Positive Gun Dog Training With Thomas Aaron of FetchMasters

I do not hunt or train field dogs, but I’m often asked by my clients for positive solutions to the standard in gun dog training–force-fetching, e-collars, and the like.  When I stumbled across FetchMasters, a Denver-based company owned and operated by Thomas Aaron, I was intrigued by his Positive Gun Dogs program.  I decided to interview Tom about his training philosophy and what I found is a compassionate person with what seems to be a great grip on dog training.  I highly recommend his program.  Here’s the interview:

“Positive” is a word that gets tossed around a lot in dog training, and it almost never means the same thing from trainer to trainer. Could you tell us a little bit about what is means to train a gun dog “positively”?

I use the term “positive” in the classical, academic sense. If the dog does what I ask, he is rewarded. Initially the reward is a treat or play. Then the dog transitions to a variable schedule of reinforcement (that is, the treats are dispersed randomly), and he is introduced to the No Free Lunch Policy, in which he learns that obedience is the door through which all good things are accessed. Ultimately, the joy of the hunt and retrieving feathers becomes the dog’s primary motivator for hunting with me.

If issuing a consequence becomes necessary (and it rarely does), I take away what the dog hoped to gain by exhibiting the unwanted behavior. This is called “negative punishment.” In some instances, I will remove the dog from the training scenario, which makes a pretty strong statement – especially if all the other dogs get to stay and have fun. I think the power of negative punishment is vastly underestimated, and it does not produce the unintended side-effects that “positive punishment” (i.e. striking the dog, scruff-shaking, or jolting the dog with a shock collar, etc…) often does. That said, it is best to structure training scenarios so that any flavor of punishment is unnecessary.

Training a gun dog positively essentially is not unlike training a pet dog positively. However, it does require a more comprehensive understanding of the tools positive training has to offer than what most pet dog owners have need of. For example, I live and die by the Premack Principle – rewarding a dog by freeing him to pursue a more likely behavior if he will obey me and exhibit a less likely behavior. An example: If a dog will remove his attention from a rabbit or squirrel and come to me when I call, I will release him to chase the varmint. These sorts of scenarios require a lot of planning and control early on if you want them to be functional in the field where your dog is not confined by a long lead. But Premack lends itself so nicely to gun dog training that I maintain a growing list of its applications.

Have you ever trained a gun dog with more traditional methods before? If so, why did you cross over, and if not, why not?

I have trained gun dogs, hunting hounds and pet dogs using aversive methods. Punishment-based methods, while they certainly can produce a highly functional hunting dog, often produce blow-back – unintended, counterproductive responses – in the dog. Once I committed myself to using positive methods, I realized that the flavor of relationship it creates between the human and the dog are significantly different. I do not want a dog who obeys me because he is afraid not to. I want a dog who works alongside of me because he loves to do so. It is much more fulfilling.

Once it dawns on you (I like that word “dawns”) that a dog is an emotional, sentient creature trying to figure out how best to effectively navigate his environment – just like you and I – then a couple important question bubble to the surface: How exactly did we come to the conclusion that dogs are senseless beings that only obey if the HAVE to? And what if they could be conditioned to WANT to obey? If a dog is bred to hunt birds, point or retrieve, it is not a huge step to convince them to want to do it with US. That is the essence of positive gun dog training.

However, I feel my background has given me the ability to really understand the needs of gun dog trainers and hunters. They need dogs that are rock-solid obedient under any conditions. They know that aversive training can give them that. It is a well-documented fact; look at nearly every field trial champion out there. It is up to us to prove that positive training can give them they results they need.

There also is a lot of misinformation out there about positive training. Some believe a positively trained gun dog might only obey for treats, or that it is not possible to cure hard-mouth without force-fetching a dog, or that positive training cannot produce reliability under adverse conditions. None of this could be further from the truth. I feel like, because of my shared experience with aversive trainers, I can discuss these things with them intelligently without being insulting or antagonistic. I believe this is how positive training will eventually gain a foothold in the gun dog training industry.

What do you think is the most important thing for a gun dog to know?

Great question! Consider my German Shorthaired Pointer puppy, Rooster, from Scarecrow Kennels in Keenseburg, Colorado. He has practically been pointing birds from the womb. The quality of his breeding is amazing. If you really want to strip the hunting experience down to bare bones, all I really had to do was gun proof him. If I were not going to hunt in multiple-dog scenarios, and if I were willing to retrieve my own birds, he is ready to hunt upland birds at 20 weeks old! But there is one particular ingredient that will make him a truly useful hunting companion: structure.

Most gun dogs have some desire to retrieve, but the intricacies of a good retrieve may not be natural to them – retrieving to the front or to a heeling position, or even to hand. And while most well-bred dogs will sniff out birds, they may not quarter naturally – a trait which, if they had it, would make them much less likely to run past hidden birds.

Other times, there are instincts that must be executed only at a permissible time. For example, we want a retriever to go into the water and swim down a crippled duck, but we do not want him to drop the duck and shake the water off of himself (which is instinctual) before he brings the duck back to us. Otherwise, the duck may run back into the water.

Another example of this: a dog’s instinct is to run after a bird as soon as it flushes or drops. If a bird flushes and flies low, the dog is at risk of taking a face full of bird shot. If the dog launches after a duck the moment it drops into the pond, it could scare away inbound ducks. Also in multiple-dog scenarios, dogs should retrieve on their name to avoid multiple dogs trying to retrieve the same bird.

Hunting dogs must learn to exercise their instincts (finding birds, retrieving them) within a well-defined set of parameters. Structure brings efficiency and reliability.

Personally, I want a well-bred, well-trained hunting dog. But I would choose a less well-bred, well-trained dog over a well-bred, poorly trained dog any day of the week. The former, you can count on. The latter will probably end up being a self-hunter.
Traditional trainers of every sect claim that positive training may work for some dogs but not all. Do you believe all gun dogs can be trained without aversives?

I understand their point, but I disagree with it. Positive training usually works more easily and quickly with dogs of a softer or more cooperative temperament. Dogs with a harder or less cooperative temperament are just as trainable using positive methods, but they may require more time, patience, planning and consistency than softer dogs. Modern aversive training and shock collars make it possible to shortcut a proper training process for dogs with uncooperative personalities.

That said, positive training offers a solution that aversive training does not. Traditional gun dog trainers often wait until the dog is several months old before starting training in earnest. This is because aversive techniques put a lot of pressure on the dog – and a puppy is more likely to crack under the pressure. The problem with waiting until certain dogs are older is that their uncooperative personalities begin to solidify.

Since positive training does not put pressure on the puppy, obedience training can begin much earlier. So even puppies with a harder, less cooperative personality can be indoctrinated (for lack of a better word) with an understanding that obedience is rewarding while their brains are still little sponges.

What do you find most challenging to train, and what do you think the novice trainer will find most challenging?

Even though retrieving is one of my specialties (thus my business name: FetchMasters) I find it to be fairly challenging, and I think most novices will too. I’m not talking about nurturing a dogs natural retrieving instinct by throwing tennis balls and bumpers. I’m talking about a highly structured, incrementally developed retrieve – similar in sequence to forced-fetching but done with a positive, reward-based method.

I usually employ a clicker methodology to teach retrieving, and it requires superior timing (and I’m getting older), a thorough understanding of how to incrementally shape behaviors and chain (or back-chain) them together, and the flexibility to adjust your own well-plotted course when the dog takes a direction you were not expecting.

There can be a lot of trouble-shooting involved, and a trainer really has to develop a feel for it. I had to train eight or ten dogs before I reached a sufficient level of competence. But during the learning process, nearly every dog thoroughly stumped me. Now I can say, “Oh, I’ve seen that variation before.”

How do you proof an honor dog?

There are a couple of elements to this. First, stealing point ultimately is an impulse control issue. A dog that steals point usually displays an impulsiveness in other areas of his life as well. Pretty much all of my training focuses on steadiness – from sit-stays at feeding time, to developing a strong “whoa,” to sitting patiently while I answer the door. If the dog is learning impulse control in every aspect of his life to begin with, it will be easier to make him a good honor dog.

Secondly (and ideally), a well-bred dogs come with an inclination to honor. But the temptation to creep up and steal point can still surface. If “whoa” has been proofed correctly, it can be used to steady the dog.

Thirdly, a dog prone to stealing point should be kept on a long lead during training so that you can actually enforce the whoa command if he decides to creep up. If the dog creeps after being given the whoa command, I will mark that behavior with a clap and a “no,” reel him in and remove him from the training scenario (i.e. negative punishment). Sometimes I will tether him where he can still watch the other dogs practicing. Nothing is as painful as being left out of the fun.

What would you do with a hard-mouthed dog?

Well, prevention is always the best policy: good breeding; not introducing the dog to soft birds before he is excellent at retrieving bumpers, frozen birds and partially frozen birds; not zapping your dog with a shock collar while he has a bird in his mouth; and not sending him after a mean crippled pheasant or goose before his confidence level is sufficient.

But once a dog has hard-mouth, I usually step back and go through a formal, positive trained retrieve process using bumpers. Once he is excellent at retrieving bumpers and is enjoying it, I introduce balloons filled with water and air. If he breaks the balloon, the training session is immediately terminated and the fun grinds to a halt. Once he is retrieving balloons without breaking them, I introduce frozen birds – and then partially frozen birds and then soft birds.

How do you train a steady or whoa command?
I take a hands-off approach and use a clicker along with a combination of luring and shaping. Here is a quick video I created that explains the first phase of teaching “whoa.” I’ll try to post a video showing the remaining training at some point.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=67BaAQWXUSI

Give your thoughts on teaching retrieve to hand. It’s a common thought that force-fetching (in one form or another) is the only reliable way to go.

I must respectfully disagree. I incrementally shape retrieves to hand using a clicker. It starts with the dog touching an object with his nose and ends with him retrieving a duck from a lake in harsh conditions and holding it until the handler extends his hand and commands “give.” I am putting together a video of the process – but, no, forced-fetching is not at all a necessary ingredient to teaching a reliable retrieve to hand.

Once a dog can retrieve upland birds and waterfowl, you must incrementally build the distraction level until the dog is virtually bomb-proof. Ultimately it is about building the mental toughness and confidence to perform anywhere and any time. If you do that, there is no need to build a fear of punishment for non-compliance into the process.

Many hunters rely on their e-collar to communicate with their dogs in inclement weather or at long distances when the dog can’t see or hear the handler. How do you work around this?

I specialize in foot-hunting dogs, and I’m particularly interested in realistic hunt tests. I do not train dogs for field trials that do not resemble the kind of hunting we do here in North America. Because of this, I put a lot of emphasis on selecting and training dogs that will hunt for the gun – dogs that usually stay within sight and earshot.

I train recall, whoa, turn-and-sit, and sometimes quartering with a whistle. A good coach’s whistle will carry a long way. I do not have a fundamental objection to using a remote beeper to communicate with the dog. Many shock collars have an integrated beeper, but you can also get dedicated remote beepers – which is probably a better choice for temperamental hunters.

Do you have suggestions for low-drive hunting dogs?

Well the first step would be figuring out why the dog has low-drive. Is it a breeding issue? Does the dog not enjoy being in the field with the owner? Is the dog not inherently interested in birds? Or has aversive training taken the joy out of hunting?

As a general rule, once you’ve figured out why the dog’s drive is low, taking a positive approach to counter-conditioning the dog is a good place to start. Positive training can actually increase drive as long as you keep it exciting and always keep the dog wanting more. Make the training as rewarding as possible, and never train until the dog is tired or bored.

Do you have suggestions for “rebooting” a dog that was already started on an e-collar, but whose e-collar training was unsatisfactory?

The process of incrementally shaping a positive trained retrieve with a clicker is so fundamentally different from forced-fetching (and so much more pleasurable) that you can usually have a dog performing (and enjoying) reliable retrieves in thirty days or less. Sometimes I will use a cue other than “fetch” if I think the dog has developed negative associations with it.
How do you train a dog to quarter who doesn’t naturally?

There are three or four good ways to do this, but I typically start by putting the dog on a long lead and teaching him to walk down the street with me in a quartering pattern, changing directions each time I toot a whistle. Then I move it to progressively more distracting environments until the dog changes directions on the whistle in the field.

Then I plant birds about twenty yards apart and get upwind of them so the dog cannot smell them. If the dog smells the birds, he will bee-line for them. That is fine on a hunt, but it is not helpful in teaching quartering.

Then I start quartering the dog through the field towards the birds. Every so often he flushes one (mostly by accident, as he is upwind of them). But he learns that moving in that pattern makes birds fly up – which is very exciting and very reinforcing.

Do you train all three types of hunting dogs (pointers, retrievers, and flushers)?

Yes.

What type of training do you offer? Board and train, day training, coaching, etc.?

All of the above. Board-and-train is the most efficient way to train a gun dog. I also do some day training and private coaching for folks within my service area.

What areas of Colorado do you serve?
I take in board-and-train dogs from all over. I will travel throughout Denver and the surrounding areas: Golden to Aurora, Evergreen (sometimes) to some parts of Brighton.

Be sure to check out Tom’s facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/positivegundogtraining for updates and more!


One thought on “Positive Gun Dog Training With Thomas Aaron of FetchMasters

  1. LOVE this, Sarah! What a fabulous idea to interview other positive trainers in the area, especially in an area of dog training that has been slower to evolve. Sharing!

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