Lets face it, everyone uses positive reinforcement whether they admit it or not. Everyone, well I at least hope everyone, tells their dog, good boy or girl from time to time, gives the dog a pat on the head and feeds their dog. If the dog enjoys these things, it is positive reinforcement. If you are doing these things for your dog when he is performing a desired behavior, you are utilizing positive reinforcement to your advantage, and these behaviors that you just rewarded should increase.
Lets first start of by saying that you do not need to take full advantage of clicker training and positive reinforcement techniques to train a bird dog and many people have been turning out well trained bird dogs for years without them, to that there is no doubt. However I firmly believe that it is one of the easiest and most effective ways to teach and train a dog and that understanding these techniques and adding them to your training arsenal can only be beneficial.
Bird-dogers seem to be one of the most reluctant groups to jump on the clicker training bandwagon, despite popular bird dog trainer George Hiscox endorsing it and rumors that the current Grand National Champion, Shadow Oak Bo, the first setter in decades to capture the holy grail of bird-dogdom was brought along with positive reinforcement techniques and treats. Why?
I hear it all the time, “my dog wouldn’t care about the click” or “my dog is too stubborn.” First and foremost bird-dogs are dogs. That’s right, there is nothing inherently different from your run of the mill mutt and a bird-dog. There is nothing upstairs that prevents bird-dogs from being trained as an ordinary dog, the techniques are actually universal across much if not all the animal kingdom, including humans. The only things that really sets bird-dogs apart from your average pet is their athleticism and their heightened desire to hunt and find game. That’s it. Even if your dog is unique, clicker training and positive reinforcement can work for you.
All dogs like something. If your dog does not like dog treats, he may like hot-dogs, or some other human food. However treats are not the only usable reward when using positive reinforcement. If your dog is not very motivated by food, there are a number of other options. You can use a retrieve or fun bumper as retrieverites call them, so long as your dog finds retrieving rewarding. Another favorite is a game of tug, this is used often by the agility crowd as one of the dogs major rewards during training. If you are training bird dogs, the dog should like birds, which can also be used as a reward. The possibilities are endless, get creative.
All a click is, is a marker to tell the animal that it did the right thing and that a reward is coming. It isn’t always possible to shove a hot dog in a dogs mouth the split second it does the right thing, and we all know timing is important, whether with reward or correction, the click, finger snap, “yes” simply bridged the gap between doing the correct behavior and reward for doing it. Timing is most imperative when a dog is learning new things. As commands become well known, both your timing and the length between the bridge and the reward becomes less important.
The click of the clicker has no inherent value until it is associated with something good to come, a treat, a bird, a head pat, a fun bumper, a game of tug etc… If you will. You need to associate the click or whatever you use for a bridge to a reward. This is done by quickly using your bridge and rewarding very frequently. For a bird-dog analogy, It is the same premise as trying to associate the noise of a gunshot meaning bird, you do this with a lot of birds, and ensuring the dog is always chasing a bird when gun-breaking. To use the same analogy, when a dog is gun-broke properly, the site of a bird, or killed bird becomes less important when shooting, and can actually help keep a dog on their toes. The treat or reward after a click or bridge becomes less important as time goes on as well, and it is actually beneficial. The dog will wonder when the treat is coming, and try harder. This leads to a whole different avenue called shaping, that I won’t get into here, but it can be used to get very precise behaviors, and to polish up known ones.
As you can see the concept is not difficult to grasp and is actually pretty simple. I think the major difficulty is the term “Clicker Training” It sounds as if the clicker is somehow the reward, and it sounds gimmicky, when really it is Psyc 101. Maybe it should be called positive reinforcement with a clicker? That has a ring to it.