A couple of weeks ago we touched on the idea of tribalism within the dog training community and how trainers tend to become emotionally and ideologically invested in their given factions. Depending on your perspective, I’m either journeyman, jack of all trades sort of trainer, or I’m directionless with no real loyalty to a given tribe. Either way, I have had the great fortune in my life to play student to some phenomenal dog trainers across the spectrum of working disciplines. I’m fascinated by how various dog training methods and systems have developed within the context of their own training traditions. The games we play with our dogs certainly shape our approach to training. For working police dogs, games like Schutzhund (IPO), KNPV, Ring, and PSA have been the testing grounds for innovation in training and provided the framework for the genetic evolution of the breeds that play them. American and European bird dogs diverged generations ago. The same holds true for the retriever games, the British and American retrievers have evolved separately over generations and training systems suited to their different games have developed right along with them. There are many more examples, but these are the ones I’m most familiar with.
This year I’ve become acquainted with Robin Watson of Tibea Gundogs. Robin and his wife Rachel are life long gundog enthusiasts and trainers of renown in their home country of England. Robin breeds and trains Labs in the British tradition and I’ve been lucky to spend the last few months training beside him. His dogs and his methods are a product of British shooting and sensibilities, and the soundness of his methods can been seen in the fine work of his dogs. Robin’s dogs are Labrador Retrievers; in some ways similar to the dogs I’m accustom to working, and in other ways quite different. Robin’s dogs display manners above and beyond what would be expected from most American trainers and handlers, yet they aren’t lacking drive for the work. The differences are obviously a product of both nature and nurture, but to what extent? Any opinion offered here (from anyone) would be speculation. To gain a better understanding of the British Lab phenomenon, we need to gain a greater understanding of British shooting culture and retriever field trials.
I really like Robin and Rachel. Their work stands on its own merit, and I’ve never once heard either one of them bad mouth another trainer. They manage to display confidence and pride in their work without denigrating other styles, systems, and trainers. I’ve heard Robin laud American retriever trainers on several occasions, and he readily admits that had he been born in this country he’d be training in the American tradition. Check out his interview with the hunting dog podcast to see what I mean. Its not just lip service, its his consistent message.
I’m not a competitive retriever pro, but I am an American, and I have American sensibilities. I hold Rex Carr as high as any trainer in my mind. The US field trial game is in no danger of being taken over by Brit methods, but there might be something in there that keeps a borderline dog in my gun dog kennel. Handler turnovers have been much smoother since I’ve incorporated some of Robin’s drills into my program. I spend much more time walking out into the field for corrections and training at a slower pace in general during the finishing phase. Good training holds up regardless of where and how it evolved. My belief system as a trainer hasn’t changed and likely won’t be changing drastically anytime soon, but I’ve certainly found utility in the British tradition of training and will keep watching and listening to other trainers of all traditions. I encourage all of my friends to do the same.