Free Will & Instinct

I often have spirited conversations with trainers about the fundamental differences between my method and typical obedience based training. In general, we disagree about what naturally motivates a dog and how dogs, through free will, can learn to manage their energy (excitement) in a positive way. Here is an example. If an untrained dog can be running through a field and in a split second, slam on point and remain motionless, he is showing us that he certainly has the ability to manage himself (control his energy level). With my method, my goal is to get him to choose to use the same management skills when a bird flushes, a gun goes off or a bird falls. It has to do with instinct and learning to control emotion. I’m not against some obedience training. It’s just that I want to give a dog the opportunity to show me who he is and what his strong points and weaknesses are before I start replacing any of his natural instinct with obedience.

If we agree that “pointing” is an instinct (a way of behaving, thinking, or feeling that is not learned), then we must also agree that the act of pointing elicits a change in emotion, (instincts i.e.; emotion, feeling). Our argument, obedience vs free will, hinges on how we, as trainers, choose to deal with this emotional transition.

A dog’s natural instinct is to point, then pounce in order to catch the prey. For our purposes, I believe we would all agree that instead of the pounce, we want the dog to remain steady until told to flush the bird (as in our flush/stop cue) or, as is practiced in the US, remain steady while the shooter or handler flushes and shoots the bird.

With obedience training, we sometimes see problems including blinking, flagging, lack of style, reduced desire, etc. All of these problems can be boiled down to a reaction caused by the transition from one emotion to another. As an example, when the dog smells a bird and points, his instinctual emotions are desire, anticipation, etc. Now a problem occurs. The way he sees it, here you come to pressure him to stay, while you steal his point. As soon as he is given a command to remain steady, the emotional transition occurs. Now his emotions switch to intimidation, anxiety, frustration, and sometimes fear (blinking).

Instead of punishing the dog for his natural pounce response (instinct) and then dealing with his transition to the associated negative emotions, (intimidation, fear, anxiety, frustration), what if we simply showed the dog how to be successful? If we allowed him the free will to learn that pouncing, after the point, simply doesn’t work? In doing this, we will have traded all those negative emotions for positive ones (trust, desire, anticipation, happiness). These positive emotions allow a dog to show us all his natural talent, drive and focus.

Here is an example. In the video below, a young Viszla teaches himself that being steady and asking the shooter to go out front, leads to success (a bird in his mouth). Notice when he recognizes a birdy place (the Magic Brushpile). His emotions are cautious, confident and cunning. He knows from experience, that he cannot be successful in getting the bird himself. He stops and with a glance, he asks the shooter for help. He then remains steady while the shooter walks by, flushes, shoots, and returns with the bird. Because the dog used his free will to make successful decisions, there were no negative emotional transitions necessary. He stays happy and stylish. There were a number of positive emotional transitions occurring, all of which add to his style and confidence. So, we had cautious, confident and cunning transition to cooperation and trust (when he asked the shooter for help), then anticipation after the bird was shot. All these positive emotions help to create not only a stylish, physically steady dog in a short amount of time, but one that reaches a new level, the “mentally steady” dog.

Before watching the video, please read the comments there. They will be helpful in understanding how we use the “Magic Brushpile”.

Brad Higgins