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Absolutely Positive Training


By Tommy Brannon

Renowned dog trainer Robert Milner hosted a seminar at his Duck Hill Kennel near Somerville, Tenn. on July 13-14, 2019. There were about a dozen attendants traveling in from Alabama, Michigan, and Missouri, as well as Tennessee and Mississippi. The attendants were not all gun dog owners either: two were fox hunters and some were field trail bird dog enthusiasts. All wanted to learn how to apply Robert’s positive operant reinforcement training to their dog training program. This positive reinforcement behavioral training method, known as Operant Conditioning, comes from research done by B.F.  Skinner at Harvard University in the 1950s and 60s. It was adopted by the U.S Navy for marine mammal training, as well as many zoos.

Milner is the author of several books on dog training; his latest Absolutely Positively Gun Dog Training was published in 2015 and explains his positive reinforcement and rewards methods (over the old punishment methods). He stated in the seminar that he received some of his inspiration from the late Ray Hunt who some claim to be the original “Horse Whisperer.”  Ray and his followers, such as Pat Parelli, Josh Lyons, and Clinton Anderson, have turned horse training methods away from intimidation and punishment to positive reward.  Milner explained that he did not use this type of training in his early career. Then, he was a proponent of compulsion-training using shock collars and punishment, but he came to the realization that those methods took much longer and did not produce consistent results.      

He began his professional dog training carrier in 1972 after his move from active duty to the reserves in the Air Force, achieving the rank of Lt. Colonel, where he worked in disaster response. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, he was asked to train dogs and manage Tennessee Task Force One, one of 28 emergency task forces in the country that respond to structural collapse disasters. These teams use search dogs that help find victims in the rubble. Milner noted that many of the team members are fire fighters whose work culture dictates “a bell rings and you jump into action.”  In many cases this is the opposite of what the dog needs to do to stay focused and do his job, in spite of multiple distractions.

Operant Conditioning calls for rewarding a desired behavior with a treat or reward. The reward does not necessarily have to be food. It may be a fun activity such as fetching a toy. Not all rewards are equal in the dog’s mind. One treat may be more desirable than another to the dog, so the trainer needs to learn which particular reward is more valued by the dog.  A behavior followed by a reward tends to be repeated and a behavior followed by a punishment tends to not be repeated. Milner uses   a “clicker device” which is clicked just before the reward is given, so that the dog learns that the reward is forthcoming. This invokes a positive conditioned response in the dog as well as anticipation of a reward. If the dog is out of reach, i.e., while retrieving, hearing the clicker lets him know that the specific behavior is approved and a reward is forthcoming. 

Milner also uses a “place board” in his training. The dog is rewarded for sitting on this small board and, thus, is taught to return to it after a retrieve. He stated that “recall” is the important desirable trait in a hunting dog.  

Milner said that a successful hunter of almost any species, including dogs and humans, has “impulse control,” i.e. can remain still, quiet, and focused with distractions all around. On a bird hunting trip to the UK he observed that the British bred and trained Labrador Retrievers sat together with their handlers while all of the loud shooting was going on and went into action retrieving the birds only when instructed to do so. He noted that this kind of intelligence, trainability, and impulse control had pretty much been bred out of American Labradors.

The dogs that Milner that raises, trains, and sells are from the British line of retrievers. These dogs have high intelligence, do not whine, and have great impulse control. He stated that animal breeders should be breeding for specific desired measurable traits, not pedigree. His example was that he would put dogs through a standard series of search tests and using a broadcast thermometer could tell which dogs had a lower core body temperature during the exercise. A calm focused dog will have a low core body temperature when working.  Those are the ones that he bred. This breeding program is predicated on observable behaviors and selective breeding for the desired trait. It is always easier to train for a desired behavior if the animal has a genetic predisposition for that behavior. 
During the seminar Milner used personal anecdotal stories to make points. One was an interesting story that was of particular interest to horse owners in the audience. Milner said that some years back he was attending a Ray Hunt clinic held at Twin Hills Ranch. He had been having trouble loading his horse into a stock trailer. The horse would back up and refuse to load when led up to the trailer. Hunt told Milner to extend his index finger and drape the lead rope across his finger to lead the horse. The horse stepped right into the trailer. This was an example of how we humans do not always realize the strength and pressure in our own hands, be it riding a horse or leading a dog on a leash.   
Understanding the nature of a dog, horse or any other animal is essential to training it. Dogs have become one of the most successful mammals on earth because they have learned to read humans. They observe human body language, facial expressions, make eye contact, and are constantly looking for cues. This is why it is so important to use visual communication, such as hand signals, for a desired behavior, such as retrieving.  One of the participants asked about wearing sun glasses. Milner answered that it is better not to wear them when working a dog because the dog cannot see your eye movements which are a key cue for the dog.

Participants in the seminar got to go out in the kennel and the training field to watch the professional trainers at Duck Hill work with the dogs. They all learned many techniques in the two day seminar to take home and apply to their own dog training program.

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