Training Tips from NAVHDA Dog Handlers
by Nancy Anisfield with Bob West
When asked how many times his German shorthaired pointer Riley got into porcupines, RGS board member David Kuritzky replied, “Too many times.” Of course, that answer could also be that once is enough. Riley was a pro when it came to porky lust. Dave estimated Riley tangled with porcupines roughly 18 times. Most of those encounters caused no long-term problems, but one was eventually blamed for intermittent lameness. “There seemed to be a calcified quill in the front bottom leg, first joint above the paw, that would shift now and then. Lame for an hour and then no problem,” Dave said.
In the fall of 2019, my shorthair Prairie had her bottom lip blow up from an abscess caused by an embedded quill. Five months later, my vet bill topped $5,000 when several office visits, surgery and extensive medications finally prevented the amputation of a seriously infected toe. Prairie had chomped a porcupine a week earlier, swiping her face with that paw, trying to get rid of the quills. Most likely, one broke off and embedded in her toe. It seems that dogs like Riley and Prairie never learn.
Then again, they might learn … with the proper training. Purina’s Bob West uses the term “aversion training” for teaching a dog to avoid non-game critters, including porcupines, snakes, deer, skunks and any other varmint that could cause problems. Not to be confused with “avoidance training,” which refers to the pressure on/pressure off method of reinforcing commands and behaviors, aversion training is done when, as Bob put it, “You want to make something completely repugnant to the dog.” Aversion training, also referred to as “trash breaking,” teaches the dog to turn away whenever it sees, smells or hears the creature.
Aversion training requires high-level pressure with no commands,Bob West
“Aversion training requires high-level pressure with no commands,” Bob explained, “When you’re out hunting, you may not be where you can intervene before it’s too late.” Particularly in the grouse woods, hunters often can’t see the danger that lies ahead – the snake, porcupine or skunk.
“Granted, if your dog is well trained and of moderate drive, you might be able to stop him and handle him away from an encounter when you see it coming. But, in most cases, you have no warning until it’s too late,” Bob pointed out. That’s where successful aversion training comes into play; the dog has learned to leave the dangerous prey on its own, not in response to a command.
The tricky part is that most successful aversion training is pretty much on-the-job, meaning it has to be done “real-time” in the field while hunting, training or exercising. Simulated encounters rarely work. Putting a live porcupine in a cage or tossing roadkill on the lawn will not present real smells and sights for the dog to learn. Although snake breaking in southern and western areas is successfully done when using defanged snakes, getting a de-quilled porcupine or de-scented skunk isn’t practical. Bob also believes furred animals like porcupines and skunks can be tougher to break your dog from than snakes because their scent is much stronger, thus amping up the dog’s prey drive.
Being able to read your dog and react quickly is essential. Many dogs’ body signals are different when they scent fur instead of feather. Less tail wag, more cautious posture, slower or faster stalk – the indicators differ from dog to dog but are worth studying so you can be ready if need be. Unfortunately, many pointing dogs will also lock up on fur and look just like they do when pointing a grouse. All my shorthairs have held point on a stationary porcupine but went for the chase-and-chomp if the porky was moving. Pulling a dog on point off a porky is a great short-term solution. However, once you see it’s a porcupine or another undesirable pointed critter, an aversion lesson makes more sense for the long term.
For aversion training in the field, Bob said to be ready with an e-collar and quick timing. Handlers can call some dogs off unwanted game through obedience and e-collar use, but that might require multiple commands and increases in stimulation, none of which are the solution for a quick one-shot grab at a porcupine. True aversion training means applying high-level stimulation right then and there to scare the dog off the sight and smell of the unwanted prey. Most of us balk at cranking the stim level high, but a moment’s strong zap is better than days of pain, trauma, medications, surgery or worse.
Note: NAVHDA members use many different methods in their dog training. The information and advice in this article doesn’t represent an official training method standardized by NAVHDA International.