It all started back in the early 2000s, with a tiny yellow Lab who Thomas Aaron and his wife, Linda, found abandoned in southern Colorado’s high desert. They named the active puppy Alie and quickly decided she needed training and a job.
The Aarons wanted her to become a hunting dog, but were unwilling to subject Alie to force and aversive training techniques, which were all they could find. The local trainers used shock collars, and many added painful ear pinches (to train retrieving behavior) and other harmful methods, such as those Thomas himself witnessed growing up with a father who trained hunting dogs. He knew there had to be a better way, so Thomas quit his job as a tech-support engineer and began training dogs full time.
Thomas and Linda immersed themselves in learning all they could about dog training and especially gun-dog training. Thomas graduated from the Animal Behavior College and completed an intensive internship with a nationally recognized trainer. He says he was not born a positive trainer, but like many of his peers changed his methods over time because scientific study after study show that training can be successfully done without force, pain, or fear. They quickly reached a massive paradigm shift in their protocols, which resulted in their hugely popular program based in Denver: Positive Gun Dog Training.
The Aarons say that training hunting dogs positively takes much less time than traditional training. What once took four months, they accomplish in one. They also discovered that the dogs maintained their skills and did not develop undesired behavior for their owners.
Thomas and Linda now own and operate one of the largest and most successful dog training centers in Colorado and the Southwest. Their training company, FetchMasters, offers a wide variety of services, including basic obedience, specialty hunting programs, and behavioral modification programs.
The couple requires three things of anyone who works for them:
The Aarons have proven themselves not only to be great dog trainers, but they are also among the most popular trainers in the state of Colorado — a dog-crazy state if there ever was one.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Thomas, and I jumped at the chance to share the wisdom of a trainer bucking the trends in the gun-dog training world.
Dogster: Did you catch a lot of heat from old-school style trainers who insist that force has to be used to train hunting dogs? How do you respond to those who refuse to learn newer, kinder methods of training?
Thomas Aaron: Actually, no. When we first started really testing our system, we were members of NAVHDA (North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association). While I can’t say that we converted anyone to our way of thinking back in those days, we actually received a great deal of praise from the traditional trainers because our younger dogs were performing close to on par with their older ones. In fact, we still get referrals from some of those folks!
We also are very inviting to traditional trainers in our workshops. Both Linda and I come from an aversive-training background (me with dogs, her with horses), and we are able to relate compassionately with traditional trainers.
Are you seeing more and more hunting dog trainers catch up with the science that says training with aversives creates unwanted consequences and that positive reinforcement training is effective, clear, and fair to the student, in this case, a dog?
Not particularly. But what we are seeing is very encouraging. Many positive trainers are coming to us and wanting to attend our workshops so they can take it back to their own communities.
Do you have a favorite breed or mixed-breed hunting dog?
It is pretty hard to beat a German Shorthaired Pointer. They haven’t been quite as pet-dog-ized as many of the hunting breeds and are still serious hunting machines. But their personalities and energy often are not for the faint of heart.
What temperaments or traits make for the best hunting dog?
We do an exhaustive evaluation before taking dogs into our program, and we look for high prey drive and high retrieving drive. Both of these can be built to an extent through training. But the better these qualities are, the better the dog can be trained for real-world hunting work.
Have you successfully trained shelter dogs to become hunting dogs?
Yes, a few. Shelter dogs can be good hunting dogs, but it is a good idea to select them with certain evaluation criteria in mind. Not any dog (even from a reputable breeder) is going to be a shoo-in as a hunting dog.
How do you train off-leash recalls without having to resort to a shock collar?
I may have to do a whole article on that one! But we do a lot of classical conditioning, followed by progressively difficult recalls in progressively difficult environments. Once the dog is doing well at that, we implement the Premack principle to get the dog to call off of birds, squirrels, rabbits, etc. It’s not as hard as most people make think it is.
Author’s note: The Premack principle is used very often in effective dog training. It states that a high probability behavior will reinforce a low probability behavior. Parents use Premack all the time when they tell their children, “Eat your vegetables, then you can have dessert.”
You wrote on your training blog: “My contention that the positive method is ultimately the more psychologically healthy, naturally reliable method of training a retrieve to hand. On the other hand, forced fetching fails muster when it comes to living up to its claims of being the only way to develop a reliable retrieve to hand; its drawbacks and limitations far outweigh the benefits.”
Briefly, what are the drawbacks to forced training and the benefits of positive training?
Forced fetching, typical of most negative reinforcement-based methods, works. The problem is, dogs are smart. They figure out that when the punisher is not there, they don’t have to do what you ask. And guess what: You can’t wear shock collars or be pinching ears in field trials.
Positive training creates a dog who actually wants to obey because he sees what you ask as fun, rewarding, and as a function of the proper relationship you build with the dog. And, frankly, it is a lot more fun for the handler/trainer.
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About the author: Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, is a force-free professional dog trainer enjoying her mountain-filled life in Colorado. She is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She is also working on a book due out in spring of 2016: The Midnight Dog Walkers, about living with and training troubled dogs. Join Annie on her dog-training Facebook page.