Controversy over force-free approach to gundog training
There’s a growing split at the heart of gundog training, and it centres on the Kennel Club.
Steve Moran has been training dogs for more than 30 years. He works with dogs from all over the country at his kennels in Cheshire.
Steve, who runs Stublach Training, worries that the Kennel Club is asking working gundog trainers to give up on traditional techniques in favour of reward-based training. He claims some trainers are getting their ideas from circus trainers in the USA.
He says: “It means trick or treat. It means training your dog like a circus animal.”
The question is about what is or what isn’t defined as ‘force training’.
For gundogs, Steve reckons that reward training can’t replace the whistle. He says: “With gundogs we use communication through the whistle. So, a low peep, peep, peep means everything’s okay. The dog would know through the tone of the whistle whether you were all right or come back here quickly. How can you do that with a titbit?”
He says training dog by shaking a ball and giving it a treat won’t work in a pen full of pheasants.
That’s not all. Steve pours scorn on the Kennel Club’s accredited training scheme as there are no governing bodies for dog trainers in this country or the USA.
The Kennel Club has a network of trainers it accredits. It promotes dog training using kind, motivational methods, and positive reinforcement only.
Kennel Club field trials secretary Kate Broers says her organisation does not recommend smacking a dog. She says positive reinforcement works much better. She says: “The dog doesn’t understand. You have to be so quick with your correction. If it’s done something wrong out in the field, by the time it comes back to you and you then smack it, that’s completely pointless. It trains the dog to have a negative experience.”
The KC says that it is adapting its ideas asdogs are bred differently compared to 30 years ago, and there is no need for gundogs to be treated differently to pet dogs. Kate says: “These dogs are more viewed more as a tool than a pet. And back in the day, dog trainers were breaking dogs, but these methods used aren’t used [now] in shooting world.”
She says working dogs no longer need to be trained with force as they’re no longer the hard dogs of the past.
Kate says dogs are being bred specifically for bidability, for temperament, as well as their working ability. She says: “So there’s no longer a requirement to train them in that in that forceful, harsh methods of the past, the positive training works just as well.”
BASC’s head of game and gundogs, Glynn Evans, agrees with the Kennel Club that the changing breeds require a different approach to training.
He believes dogs have perhaps become softer.
He says: ”When I was a youngster quite a few years ago, dogs were harder. And by successive breeding they, the work and ability is still just as good, but they’ve become gentler, become softer, perhaps easier to train.”
Steve is worried that the Kennel Club’s methods won’t work in many situations even for ordinary pets, such as stock training a dog.
He says: ”Do you think they’re going to stop dogs chasing sheep with a bag of liquorice? That’s the reality of it. It doesn’t work in the real world. It works in church halls when you’re training circus animals.”
The Kennel Club runs the biggest and best tests and trials programme for gundogs in the UK. It is not opposed to owners using the word ‘no’.
Kate says: “Owners are perfectly within their rights to say ‘no’ if a dog jumps on the sofa or it does something wrong in the field.
She also recommends rewarding positive behaviour as dogs learn through repetition.
She says: “If you find that the dog’s not achieving something that you want to achieve through one particular channel, try something different. For example, play sports. With spaniels it is a really effective tool to teach them left and right rather than the more traditional methods, which would have been to put a tennis ball out there.”
Glynn agrees that positive reinforcement is important. He says: “You always do better with a dog that wants to work for you. So, if it’s doing the job that you want it to do is then that is the reward. At times you will have to correct the dog. But that doesn’t mean that you have to be harsh. It’s just about using the right method at the right time for the right particular dog.”
Steve disagrees with the Kennel Club’s approach.
He says that the Kennel Club is trying to reduce the art of dog training to something like painting-by-numbers. He says dog training is subjective.
He says: “How you get a dog to heel is different than how I get a dog to heel. We can’t be this pigeonholed because it’s like painting. It’s an artistic thing.
“Every dog that comes to me, I stop thinking outside the box and I won’t train your dog like you train Joe’s dog or Bill’s dog. I work with what that dog’s got and harness it.”
Glynn says discipline is important for any breed of dog.
He says: “We don’t want any dog running across the road causing an accident. So, it has to do what it’s told. But that doesn’t mean because a dog’s well-disciplined and does what it’s told it doesn’t mean that training has to be hard to achieve. It’s all about developing the good points of your dog and stopping the bad points from developing.”
Kate says there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to trainers that fits every breed.
She says: “It’s like finding a therapist. Not every individual trainer will suit every dog or handler or owner. So please do make sure you do your research, have a look, and try a variety of people out before you commit to a training method.“
The stakes are high. In a letter leaked to Fieldsports News, DEFRA minister Lord Zac Goldsmith dragged dog trainers into a mire of controversy about whether or not they can or should be ‘accredited’.
Now trainers such as Steve are asking whether the London-based organisers of Crufts should even have a role in field trials and working tests.