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Methods are Many

“As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.” -Harrington Emerson


When I first entered the gun dog space, like so many others, I was advised to pick one training method and stick with it. It was, and still is, sound advice for the brand-new person attempting to train their own dog for the first time. Let’s face it, when we are first starting out we don't have enough foundational knowledge to know what questions to even ask, let alone enough knowledge to be trusted in carving out our own way of doing things.

 

If all we ever do is only follow the step-by-step instructions of a method without understanding why the approach actually works, we aren't actually learning what creates and shapes our dog's behaviors; we’re only following instructions and learning how someone else did it. For some people, that's enough; for others, we want more. We want to know why it works so that we can improve off the process on the next go around. We want to be equipped and prepared to respond when certain challenges or pitfalls inevitably show themselves while going through our chosen method.


A few years into the gun dog journey, I felt compelled to tailor my own approach based on my individual dogs unique personalities and needs. This was far more interesting to me than following a rote process year after year, dog after dog. I wanted to be able to respond in real time to any individual dog’s behavior, no matter it's unique personality or training level. This desire is what brought me to focus more on the principles of dog training over the how-to’s of dog training.


Years ago I had a listener reach out to me via social media in response to an episode I had done with my buddy Grayson Guyer (episode 38, "The Language of Dog Training"). That person was Angie Barron of Chaos K9. We ended up on an hours long phone call, during which, she proceeded to explain the concepts of Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning. This was the first time I had heard about behavioral theory on a relatable level that, while I still didn't understand it all, I grasped enough to recognize it as the science and the "why" behind dog training that I had been looking for. Admittedly, I was still a bit confused how understanding the difference between Positive Reinforcement (+R) and Negative Reinforcement (-R) would enable me to train my dog to pass the duck search portion of the NAVHDA utility test. Or who the heck was Pavlov and why did I care about his bell and how he fed his dogs?! It wasn't until a little further down the rabbit hole that things started to make more sense.


Since that enlightening conversation, I have been chasing down anyone and everyone within the dog training space intent on learning their approach, tips, tricks, failures, and thought processes. There were some trainers who simply have “their way”, backed by decades of experience and hundreds, if not thousands, of dogs. They simply know that it has worked and they're going to continue doing it that way without ever asking how they can improve it. Not everyone is a “dog nerd” and it’s hard to argue with the old mantra: "if it ain't broke don't fix it!" However, my journey has also led me to trainers that could pick up a leash attached to any dog, no matter the level or method of training, and be able to manipulate its behavior in a smooth and synergetic manner that was truly special. These were the type of trainers that really captured my attention and got me excited to learn more.


Just like anything in life, there are key principles and foundations that underpin the actions we take. They are built into the finished product, whether you acknowledge them or not. It doesn’t matter which training method or approach you choose, the principles are built into the program and, ultimately, are why any method succeeds or fails. Focusing on and understanding those principles allows each trainer to create their own method, specially tailored to their individual personality and the dog that they are working with. This is where each trainer can really start developing their own style, crafting how a dog should look through their own lens; essentially creating their own "art." So what are the principles? What is Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning? What is drive management? How does all of this apply to our bird dogs? Stay tuned....

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