Hunting Dog Training: Can It Be Done Without Aversives

A generation ago, hunting dog training was put off until the dog was a year old. This was done because the heavy reliance upon aversive techniques required some maturity in the dog. An aversive technique is anything that the dog finds unpleasant. It can be pain, or it can simply be annoying, like a squirt gun to the face. Traditionally, when doing hunting dog training, if you wanted to teach “whoa”, you’d snap a choke chain on the dog and “pop” him to get him to stand still. Retrieve? Ear pinch him until he picks up the bumper.

I was called out recently for waffling and changing my stance on aversives and shock collars. To be sure, I am still collecting information, from my own training experiences as well as from reading that I do.

A Qualified Yes

Because I have waffled, let me be clear. The answer is yes. Hunting dog training can happen without the use of aversive techniques. How do I know? There are a couple of commercial training facilities that are doing just that: Higgins Gun Dogs and FetchMasters. A quick Yelp check tells me that their customers are abundantly satisfied.

Allow me to qualify this answer: If the dog has already learned some bad behaviors, you will probably need aversive techniques.

Self-Reinforcing Behaviors

WesternGraySquirrel

Not as good as two

There are things a dog does because they feel good or they achieve something for the dog. Any self-reinforcing behavior is going to be extraordinarily hard to eliminate without aversives.  A Jack Russel Terrier will chase squirrels because he likes to do it. The only thing better than a squirrel is 2 squirrels. No treat is going to dissuade this behavior. The only thing that will dissuade certain behaviors is if you make them less pleasurable.

Simply put, if any behavior works in getting what the dog wants, the only way to *reliably* make it go away is to make the behavior unpleasant. i.e. aversives.

Don’t Create The Problem

When my dog was a pup, he was well on his way to being a no-aversives trained dog (as far as hunting was concerned). Until I screwed up his training, that is. I planted a bird that was too dizzy to fly and my pup trapped that bird. A week later on a grouse hunt and he flushed every grouse and woodcock he found. He had been steady before that. He now had a bad behavior I needed to break.

One vital key to avoiding the need to “break” bad behaviors is to not allow the dog to be rewarded when demonstrating bad behavior. Don’t let the dog break point and catch a bird, like I did.

A Tall Order

It is a tall order to expect that the dog will not be reinforced…either by accident on your part,or simply because if finds the behavior fun.

Think about it…you take your young pup into the field just to bounce around. If he stumbles into a wild quail, he may start with pointing, but then he will chase. And, by no fault of yours, pup has found that chasing is fun.

Things That Don’t Require Aversives

All of these things can be sufficiently rewarded and really do not need aversives.

  • Recall
  • Whoa
  • Fetch

Things That *May* Require Aversives

  • Steadiness (not chasing birds): This depends on the dog and some luck.  If the dog never learns that chasing is fun, maybe steadiness can happen without aversives. But, for A LOT of dogs, chasing is a total blast.
  • Bad habits: If the dog has already learned a bad habit, it is self reinforcing…the dog gains some benefit from it.

Conclusion

Yes, you can train a hunting dog without aversives. But, despite our best intentions, sometimes a self reinforcing behavior will creep in. The most effective means of fixing this is with aversives.
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