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.

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

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