Training Pressure: It’s You, Not the Dog
In the context of this article, the terms “pressure” or “training pressure” refers to the idea of using negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement can range from a simple “No” to the use of an ear pinch or e-collar. This pressure can also be unintended. For example, using an electronic bird launcher without proper exposure or wearing mirrored sunglasses during training. Training pressure is defined by the dog, not the trainer. It follows that the sources of pressure, especially unintended pressure, will vary among individual dogs and is subject to change.
Quack, Quack, whack, wak wa …
In the moment before I answer my phone, I contemplate the duck ringtone spitting from my vibrating phone. Initially I thought it was pretty badass. Everytime my phone rings I will think of a cold morning and whistling wings. I have heard this ringtone hundreds of times and each time it became just a little less tolerable. Until finally today, I had heard it enough, it crossed the line, and I decided that I was over it. I made a mental note to change it.
I answer the phone and it’s my mentor, Jonathan Paranjothy. “Hey, I got a dog lined up for us. It’s a reject from another trainer. I know this line (of spinone) and they are usually good dogs. So, I’m not quite sure what’s going on.”
I ask, “What do you think the issue is?”
“I don’t know. I guess the trainer said the dog is blinking birds. You know, some of these guys don’t understand pressure.”
I immediately understood what Jonathan was alluding to. There is a pervasive style of dog training that balances training pressure against a dog’s drive or willingness to please. The trainer puts pressure on the dog to complete a given task. The trainer is making a bet that the dog’s drive will allow it to overcome the pressure. An example of this is a common method I have seen used to expose a young dog to the gun, and it goes something like this.
The trainer plants two or three birds in the field and loads his shotgun with blanks. The trainer is betting that when the dog locates the bird the dog’s drive will take over. As the chase ensues the trainer will fire the blank into the air. If all goes well the dog will barely notice the gunshot because of his bird drive. Do this a few times, and the dog will associate the gunshot with a flying bird. Now the sound of a gunshot will no longer cause pressure but fervor the dog’s drive. So what’s the problem?
Most of the time this strategy will work out. But what would happen if the dog’s drive was not enough to balance the pressure of the gun?
A couple weeks later I am at Jonathan’s house watching the dog work. “Hunt ‘em up,” Jonathan says as he taps the orange and white dog on the head. Usually a spinone will cover ground with the graceful trot the breed is known for. Today, the dog is 10 feet in front of us and we have to slow our pace to not overtake the dog. We work the dog perpendicular to the wind towards the scent cone of the first bird. I take notice as the dog’s head turns to the left and any forward motion stops. Then, very cautiously, the dog starts walking backward away from the bird. I walk up and flush the bird. Simultaneously, the dog jumps in the air, spins 180 degrees — and stops.
We move on to the next bird. The dog at about the same pace and distance makes its way toward the scent cone. This time, as the dog scents the bird, it makes a sharp turn away from the bird, continuing at the same pace while skirting the outside of the scent cone. It’s now clear the dog is purposely avoiding birds. This is oftentimes referred to as “blinking birds.”
Fixing a dog that blinks birds is famously hard and many trainers refuse to even try. I ask Jonathan “What do you think is going on?” Jonathan grabs his chin, cocks his hip to the side and, after a moment says, “I have an idea.”
Jonathan asks me to walk with the dog about 100 yards away from him. The dog begins to work the field. Jonathan waits until the dog is moving through the field, mentally consumed in its search, and fires a .22 caliber blank. The dog immediately stops its search and comes back to my side. The dog never recovers and stays next to our sides for the quarter mile walk back to the kennel. As we walk, Jonathan explains his theory. Someone had improperly exposed this dog to the gun, causing the dog to be gun shy and blink birds.
The danger of using pressure to train a dog is that it can have the opposite of the intended effect. What likely happened to this dog is that the trainer took the dog out to expose it to the gun using the strategy outlined above. When the gun rang out, the dog had a strong negative reaction. Because the shot took place in the context of a bird, the dog was now fearful of — not only the shot — but the bird that accompanied it. The trainer made the mistake of believing his definition of training pressure was universal.
I have repeatedly noticed this mistake when I watch people train dogs. The conversation usually goes something like, “I don’t know, I thought my dog was doing great, but he has seemed to regress.” Almost always, when I watch them work the field, they have sunk into an almost robotic relationship. The handler walks the field, gripping his e-collar remote while the dog works the field with a sideways glance knowing the pressure is inevitably coming. As this progresses, the dog might even start rebelling by purposely ignoring a command or, in a worst case scenario, destroying game.
The simple solution is to pay attention to what your dog is perceiving as pressure. For example, before exposing your dog to the gun around birds, do it in an empty field. Start 100 yards away with a .22 blank and gauge how your dog perceives this. If your dog is starting to rebel in the field, learn a new training method. Use a check cord or whoa post in lieu of an e-collar. Most of all, remember to reward the correct behaviors. In fact it has been proven that dogs learn faster, and perform better, using positive reinforcement.
I am not going to tell you to never put pressure on your dog. However, I will tell you that I have seen better results with a low-pressure, high-reward training program. The dogs I train are happy to be training and I am not white knuckled gripping an e-collar waiting for my dog to take a mis-step.
Training pressure is like my phone ringtone. The results are pleasing at first, but pushed to its limits, it’s downright aggravating and puts humans and canines alike in a frame of mind incapable of learning.
Scott Frasier is a Michigan-based freelance outdoors writer who has been wrapped in the tradition of hunting his whole life. A former police officer, Scott has been hands-on in a variety of dog training methods, from police canines to bird dogs, for more than a decade. When not writing, Scott can usually be found in the grouse woods, training dogs at a NAVHDA event, or helping his wife with their latest litter of Spinoni.