Although this is a long, I’m posting it for anyone who may want more information about the West/Gibbons method of training. Hopefully there will be something useful in it for someone out there to use. I didn’t go over it too well for errors, so look past those too :-).
Like most new trainers, I was overwhelmed with the amount of information out there on dog training. There is just SO much, it’s hard to go through it all and come out with a workable plan. I knew I didn’t want to start something until I completely understood how all the pieces fit together, so I didn’t do much at first.
I introduced my dog to birds at about 6 months of age and let her run on wild pheasants until she was about 10 months old before I started a bit of work with carded pigeons.
With the wild birds, at first she was busting and chasing everything…running 200+ yds after the flush. I wasn’t sure she’d ever figure out she couldn’t catch them :-), but she was learning where birds live and how to hunt and find them, so I figured that was the most important thing.
About that time I started asking questions about letting the dog chase and figure it out on her own, and would she ever point? I got diverse opinions on that… some said it was crazy to let a dog chase birds (bad habit); and some said not to worry about it, the birds would teach her better than I could. I chose to listen to the latter because it made the most sense to me.
This was also the time I started reading about Bill West and Bill Gibbons. I can only say that the method I was reading about was SIMPLE and made the most sense of anything I’d read about, seen, or heard. Basically, just let the birds teach the dog, and then when the fire for birds is burning brightly, you can teach the dog the manners you’d like the dog to exhibit around game. Made sense to me.
Having decided the route I wanted to go, I became focused on finding out everything I could about the West/Gibbons training method. I watched all the training tapes available on this method many, many times; I bothered Bill Gibbons on the phone, and he graciously gave me hours of his time and three days in person; I emailed Maurice Lindley with so many questions, he was surely a saint in putting up with me and answering every one I asked; I watched dogs at trials trained with this method and talked with their trainers; and I read everything I could find many times over. But even with all that, the thing that made the deepest impression on me was this method tells you the WHYS of dog training…not just the HOWS. The former is at least as important as the latter, especially for the beginner.
Working with the carded pigeons got the dog pointing, and that carried over to the wild birds. At first, these were not long points…rather, just the pause before the pounce, and then she pounced :-). But she was starting to point, she knew where and how to find birds, and she was enthusiastic and happy. Eventually, she was pointing a few of the wild birds long enough for me to flush and had ceased the chasing on her own. We entered a few field trials and a hunt test, which ultimately resulted in the dog learning that she could indeed catch those birds :-)… after the WCA Western Field Futurity was over, I began training in earnest. My dog was about 15-16 months by then and I felt she was ready for some manners.
I won’t go through every single step, as those have been covered many times over; instead I will try to hit on the basics and some key things that helped me.
It’s important to go into this with the attitude of “it takes as long as it takes”…otherwise, you’ll always be comparing yourself (and your dog) to those who can go faster because they have so much more experience. Every single person started at the beginning, so don’t expect to be any different.
I will say one thing though… when you find a method you like and believe in (no matter what method you use), stick with it all the way through to the end. There will be times when you become discouraged, so you need to have a fundamental belief in what you are doing. It helps a lot to know where you are and where you’d ultimately like to be…having a goal in mind before you start is very helpful.
Pinch Collar and Check Cord
I started teaching my dog to stand up and stand still with the pinch collar and check cord. Some people would call this teaching the dog “whoa.”
We did all this work in the field with birds around, but not while the dog was working a bird (no bird scent flowing through her nostrils). I found this to be very easy and the dog quickly learned that the tug on the check cord meant “stand up and stand still” until I release you.
All this training takes place right by your side at first and no verbal command is used…you communicate with the dog through the pinch collar and check cord. Eventually, all the commands will be transferred to the ecollar, and because the dog has learned through so much repetition with the check cord and pinch collar first, this will be a natural extension of his training and easy for him to understand.
It’s important that you work with a loose line. A dog straining at the end of the line will not get trained or have any idea what you are trying to do…not to mention your arms get sore after a while. When I watched Bill Gibbons work a dog on a check cord, it reminded me of watching someone fishing… letting the line out a little here and a little there; knowing exactly when to tug and when to let the dog have some rope; he was amazing and incredibly subtle in doing this.
He said the first 30 days on the check cord are the most important, as it will establish the firm foundation the dog will need for all its future training. He was amazingly gentle…no tug of war, no yanking the dog around, and no words spoken. Pretty soon the dog knows exactly what that tug means and will respond.
Standing still is practiced before starting into the field, between bird contacts, and before putting the dog up at the end of a session. Repetition is the key…standing up and standing still are practiced over and over again, throughout the entire training process and even reviewed when the dog is fully trained.
The electronic collar is worn by the dog from the beginning. It is not used at first, but the dog still wears it each time out… it becomes part of the “training uniform” the dog wears and is nothing new or scary.
This method of training does NOT use the ecollar to teach the dog to “turn off” the stimulation by obeying. This one point is what I believe makes this method with the ecollar so easy on the dog and why the dogs understand and respond to it so well. A tap from the ecollar at a low level comes to mean the same thing as the tug on the pinch collar and check line… stand up and stand still; that’s it. This physical cue can be carried through to the end of the training, and you won’t have to yell and scream or hit your dog for it to understand what to do.
If you watch the training tapes that come with the collars, you will find the ecollar companies do not suggest you teach this way… again, the foundation training most frequently advocated is that of teaching the dog to turn off stimulation. That is NOT the Gibbons/West way of using the ecollar. Did everybody get that 🙂 ??
When the time comes to turn the dog loose, you essentially have a big ol’ long check cord on him (via the ecollar) so you can correct instantaneously at a distance if you need to. The least amount of time between the infraction and the correction, the better the dog will learn and retain what he’s been taught. That’s one reason why I believe the ecollar is so valuable.
Working on Birds
All the foundation work is done on pigeons. By the time the dog is worked on game birds, all the necessary manners should be in place. The dog will understand the ecollar and the dog will completely understand his job. Game birds are used to put polish on the dog’s skills, but not to teach the basics.
It’s imperative to use pigeons that get up and away. That is why carded pigeons work so well. Dizzying a bird and sticking it in a bush is a sure way to disaster. The birds must be able to respond naturally to the dog. If you create the right environment for the dog/bird interactions, the dog will learn to point and handle the birds all on its own. Our dogs really don’t need our help with this.
I found the best way to work a dog into a carded pigeon is to bring her in cross wind about 10-15 ft. from the bird, so the dog gets a sudden blast of scent. This way, the dog will either point the bird or the bird will flush when the dog rushes in… either way, the dog learns something from how the bird reacts to it and will be more careful the next time.
Bill Gibbons NEVER makes a dog point a bird. If the dog runs up 100 birds before he points, so be it. When the dog decides to point is up to the dog… I think that is one reason all the style and intensity is retained so well with this method. The other reason is because the trainer is not talking to the dog and interfering with the process. It stays between the dog and the bird, and truly becomes a “predator vs prey” scenario each time the dog works a bird. No wonder the dog is intense and looks so good!
In the End…
You have a dog who is trained to whatever level you desire; the dog is happy and confident in his abilities; and he knows exactly what his job is and what you expect of him.
Best of all, it’s easy on everyone involved. I hope this big long post will help someone else who is just starting out, or who is looking for a different way to do things.