Book Report: Positive Gun Dogs

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Positive Gun Dogs By: Jim Barry, Mary Emmen and Susan Smith

This book is the result of a collaboration between members of a yahoo discussion group dealing with clicker training.  It is published by Sunshine Books which is part of Karen Pryor’s clicker training empire. 

Jean Donaldson’s blurb on the back cover states that this book is never preachy in tone.  Apparently being a clicker trainer herself has made Jean tone-deaf because this book is preachy as hell right from the get-go.  Already on page one of the introduction the authors describe “force fetch” as if it were some kind of torture carried out by medieval henchman in dark dungeons.  By the time you finish the first page of chapter one you will read:

If you were to ask the average gun dog trainer to explain learning theory, he or she would not be able to do so and might even scoff at the idea of needing to understand such a thing.

Blanket statements such as the quote above do nothing to enhance the view of clicker training in the eyes of the “traditional trainer”.  Rather, these kinds of derisive comments serve only to alienate so-called traditional trainers and boost the egos of the authors who apparently harbor a sacrosanct belief that theirs is the only “right” method.

My question is this: If you truly believe in positive reinforcement then why don’t you just present the positive and effective aspects of your methods rather than using so much space to criticize and impugn the methods of others?  In a book as short as this (100 pages) it seems that all the space used to denigrate other methods is a product of the authors’ insecurity with their own techniques.

On pg. 13 the authors tell us the one area in which they use traditional training methods is in “snake avoidance training”.  For this kind of training the authors grudgingly admit, “electronic collar training is the most reliable.”  Apparently they don’t want this kind of reliability unless it’s a life or death situation involving a reptile.  Many trainers prefer to have this same degree of reliability in other situations as well.  We’ve never hunted around snakes, but having a 100 percent reliable remote-sit has saved my dogs from peril more than once. 

The chapter on basic learning theory is helpful if you’ve never read anything about operant conditioning. The information is straightforward and well presented. There are some good explanations of the operant conditioning quadrant, the Premack Principle and other learning basics. 

The next two chapters go on to explain more detail about the practical use of positive reinforcement and how to keep records of training progress.  Here the book shares a problem typical of clicker training literature, namely the seemingly endless use of jargon and acronyms.  One would think that a tome espousing the wonders of learning theory would find some way to make its contents easier to digest without all the alphabet soup.

In Chapter 4, Obedience Fundamentals, I was dismayed to find:

…,in hunting the dog can drop the bird on the ground rather than delivering to hand as the dog must for tests and trials.

This statement indicates a lack of familiarity with hunting retrievers and the job they perform in the field.  All of the bird hunters I know require their retrievers to deliver to hand.  Dropping a bird at the hunter’s feet is a sure way to cause unsafe situations in the field because wounded birds can create quite a disturbance in a duck blind or a small boat.  A quick game of “chase the bird” in a crowded duck blind is never a good idea.  Loaded shotguns and wild bird chases in a confined space are a recipe for disaster.

Another thing I find disappointing is the attitude that hunt test and field trial dogs are somehow superior to hunting dogs.  As in the example above, such attitudes are often based on deeply flawed assumptions about the role of a hunting dog in the field.

What follows in the next 4 chapters is basically an adaptation of Rex Carr’s training system that has been used to train retrievers for 50 years.  The system has been adapted to focus more on the carrot and ignore the stick, so to speak, but most of the underlying structure and drills are the same.

I must admit that I experienced a bit of cognitive dissonance as I read the book.  I attribute this to the unusual combination of its condescending tone, and political correctness combined with the fact that parts of the book actually mention bird hunting as if it were acceptable to the authors.  In one paragraph the reader is admonished on the horrors of inhumane training and in the next we read about the importance of retrieving “crippled birds” quickly before they get away.  All the while the book consistently uses the female pronoun for dogs; her, she, etc., as if the authors thought they were addressing a group of feminist duck hunters.  Odd, perhaps that was their target demographic?

While the authors admit that virtually ALL the dogs performing at the top levels of gundog sports have been trained using traditional methods; they claim this is simply because the science of clicker training is so new that it hasn’t had time to reach the top levels of these sports.  I seem to recall Karen Pryor making similar claims in the 80’s.

I spent a considerable amount of time and money to learn what I know about clicker training.  I’m very glad that I did.  Within the realm of positive reinforcement are some very powerful tools to help learning and behavior change.  What I’ve also learned is that they are not always the best or most effective tools for every dog in every situation. 

Nothing in this book has changed my view which can be summarized as follows:  Traditional methods work.  Clicker training works.  If you observe carefully, a dog will show you what approach or combination of methods works best for him or her.  If you decide what approach to use based on human traditions or your own ideological convictions, you have ignored the dog.

In closing I would like to add that $24.95 (plus $5 shipping) is entirely too much to pay for this book. 

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