Don’t Punish the Dog for Your Mistakes

Often, trainers make mistakes and teach the dogs specific, unwanted associations without even knowing it. Then, when the dog acts upon these learned associations, he is punished by the trainer. Here is an example.

A dog is always told “fetch” immediately after the gun goes off and the bird falls. The trainer has unknowingly built an association between the gun going off and the release command. Now when the gun goes off, the dog anticipates and begins leaving early (before the release command is given). Due to his lack of understanding, the trainer shocks the dog for being unsteady. This lack of understanding of the canine mind is one of the reasons there are so few steady dogs. It is also why so many hunting dogs have what I call “training handprints” including gun sensitivity, lack of style, blinking birds, shortened range, flagging, etc.

Dogs don’t naturally understand human concepts like obedience and repetition. Instead, being predators, they learn quickly to build association based on success. I tell my clients that consistency builds associations that lead to anticipation. It’s important to build the associations needed to help the dogs achieve success. It’s equally important to be careful and not build unwanted associations. Basically, be consistent with the ones you want and inconsistent with those you don’t.

Instead of punishing the dog for doing what makes sense to him, these trainers need to stop building associations that are unwanted. In this case, the answer is to become inconsistent with the release command. Meaning sometimes you tell him fetch immediately, sometimes wait a few seconds before releasing him and sometimes, even leaving him where he is and going for the retrieve yourself. Soon, when the gun goes off, he no longer associates it with an immediate release. Instead, when the gun goes off, he remains steady and looks at the trainer to see if or when he can go. He chooses to wait for the “fetch” command because it is the only association that is consistent in the retrieve scenario.  He knows that if he hears that word, he always gets to go.

Forget obedience and punishment. Instead, start building trust. What a concept.

Brad Higgins



Higgins Gundogs hunting etiquette-
 Dogs:    Stay in touch and handle well. Always honor another dog’s point, be steady when necessary and manage the birds for the gun.
Handlers:    Be silent in the hunt. Allow the dog the freedom to do his work. Nurture the natural retrieve.


About the author
Brad Higgins, professional dog trainer and creator of the unique Higgins Method of dog/handler training.

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