Dog training—whether as passion or profession—is a continual learning experience. One of the best ways to learn is to hang around experts. I was fortunate enough to spend some time recently in Arizona with Bill Gibbons.
Bill has been training dogs for more than 39 years and is widely renowned and admired. He first trained and handled vizslas on the field trial circuit for 15 years and then worked with pointers and setters for another 10 years. He now trains dogs for bird hunters and field trial competitors.
Over the years, I’ve researched many different training techniques and styles. Even though Bill’s philosophy is quite different from the way most bird dogs are trained, it definitely resonates with me.
Central to Bill’s philosophy is the belief that a bird dog learns best from the birds themselves. He trains using dog psychology and creates situations that allow the dog to make its own decisions about how to act around birds. Bill uses a short check line, pinch collar and an ecollar to communicate to the dog.
Following are some quick observations.
• All of Bill’s training takes place on the ground in areas where birds are present. He never does traditional yard training.
• Bill doesn’t have mechanical bird releasers. He uses wild-caught pigeons that are attached by a short piece of yarn to a cardboard square. The pigeon can fly at will but not very far because of the cardboard. In the desert, the pigeons are spooky and take flight as soon as a dog gets near.
• Bill trains daily with an ad-hoc group of amateur trainers and dog owners. At any time, there might be three or more dogs working in the field at the same time.
• He never talks to the dog and instead lets it learn from the birds. (I never heard him say “Whoa.”) A soft stroke and a pat on the side shows the dog it did well.