Hit or Miss? Why I Train Positive

I am currently training Deagan, my 3rd Large Munsterlander, for upland and waterfowl hunting (using positive training methods, of course).  I did not grow up as a hunter, I had done some fishing as a child and loved that, but I had no family members who were hunters.  I got into bird hunting when I met my partner, Eric, over 25 years ago. Eric had grown up with hunting but did not have a dog.  I had a Flat-coated Retriever at the time.   So I had to learn how to shoot a shotgun.   I purchased a gun and took a lesson from the dealer (with moderate success).

Then I went with two friends to practice at a local gun range.  This place was set up with a trap operator who released the targets (round clay targets flying into the air away from you) when the shooter said “Pull!”.  When it was my turn I stood on the line, mounted my shotgun and said “Pull!”  I missed, and the operated shouted “Zero!”  Again, I said “Pull!”  Again, I missed, and again he shouted “Zero!”.  And again.  Then, mercifully,  it was the next person’s turn.  If you did hit the target, the operator would say “Hit!”  I did not hit ANY targets that evening.

I got really frustrated, angry, and rather humiliated as I kept missing.  And I the worst part was the operator who kept shouting “Zero!”.  When you are shooting clay targets, it is really obvious when you hit and when you miss.

Breaking the target is positive reinforcement. It instantly tells you that you performed all the necessary actions for accurate shooting.  Missing the target tells you something was not right in the sequence of necessary actions.  It doesn’t tell you what action or actions were not right, just that something was not right.  Someone telling you that you missed is really NO HELP AT ALL – you already knew that.

Much later, it occurred to me that much “old school” dog training was like this.  In this type of training, the handler gives the dog a command, if dog responds correctly, they are rewarded with praise, maybe a treat;  if they did not respond, the dog is punished verbally or physically.  When I broke the clay target, I got a reward (actually much better than praise!) and when I missed, I got punished verbally.  The point is that the punishment did not in any way help me to learn what to do, and had a negative effect on my emotional state.

Of course, I was not expecting that the trap operator would give me instructions on how to shoot accurately, but I have never gone back to that gun range again!  I did find an excellent instructor who was able to analyze my actions, and give me positive reinforcement and simple, precise coaching that helped me to succeed very quickly.

In the same way, when you are training your dog, they need to know when they are doing the right thing (that’s the click),  and get reinforced for it (that the treat/toy/life reward).  When your dog does not respond to a cue, they simply don’t get a click/treat.  That tells them they were “wrong”.  And their non-response should tell you to examine the environment for distractions, your cue for misunderstanding, your dog for physical problems, your training for “holes”.


 See my website for more information on positive dog training;

Dawn Gilkison
Positive Solutions Dog Training
Portland Oregon metro area

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