stop cue (a verbal “alright”), I realized I had forgotten to put in my earplugs. She waits for her cue maintaining all of her beautiful intensity. Later in the video, when I shoot over her, the camera angle makes it look like I took the shot right over her head. I didn’t. It’s important to always be aware of where the dog is when shooting. In addition, I’m using a 28 gauge side-by-side and subsonic shells. Don’t want a deaf dog down the road.

When watching the video, pay close attention to the checkcord. You’ll notice that it’s loose. This guarantees that any of her movement is her choice. There is no obedience involved here. By giving her this freedom, I allow the bird to teach her. I don’t teach a “whoa” command. I feel that’s the birds job. If she jumps in before my “flush/stop” cue, the bird will flush and she will lose. But if she is focused and patient, waiting for my verbal cue, she will be rewarded.

Higgins Gundog Training, 5/8/17

Lisa Durand of Glacier Griffons stopped by for a couple of days of training. Her dog Lies, is a one year old Griffon imported from Holland. Lies had had no prior bird work. All of her prior bird experience had been just bumping and chasing.

Dog naturally learn by association. Some examples would be, scent is a bird, scent moves downwind, gunfire precedes the fall of the bird, etc. I started by introducing her to birds and the field. I let her learn about bird scent and how it moves downwind. Because she was so visually oriented, I set up situations where, if she was to find the bird, she would have to use and begin trusting her nose. We then introduced the gun and shot a couple of birds for her. Next step was to show her a new hunting strategy that includes the shooter.

In order to bring out and maintain all of her natural drive and intensity, I need to keep her focused on the prey. That’s why, on my cue, I let the dogs flush the birds. The deal is, I’ll allow you to flush your bird but in return, you must never chase. She is learning that in order to be successful, the aggressive flush must always be followed by an immediate “stop to flush”.

In this video, she is shown that, steadiness, not chasing, produces the reward (a bird in her mouth). You can see she is beginning to put it all together. In another 4 or 5 birds, she will be running free in the field and will understand and demonstrate steady to scent, flush shot and fall.

It All Boils Down To Trust

The Higgins Method is unique among dog training methods. Our foundation is based on trust, not obedience. Trust is innate in all social (pack) animals. It is a survival mechanism that has served the species well. It is what makes all cooperative endeavors possible.

In a mutually beneficial dog/owner relationship, trust is the glue that holds everything together. This means you as the owner and handler, have a responsibility. The only way you can make a gundog trustworthy is to first, show him that his odds of success increase if he includes you in his hunt. Then step out of the way, allow him free will and trust him.  The surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him. 

When it comes to teaching a dog to be steady, obedience training is limited in it’s potential. It can create no more than a temporary, physical steadiness. It never taps into the dogs true nature and potential. Think of it this way, obedience training nurtures an untrusting, adversarial relationship. You say “whoa” and threaten to punish him because you don’t trust him to be steady. He, in turn, is unsteady because he does not trust you to help him be successful. True steadiness is a matter of persuasion, not obedience. By nurturing trust you create much more than physical steadiness, you create a mental steadiness. With mental steadiness comes natural focus, drive and intensity; the evolution of the cunning nature of the predator.

For those academics out there, and you know who you are, here is the Higgins Method as seen in its mathematical equation.

Mental Steadiness=   ___Trust____


Steadiness must be seen from the dog’s perspective. After all, only he is in control of the outcome. You can control his cooperation, you can make him respect you but you cannot make him trust you. Trust happens when he voluntarily chooses to give you these things. He will show you mental and physical steadiness when he finds you trustworthy.

True steadiness from the dogs perspective, is not based in operant conditioning or obedience. It is simply a voluntary decision to trust. 
Brad Higgins

Synergy, The Theory Behind The Higgins Method

Here is an article I wrote a while back. I thought I would repost it for those that may not have seen it. I believe it does a good job of explaining how the dogs see thing and the fundamental differences in training methods.


Synergy, The Theory Behind The Higgins Method

By Brad Higgins

Training is defined as the conscious and planned process of transferring knowledge, skills and attitudes to others. Learning, on the other hand is defined as the processing and assimilation of what we hear, see or experience that alters or improves our knowledge, skills and attitudes.

Conventional training is an attempt to transfer human knowledge to a dog. The problem is that the dog comes to the table with his own instinct and acquired knowledge. He is not willing to give up what he knows unless we can show him something better. This article is about how dogs learn, their nature and how they can be encouraged to hunt cooperatively with their human counterpart.

Hunting birds with us (humans) puts a pointing dog at a distinct disadvantage. We require him to hunt in an unfair situation where he can’t be successful. He can’t catch the bird. To make it even more unfair, the shooter going out front, from the dogs point of view, is stealing his point. If we’re going to do these things to him, we need to help the dog see the hunt in a different way.

It begins with Synergy. Defined as two or more things (in this case dog/shooter) functioning together to produce a result not independently obtainable. In the Higgins method, signs of synergy or cooperative hunting the dogs naturally display are, the glance (passing the baton), honoring the shooter and handling.

Studies of the evolution of cooperative hunting (Packer & Ruttan 1987) have shown that the propensity of predators to hunt cooperatively varies enormously across species. At one extreme, most mammalian carnivores are solitary, always hunting alone (Ewer 1973). At the other extreme, a number of species hunt in groups and are assumed always to hunt cooperatively, at least to the extent that all group members hunt simultaneously (e.g., canids (dogs), herons, some hawks, and some falcons).

In the analysis, four strategies are considered that span the spectrum of possibilities during the hunt.

A cooperator: Always hunts in the presence of a companion. Thus, if the partner is also a cooperator, they hunt as a pair. Otherwise, the cooperator hunts by itself.

A deferrer: Will hunt if he is the first to recognize the presence of prey but stop if his partner joins in the hunt. A deferrer does not hunt if he is the second to recognize the presence of prey. A deferrer hunts at every opportunity when alone since he is always the “first” to locate the prey while alone.

A solitary: Avoids others of his species and thus, always hunts alone.

A scavenger never hunts.

We will focus on the two strategies displayed by domesticated dogs, the cooperator and the deferrer. A gundog’s natural hunting strategy is largely governed by his personality. A bold dominant dog will tend to be more of a cooperator. The sensitive, more submissive types tend to be more willing to defer. We refer to this as a specific dog’s “default strategy”. Of course environment is very important too; access to hunting opportunity, amount of obedience training, etc.

We begin by introducing the young dog to the field to allow his natural predatory instinct and prey drive to develop. He is allowed to hunt, bump, chase and catch a few birds. He is introduced to the gun and has some birds shot over him.

At this stage, I like to put the dog out with a second dog and hunt them together. I do this so he can reveal his natural default strategy as either a cooperator or a deferrer. If he naturally honors the other dog, by definition he is a deferrer.

Now the Magic Brushpile (MBP)i comes into play ( ) to help the dog learn a new hunting strategy that will be necessary if he is to successfully hunt with us. The dog has been allowed to hunt the MBP alone in order for him to associate it with a “birdy place”. The dog also learns that whenever he runs in, birds leave. We have created a problem for him that will require a new tactic.

To help the dog learn, we start with the shooter standing near the MBP. A handler then brings the dog out. Initially, most dogs try to work the MBP themselves while ignoring the shooter. After a few unsuccessful attempts the dog will try deferring to the shooter. As soon as he does, the dog is rewarded (the shooter kills him a bird and delivers it to him). The next step in the process is to remove the shooter from his position in front of the dog. The shooter now starts from a position behind the dog as he would in a typical hunting scenerio. There is nothing between the dog and the “birdy place”. In order to be successful, the dog must stop before he flushes a bird, and ask the shooter to go out front. A glance at the shooter (passing the baton) is his way of showing that he understands and has made this transition. The dog has learned that he must immediately transition from cooperator to deferrer in order to be successful. The dog must stop when he recognizes the presence of prey then defer to the shooter.

Through the use of the Magic Brushpile, we have helped the dog created a fifth strategy. We’ll call it the Transitioner. In order to be successful, he has learned to switch immediately from his default strategy (cooperator) to that of a deferrer. This is why we see the Black Holeii more pronounced in some dogs than others. If we have a bold, dominant dog (cooperator) that has had extensive obedience training, we can expect a longer, deeper Black Hole. He has more learning, (and unlearning) to do. Conversely, if the dog’s natural personality and past experience lean more toward that of a deferrer, we don’t see much Black Hole. Deferring or honoring already makes sense to this dog.

When a dog trained with conventional methods goes on point, he sees the shooter going out front as stealing his point. That’s the only way it makes sense to him. With the Higgins Method, the dog learns that our going out front and killing the bird is helping him be successful. In other words, the dog has choosen to honor or “defer” even though he was the first to recognize the presence of a bird. When hunting with us, he has used his natural instinct to learn to be both a cooperator and a deferrer.

Dogs don’t see us, or for that matter, more successful dog as being leaders, they simply see us as more successful hunters. Deferring is their way of asking to share in our success. The Higgins Method is the natural and instinctive way for dogs to learn to hunt cooperatively with us. It is so intuitive that they accept and teach themselves a new hunting strategy, a transitioner, specifically designed to work with the human partner; pack dynamics in its purest form.

i A fenced brushpile containing bird launchers where I have remote control over when birds flush, how many, when and if they’re shot, and where they land (close or far from the dog).

ii A natural behavior including nose to the ground and erratic movement we see dogs display while transitioning from instinctual responses to learned responses.