Positive Gun Dog Training
Positive gundog training is simply the application of BF Skinners principles of operant conditioning to
retriever training with the focus on two basic elements:
1. Dogs do what pays
2. Dogs quit doing what doesn't pay.
Underlying principles are that the trainer recognizes what constitutes a payment and, that the trainer
controls the pay. Looking at positive gundog training from the perspective of 40 + years of training
experience, I have found it to be vastly superior to traditional gundog training. The three major reasons
1. Positive training is easy for humans to master. Past experience schooling Urban Search and Rescue dog
handlers in the training of their dogs has demonstrated to me that positive training is mastered by a
novice about three times faster than that novice can master traditional compulsion training.
2. Positive training is extremely fast and effective for the dog as well. When the trainer understands
the principles of positive training and properly applies them, positive training requires a much shorter
training period for a dog to reach a given level of proficiency in gundog behaviors.
3. Last but not least, positive training is much more fun for both dog and handler than is traditional
My philosophy is that my gundog is my best friend, and he should be treated and trained accordingly.
Thus I have spent the last 10 of my 40 dog-training years developing protocols for the positive training
of gundogs. These practices and protocols represent a huge break from the traditional training culture in
which I operated for some 30 years. They also make dog training much more fun.
The Animal Training Revolution
An animal training revolution is currently under way. It was generated in the 50s and 60s by the works
of two famous men of science, B.F. Skinner a psychology professor at Harvard university and Konrad
Lorenz, an Austrian zoologist. In 1973 Lorenz won with Nikolaas Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch the Nobel
Prize in Physiology or Medicine for "discoveries in individual and social behavior patterns."
Skinner developed the theory and practice of operant conditioning. Lorenz developed the knowledge and
focus on instinctive behaviors in animals. Prior to Lorenz we tended to think of animal behavior in terms
of the behaviors exhibited by caged animals in zoos.
In the 50's and 60's the marine mammal trainers and zoo animal trainers developed practical applications
and protocols using operant conditioning to train dolphins, sea lions and other marine mammals, and zoo
animals. Operant conditioning has been universally adopted by marine mammal facilities and by zoos.
There were a couple of strong drivers for this fast adaptation of positive training using operant
conditioning. For marine mammals, it is difficult if not impossible to produce behaviors with compulsion.
If you try to punish a dolphin, and you stay in the water with him, he will punish you back and probably
injure or kill you; or he may just go over into the corner and ignore you. Similarly, zoo animals such as
lions, tigers, elephants etc. do not respond well to compulsion training.
In zoos the animals require a certain amount of ongoing repetitive care and maintenance activities. Here
is an excerpt from the Phoenix Zoo's Husbandry Process's for elephant care:
One of the most important medical procedures that we do is weekly blood draws. We draw blood for two
main reasons. First, it's done to test and check their general health. Second, and most importantly, is
to be sure that we can draw blood when needed. For example, if one of the elephants had something wrong,
we would be able to draw blood from behind their ears instead of having to immobilize them, which can be
dangerous for such a large animal. By having the elephants trained to present their ears, it's safer and
less stressful for them.
The keepers spend everyday with the elephants and are constantly examining them. One of the most
important things to watch for is overall body condition. Elephants in captivity have a tendency to be
overweight due to inactivity and rich diets. Here at the zoo the elephants are weighed monthly. We have
target weight ranges for all of the elephants to try to make sure they stay as healthy as possible.
Another procedure that we do is test for tuberculosis, or TB. Elephants are susceptible to the human
strain of TB and must be regularly checked for their safety and ours. The procedure to test for TB
requires the elephants to accept about 60cc of saline being flushed into their trunks. The elephants are
then trained to blow the saline into a plastic bag. The fluid in the bag is then sent to be tested for
the presence of TB.
Gorillas need periodic blood draws for health maintenance. Grizzly bears need to be moved from one
enclosure to another. These and many other animal husbandry processes are all accomplished by positive
Economics has been the big driver in the rapid adaptation in the Zoo sector and the marine mammal
sector. In the absence of positive training, there are only two choices, compulsion or tranquilizer
darts. Darting with a tranquilizer carries a risk of injury or death to a valuable animal.
Marine mammals and national defense
A great example of the power of positive training is the US Navy's Marine Mammal Program. This program
has been in operation since the early 1950s and has developed many of the major applications and training
protocols of operant conditioning and reward training. Many of today's marine mammal trainers got their
start and early training in the Navy program.
A look at a typical training scenario would see a small boat heading out to the open ocean. In the back
of the boat is a small pool containing a dolphin. When the boat reaches its patrol area, it stops. The
trainer opens a gate and releases the dolphin to search. The dolphin who has a built in biologic sonar
system, proceeds to hunt for tethered or moored mines. His search might extend as deep as 500 feet, where
it is very dark, very cold, and very high pressure. During his search, the dophin is swimming around and
through schools of fish, which are his food and which constitute his training rewards.
When the dolphin detects a mine, he swims back up to the boat, and indicates the presence of a mine. The
handler then hands the dolphin a plastic tab to hold in his mouth. To the tab is cabled a marking device
which has jaws that will clamp to the mine cable. The dolphin then swims back down to the mine and
attaches the marking device to the mine cable. Then he returns to the boat. The mine will be removed or
destroyed by a human diver.
This trained dolphin behavior is difficult and it is complex. It is carried out by the dolphin who is
out of sight and beyond communication with his trainer. Additionally the dolphin is swimming through
schools of fish while performing the behavior. The dolphin's trained behaviors are more difficult and
more complex than are the behaviors we ask of gundogs. If operant conditioning works so well on dolphins,
then certainly it will work well on gundog behaviors. The prerequisite is to learn the principles and
applications of operant conditioning as it applies to training gundog behaviors.
Five Important Principles for Positive Gundog Training
1. Early development of learning process - Pup should learn early that he can "buy" rewards (treats) by
offering behavior. He should sit to get every meal. You should teach other behaviors with treat reward.
Some examples might be: stay, crawl, jump up on platform, roll over, etc. The more behaviors a young
puppy learns, the more skillful he will be at learning and the easier will be his later training.
2. Get steady early - every unrestrained retrieve trains pup to break. As soon as pup is retrieving
eagerly, you should begin restraining him for a gradually increasing time period before releasing for the
retrieve. Our milepost is a 30 ft retrieve, with pup restrained 30 seconds and confident enough to hunt
after release for 30 seconds for the dummy. We typically have 16 week-old puppies steady without
3. More dummies; less birds - Establish the behaviors of retrieving and delivery to hand using dummies.
After the behaviors are well established and habits are strong, use some birds. Used too early in pup's
training, birds tend to create problems, such as running off to the bushes with the bird, mouth problems,
and unsteadiness. Birds are a giant leap in distraction level.
4. More Blinds; Less marks - The primary value of a marked (seen) retrieve should be as a reward for
sitting quietly during and after the fall. Beyond that marked (seen) retrieves have a negative value with
respect to teaching pup to stop on the whistle and take a cast. Every marked retrieve that pup completes
trains him a little more to find the prey without help from the handler. The goal of hand signals is to
train pup to take directional casts from the handler away from where pup wants to go, and toward where
the handler wants pup to go.
5. Whistle stopping and hand signals - Establish it early, as soon as pup is steady for tossed dummies.
First establish the behaviors of whistle stopping and casting close to you. Then establish close with
increasing distraction. Establishing the whistle stopping and casting behaviors close to you allows you
to deliver reward effectively. Establishing behavioral proficiency in the face of high distraction levels
with the dog relatively close to you will prepare the dog for the distraction level offered by distance.
Below are three video clips illustrating aspects of positive gundog training. The dog in the video is
Buccleuch Temperance, one of our Legacy Labradors.
1. Buccleuch Temperance learns "fetch from ground" while being reinforced (rewarded with tennis ball
toss) for delivery to hand.
Playing fetch from ground with Buccleuch Temperance
2. Buccleuch Temperance learns to sit calmly prior to retrieves.
Steadying with Buccleuch Temperance
3. Reinforcing whistle stopping with Buccleuch Temperence
If you would like to see an example of Positive Gundog Training, here is a video clip on our Legacy
Labradors. There is a pheasant retrieved to me near the end, at 2 minutes,16 seconds. The dog doing the
retrieving is Temperance of the above video clips.
The clip was made when temperance was 14 months old and proficient on blinds and hand signals. She had
not been given a marked retrieve prior to this point. That retrieve on the video is Temperance's first
ever marked retrieve and her first ever retrieve of a bird. She performed flawlessly.
Here is the video clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qVwwweSQnhE.
If you wish to learn more about positive gundog training, take a look at https://duckhill-kennels.thinkific.com/courses/trainthetrainer. There you will find a 3-hour
web-based lecture on how to employ positive training with retrievers. We also offer monthly
train-the-trainer seminars at Duckhill Kennels. The schedule is here: http://www.duckhillkennels.com/about/seminars.php.