Let me just start by saying that there is power in reward based training systems. To deny that in the modern era is foolish. Many (maybe most) accomplished working dog trainers around the world employ some sort of lure/reward system as a foundation on their dogs. Many others restrict themselves to reward based systems entirely and produce fine work. We in the hunting dog community have been late to the game compared to hobbyists and professional trainers in other working dog pursuits, and to be honest, that’s okay.
Considering our objectives, most gun dog trainers can develop bold, stylish dogs most efficiently in compulsion based training systems. Escape/avoidance is the traditional framework of training for the gun dog training community (retrievers, pointing dogs, flushing dogs, and versatile pointing dogs). Maintaining strict adherence to reward based systems in the training of these types of dogs would prove extremely challenging. A few have claimed to be doing it, but I have never personally witnessed that. The fact that we and our dogs are in pursuit of live game puts at a distinct disadvantage in regards to managing the value reinforcers used in training (a very important component of reward based systems). The ultimate reinforcer for our dogs has a brain, legs, and often the power of flight and exists in an environment that we have zero control over. We do not sate our dogs drives with rewards, we must demand that our dogs control their deepest impulses until the moment that they have satisfied their responsibility to the hunting party and at that moment we let them act on those impulses in a structured way, thus satisfying his/her drive to pursue, chase, and capture prey. Many very effective and happy gun dogs have never been given a treat or a toy as a reinforcer.
I still believe that there is real value in reward based training systems for gun dog enthusiasts, and I almost always suggest that folks that come to me with their first hunting dog pup become proficient with a clicker and treat bag before graduating to more traditional, compulsive methods of manipulating their dog’s behavior. Dog training is a physical skill. Before we condition our dogs to act reflexively to avoid pain or produce a reward, we must train ourselves to act reflexively to deliver these punishers or reinforcers in a precise and timely fashion. Clicker, or more accurately “marker” training is a very effective means of training yourself to capture an appropriate behavior from your dog and reinforce it in a low risk fashion. If you screw up the mark or the delivery, oh well, do better next time. The normal risks associated with compulsion based systems are avoided allowing new trainers to develop the appropriate muscle memory (neuro-pathways) to reinforce and punish with greater precision when the stakes are higher.
A clicker and treat bag will not replace a check cord, e-collar, whoa post, pinch collar, etc, but it can help us develop a strong rapport with a dog before heading afield. Give it an honest effort, I bet you find some real value in clicker training. More to follow on how to get started with a lure/reward framework of training for you and your gun dog.