top of page

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 are:

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 compulsion training.

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:

Medical Procedures

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 training.

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 restraint.

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:

If you wish to learn more about positive gundog training, take a look at 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:

Comparison of Traditional Compulsion Training to Positive Gundog Training

Traditional Compulsion Training

Positive Gundog Training

Obedience behaviors built from escape responses

Obedience behaviors built from capturing and shaping behaviors with reward

Persistence of behaviors built by exposure to distraction and correcting ( punishing ) deviations

Persistence of behaviors built by increasing gradually the distraction level while rewarding success. Then putting on variable schedule of reinforcement.

Sequence of behaviors is:
• Obedience
• Marked retrieves
• Force fetch
• Marked retrieves (continued throughout training process to bring dog "up" when needed)
• Steadiness
• Marked retrieves
• Remote sit
• Sit on whistle
• Marked Retrieves
• Casting drills
• T pattern
• Marked Retrieves
• Double T pattern
Permanent blinds
• Marked Retrieves
• Cold blinds

Sequence of behaviors is:
• Obedience
• Steadiness
• Sight blinds
• Whistle stops
• Casting drills
• Long unseen cripple drills
• Cold blind retrieves
• Marked retrieves

Time required to achieve cold blind retrieves - 6 to 12 months

Time required to achieve cold blind retrieves - 3 to 6 months

Large apprenticeship factor - beginning trainers have a steep learning curve - takes about 3 times longer for beginning trainer to learn compulsion training than is the case with positive training.

Typical beginning trainer learns positive training three times faster than he learns compulsion training.

bottom of page