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 ( http://youtu.be/8vDfeE1405c ) 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.

Hunting, It’s Not What YOU Think

All of my ‘“training” is based on helping the dog understand my role. My goal is to have him understand and accept that I possess a power that he does not. I can consistently catch the prey. I want him to include me as an available tool that can help him be successful in his problem solving. This is an important concept when trying to understand how dog’s think. They don’t see ‘‘hunting” the same way you do. First, the reason they hunt, their motivation, is to catch the prey (success is a bird in their mouth).  A conventional trainers goal is different. He wants to shoot birds over a stylish, good looking dog. One that is steady while maintaining all his natural drive, intensity and focus. The best way to bring these two different goals together is not through obedience, but rather, to step into the dog’s world and see things from his perspective.

Dogs learn by association. To state it clearly, learning takes place in the mind not in behavior. It involves the formation of mental representations of the elements of a task and the discovery of how these elements are related.

We’ll use hunting a pheasant as an example. This will be from the dog’s perspective. The primary part of a dogs predator/prey instinct includes problem solving. To be more specific, I like to refer to it as dynamic problem solving. He sees bird hunting the way we see a chess match. Problem solving based on ever changing events. This is what he will use to hunt and hopefully, get this bird in his mouth.

Once he has been released to hunt, the first problem has been presented. “I need to find the bird”. Past experience tells him to use his nose, read the wind, hunt objectives, etc. Now he smells a bird. Next problem, “analyze the situation”. What is it, is it still, is it running, etc. He doesn’t want to flush the bird so to deal with this potential problem, he points. Now what. He knows that if he goes in, it will flush and he will be unsuccessful. The best way to fix this problem is to choose an option, a strategy that he knows works. He will “defer to the shooter”, remaining steady while the shooter goes out front to shoot the bird.

There it is. He has used the power of associative learning to understand that instead of pursuing the bird, if he remains steady, allows the shooter to go out front and catch the bird, he will be successful and get the bird in his mouth.

More coming up in the next blog about retrieving and how the dog sees it. (Hint: Retrieving is chasing birds).

Beginning the Steadiness Process

This is Deva, our new 4 month old Pointer pup. This is her first steadiness session on the checkcord (basically the beginning of her Magic Brushpile work, https://higginsgundogs.com.com/about-us/our-method/method-flowchart/ ) and the beginning of her steadiness training. Before this, as per the flowchart, she learned how to hunt and find birds, she handles well in the field, likes the gun and has a nice “here” command on the checkcord.

The most important thing to watch here is the checkcord work. Once she finds a bird and decelerates, (gets careful and stealthy), I don’t want to have the checkcord tight. Watch the checkcords shadow. A loose checkcord means she is choosing to be careful. If I have to constantly restrain her, she isn’t learning anything.

You’ll see here, we are introducing the Flush/Stop cue. She is allowed to flush the birds but only on my verbal “alright”. If some prefer that the shooter flushes the birds, just keep her there while the shooter goes in and flushes.

At this stage, the shooter does the retrieve. Dogs see retrieving as chasing birds. I don’t want to confuse her here. Retrieving comes last in the training process, after steadiness. You’ll notice in the video, she does not realize the shooter is going to do the retrieve, bringing her bird back and giving it to her. 3 birds later, she understood the teamwork and stood, solid as a rock.

The collar she is wearing is a GPS collar. No e-collars, commands or hand signals are used.

Hope you enjoy it. I’ll put up more videos soon.

Handler Training: Be the Dog

Here is a video showing how I train handlers. Because I create human and dog hunting teams, it’s important that each member understand their role and responsibilities. Once the dog understands how to be successful with our unique hunting strategy, it’s time to train the owner/handlers.

Special thanks to Katy Stuehm of Griffonpoint kennel, the breeder of Cabi, Reagan Olivares, shooter supreme, Griffinpoint Cabi and of course Joe Drew for giving me the opportunity to do my magic.

A New Strategy For Success, The Flush/Stop Cue

This is Griffonpoint W’ Moose learning the Flush/Stop cue. What we want here is an aggressive flush followed by an immediate stop-to- flush. This is a great psychological exercise that leads to a whole new level of trust, cooperation and steadiness.

Basically, I make a deal with the dogs. I’ll let you do what you’ve always wanted to do, flush the birds, but in return, you can only do it if, and when I ask. They all take the deal.

They’re so much better at this stuff than we are.


Pointer Pup Learning to Flush on Cue

The pups are 4 months old now. All are doing well. Here is Biscuit practicing the “flush” cue (I use the word “alright”). We’re also working on her “stop to flush”. I always use good flying birds that the pups can’t catch. Her chases are getting shorter and shorter. Soon, she will stop chasing all together. She will learn that the best way to consistently get a bird in her mouth is to stop chasing and instead, be steady at the flush. Being steady to flush is always rewarded. Either by me offering a bird or her being allowed the retrieve on command. Chase = lose, Steady = win. Pretty simple choice



Packleader Leash, Transitioning to the Flat Collar

Here is a copy of an e-mail I sent a client recently. He had a question about my “Packleader Leash” including how to transition to a regular collar.  His e-mail began with how to get his dog to stop pulling or lunging forward on the leash.

These are typical issues when dogs are learning that the space out front has been claimed by you. The answer is to have good timing and do the jerk on the leash before the dog gets out front. Watch the Packleader Leash video a few more times. Lots of information there.

The walk transition to a flat collar is easy and you should be able to get it done in a couple of sessions. First, let’s not call it “heeling”. That is a term obedience trainers use. As you probably guessed, I’ve become a bit touchy about some of their methods and tools including the aggressive use of shock collars, ear pinching, toe hitches, whoa barrels, etc. In order to clearly separate my method from all that aggressive obedience based training, I find that a different vocabulary has been useful and necessary. I use “walking at my side”. Does not sound a lot different but it describes the foundation of my method, trust and cooperation. Remember, he’s at my side because I claimed the space out front, not because I commanded him to heel. With my method, in his mind, he is making a choice, not being commanded and made to comply. If you think like a dog, it becomes quite simple. Dogs don’t tell each other what to do. They tell each other what to stop doing. The manipulation of choice and free will are important. More on that later.

Anyway, back to your question. The secret to transitioning to a flat collar starts with the walk with the nose wrap. I’m not sure what you’re using, but I’ll describe the transition with my Packleader Leash. When he settles and is walking well, stop and remove just the nose wrap portion of the leash. the Packleader leash is now just around his neck. Keep the leash up high on his neck, right behind his ears. Now, as you begin walking, if he pulls or tries to get ahead of you, be sure to do the quick “jerk/release” before he gets out front (watch the “Walk” video again, the timing is the same). The leash must stay up behind his ears and if he gets out front, it will slide down his neck and be useless. This is important, as you transition from the nose wrap, you may have to jerk more aggressively This is normal in the beginning for some dogs. You may even need to jerk/release a few times in quick succession. Remember, it’s jerk, loose, jerk, loose, jerk loose. There should never be pressure on the leash. If he leans on the leash or you feel pressure, jerk/release. With some dogs, in the beginning, I need to use both hands on the leash to get the jerk/release done. A good way to understand it is to jerk/release just a bit harder than he pulled on you. Again, be sure it’s very quick (snappy), then loose. The final transition is from the Packleader Leash without the nose wrap to the regular flat collar. Same rules apply.

So the transition goes from the Packleader Leash with the nose wrap, to the Packleader leash without the nose wrap to the regular flat collar. It can all be done within just a couple of sessions.



A Pointing Strategy

Here is Jax, a nice young Lab pointing his bird this weekend. Reagan is the shooter.
When it comes to dogs (like Labs) that have been bred to flush birds, I like to give them the freedom to choose their strategy, to work with their strengths. If a flushing dog demonstrates a talent for pointing, and the type of hunting he’ll be doing is conducive to it, I say let him point.