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…