Training A Hunting Dog: When The Dog Doesn't Learn

When training a hunting dog, there are times when your best efforts are not good enough. Training a hunting dog takes a small amount of skill, some timing, a great deal of patience, and some techniques in the toolbox. Even when one is well armed with all of these, sometimes, when training a hunting dog, the dog just will not learn.

About a year ago, maybe more, I started my dog, Shiloh, on the path to learning to fetch. There had been a few instances where we were unable to recover game birds that had been shot. This is a horrible waste of a natural resource, so I wanted to do what I could to remedy this. When I started teaching him to fetch, I used positive reinforcement techniques.  This meant that every time he put his mouth on the object, he got a treat (at least during initial training).

Shiloh

Shiloh

Pretty quickly, I ran into a roadblock. I could get Shiloh to sniff the fetch object. I could get him to mouth it. But picking it up was another story. Try as I might, I could not convince him to pick it up. I hadn't exhausted the tools in my toolbox, and I hadn't run out of patience yet, so, I pulled out another tool:  Force Fetch. Force fetch is the name for using negative reinforcement to train a dog to fetch. The idea behind this is to inflict some pain on the dog. The dog learns that picking up the object turns the pain off.

I'd been doing the training for a couple of months, but I wasn't seeing the response I had hoped for. Shiloh was accepting of me putting something in his mouth, but he wasn't going out of his way to pick up the fetch object. We were at a standstill; essentially stuck at the same place we were stuck last time I tried.

At this point, I was out of tools and running low on patience. I was stuck and the dog was not learning.

Why The Dog Does Not Learn

One reason a dog does not learn is because dogs are not robots. You cannot expect to put the same input into 100 dogs and expect the same output. Each dog has his own personality and his or her own response to training input. Water is positive for a duck, but negative for a cat. We can see this in our classrooms. The instruction is the same, but the kids responses to it are very unique.

Another reason a dog does not learn is because trainers are not robots. Each of us who train have a different body language, different timing when reinforcing, and different skill levels. I started my training education by training wild birds of prey. I heard a lot of different techniques to train these birds, but I was only able to execute a portion of these techniques. There was nothing wrong with the technique. Instead, there were subtle differences in my application that caused a lack of response. It might have been as simple as bad timing on my part or as complex as body language. In the end it did not matter...my trying the technique did not result in a trained bird.

Which Is The Best Technique

The best technique for training a dog is the gentlest technique that produces the desired behavior.

It is a commonly accepted axiom in the egghead training world that positive reinforcement techniques produce the strongest behaviors. In other words, if you want the behavior to stick, go with positive reinforcement. But there is a caveat: you have to be able to make it work. It does no good if the trainer cannot produce the desired behaviors with the chosen techniques. Telling the world that I trained my dog to fetch with positive reinforcement would have been a joke, since the dog did not fetch.

I am a big proponent of positive reinforcement, but, I will never totally empty my toolbox of negative reinforcement techniques. I will still use these because, there are times I'm not good enough to pull off a positive reinforcement training of a behavior. I am and should be always learning about training, but sometimes, the best technique is a negative technique because of my level of proficiency with it.

What do You Do When You Are Stuck

I was at an impasse with my dog. Same impasse, two different technique. I did what I should have done a long time ago.

I asked for help.

When I was training my dog using positive reinforcement, I should have talked with a good friend about this. She has experience training a dog to fetch. I've seen that dog fetch and I was told the dog was taught using pizza. But it slipped my mind so I didn't ask. I did contact the author of the force fetch program I am using. Explained my impasse. His solution was simple:  increase the pain.

The reason I had picked this program was it seemed to rely on a relatively small amount of pain. Now I need to increase it. Ugh. I do not enjoy causing my dog pain. Would it work? Most likely, but I am not too keen on it, so, like a fickle teenager, I dropped this idea.

When I wrote my last entry on negative reinforcement, a commentator wrote a detailed explanation about training. His name is Thomas Aaron and he is the owner and proprietor of FetchMasters, a dog training facility in Denver, Colorado. He trains hunting dogs using predominately positive reinforcement. Force fetch is not a part of his program. He offered to discuss hunting dog training, so I took him up on it; asking to bounce some fetch training ideas off of him.

The best thing anyone can do when training a dog is to ask for help. Ask specific questions. The person of whom you ask for help can be a professional. Or it can be another amateur trainer. The important part is getting another person familiar with training to think about your problem. We are often our own worse enemies when training. We are too close to the problem to be able to see a solution. A fresh set of eyes can do wonders, even if you do not choose to follow the advice.

How It's Going

Taking the additional insight from Thomas, I started training Shiloh to fetch. Again. Using positive reinforcement. Again. Take a look at this video:

This is only after a couple of days, and we still have a long way to go. But it is a good start and things are looking promising. He is eager to train and interested in the fetch object. Time will tell and many more questions will be asked.

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