Training GSP’s To Listen

trusting paws

By Naomi Heck

In last month’s post, I encouraged you to think about the things your dog loves as well as things your dog does NOT like.  This month I want to discuss how to incorporate those things into training your German Shorthaired Pointer.   The biggest challenge I have with my dog Chase is getting him to come inside when he is out in the yard.  Since the day I brought him home 5 years ago, I made teaching a reliable recall a top priority.  I’m proud to say that when he is in an open field running away from me at top speed toward a flock of birds, he will turn on a dime to come back to me when I call him.  But in his own yard?   Forget it.  Until I did some remedial training, he would just stand there and look at me as if to say, “Not!”

When I first noticed this blatant refusal about a year ago (after enjoying great compliance and patting myself on the back for being a good trainer), I felt frustrated and annoyed.  I knew Chase understood what I was asking.  I had trained him daily in this same situation using lots of positive reinforcement for several years.   But now Chase was telling me, “I’d rather stay out here.  What you have to offer (treats or play inside) isn’t as appealing as what I am doing right now.”   He was testing his boundaries.

The control freak in me didn’t want to let him get away with this, so I would quickly go to him and bring him inside (without scolding, of course).  If he tried to slink away, I just calmly followed him until he gave up and came with me into the house.  He lost the privilege of being outside if he didn’t listen.  But actually, he lost it anyway if he willingly complied and came inside!  It was a lose-lose situation for him.  I inadvertently created a negative association with calling him (this is called a “poisoned cue” in trainer-speak).  I was unhappily aware of what I was doing at the time but I didn’t have an alternative plan.  I also broke my own rule: never train when you are frustrated or in a hurry to go somewhere!  His response deteriorated over time until he didn’t come to me at all in the yard.  It only takes one negative association to create a poisoned cue.  Several months ago I vowed to spend a few minutes every day undoing the damage I created.  His recall has greatly improved, but it is still a work in progress.

My strategy employs a psychological concept called the Premack Principle.  This principle states that when you set up a situation where performing a “less likely” behavior results in the opportunity to do a “more likely” behavior, performance of the “ less likely” behavior will increase.  A less likely behavior is one that the dog would not typically choose to do on his own.  A more likely behavior is something the dog would gladly do of his own accord.  This is commonly referred to as “Grandma’s Rule”:  eat your vegetables and you can have dessert.  In order for this to work, you must be able to control the contingencies.  You should not allow the dog access to the “good stuff” until he does what you ask.   This is a very powerful training tool that I use whenever I can.

So in Chase’s case, the less likely behavior is coming when called; the more likely behavior is running out into the yard to hunt for bunnies.  I have treats and his favorite squeaky mouse right by the door to give as a bonus, but the real reinforcement for coming is the magic word “OK”, which means “run back outside and do what you want”.   I no longer use the word “Come” (which was the poisoned cue mentioned above).  Instead, I say “Touch” and hold my open hand out to my side, which means “put your nose to my palm”.  This was a game I taught earlier that Chase loves.  When he comes to me with the “Touch” cue, I give a treat or the squeaky mouse for a few seconds, then release him with an enthusiastic  “OK!”.  I can now call him from inside the garage with him in the driveway 20 feet away

(our most difficult scenario).  He loves this game and always has a happy grin on his face when I release him back outside.

He occasionally thinks twice about coming, but his average compliance time has decreased from infinity to several seconds.  If he doesn’t respond promptly to my first request, I make the exercise easier by moving closer to him and trying again until he is successful.  I release him back into the yard 90% of the time.  The other 10% is when I really need him to come inside.   He doesn’t seem to mind anymore and I always thank him with a special treat or another fun game.

I’ve also used the Premack Principle with nail trimming, which is an event disliked by many dogs.   I trim Chase’s nails at the front door, giving a small treat after each nail.  I then say “OK!” and immediately open the door so he can go flying out.  This works well for us.  Think about various ways you can apply this principle to train your own dog.  I’d love to hear your ideas.

Next month I will talk about crate training – Do’s and Don’ts and tips to make the process go more smoothly.

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8 Responses to Training GSP’s To Listen

  1. phoebe says:

    Hi Naiomi,
    I want a bunny but my mum thinks that it will not happen
    because i have one GSP and a kelpie cross. She thinks that the dogs will
    hurt the bunny. I’ve been trying to research but I can not
    find anything because they are hunting and sheep dogs. If you can please respond and
    state your opinion and what you would do that would help a lot!

    • Simba's Mom says:

      Hi Phoebe! Have the dogs been trained as hunting dogs? Both Simba and Gypsy are considered a hunting breed but have not been trained to hunt. They both get along beautifully with kittens and cats. The biggest issue would be the difference in size. Gypsy is still a pup and very playful and sometimes forgets that she is much bigger and pounces on the cat as she does when playing with Simba. Simba is older and is much more gentle with her smaller playmates.

    • Tracey Sam Marshall says:

      We have a bunny and gsp. The bunny and gsp were not raised together. When we got gsp qe were worried but slowly and carefully introduced them to each other with supervision and kots of positive reinforcement. Bunny has free reign of the house and he and gsp coexist and have for 3 years without supervision. The worst thing the dog does to the rabbit is eat his carrots!

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  3. Naomi Heck says:

    Hi Carl,
    Young puppies of retrieving breeds are often easy to teach during playtime with them, but not all. I have worked with some Labrador Retrievers for service work that required intensive training to instill a desire to retrieve because they were just not naturally interested. I would have someone skilled at training upland hunting gun dogs to evaluate your puppies and suggest how to go about training. Proper training can’t be rushed. Provided you are comfortable with the training methods used, it might be worth asking a professional to train you dogs to hunt since you do not have the time. There are humane and inhumane methods for teaching a retrieve. Again, make sure you ask for details on how it is taught, and that you agree that is how you want your dogs to be taught. Just an FYI, gun dog training without the use of aversives like shock collars is not very common yet, but awareness is slowly increasing. A good book on the topic is Jim Barry’s *Positive Gun Dogs*. Chapter 6 is called Basics of Retrieving and is worth reading even if you don’t have time to do it. Also, if your trainer says he/she uses the “ear pinch” technique, look into that so you know exactly what that is. It is an outdated method and there are better ways. I can hardly watch videos of someone doing it, and wouldn’t want to expose my dogs to that technique! Hope this helps.


  4. Carl says:

    i have two puppies nearing a year old that i have trouble getting to retrieve and one is not alway interested in hunting. we have other friends we hunt upland birds with whom we get together with out in the field with pen raised birds trying to get puppies started. i am working so many hours right now and do not have time for at home training. need help

  5. Naomi Heck says:

    I commend you for adopting an adolescent GSP. Going to a new home where life is unfamiliar can be a frightening experience. Dogs that have not been extensively socialized before the age of 4 months naturally become wary of new situations and people. It is also quite common for dogs to be behaviorally inhibited the first few weeks after adoption. Trainers often call this the “honeymoon period”. They become more confident and show their “true colors” as they adjust to their new surroundings.

    The fact that your dog is well behaved and friendly at home with family members but reacts in a threatening manner toward strangers is a sure sign that he was not adequately socialized as a puppy. Unfortunately, early experiences during the developmentally crucial early months cannot be “made up for” with mere exposure later. Although there is much that can be done as far as remedial training, it takes time, patience, commitment, and most importantly, a calm living environment where stress levels don’t spike on a regular basis. Being a parent myself, I know it can be quite difficult, if not impossible, to provide what a reactive fearful dog needs to be balanced and relaxed.

    When children are in the home, I am very concerned because it is so easy fora dog to become defensive even though the children may mean well. Children by nature can be active, unpredictable, and impulsive. They are not capable of reading and interpreting a dog’s subtle body language that indicates he needs more space. Any dog, no matter how sweet, is capable of biting when threatened enough.

    Your dog should never be reprimanded (“corrected”) for growling or showing discomfort. This is not a matter of insufficient exercise, and has nothing to do with breed. I have seen numerous dogs with similar issues, and they have been of all breeds, even the so-called gentle breeds. The common denominator is insufficient positive experiences early in life, and sometimes one or more bad experiences (not necessarily abuse) during an impressionable stage of development. Unfortunately, many come from rescue organizations and shelters, although there is currently a trend among good shelters with adequate staffing to extensively test dogs for aggression prior to placing them up for adoption.

    Behavior modification (training) involves structured desensitization and counter-conditioning, resulting in changing the underlying emotional response to what your dog dislikes. It is best done with professional guidance. I urge you to contact an experienced veterinary behaviorist (board certified), a certified applied animal behaviorist (CAAB), or a certified behavior consultant as soon as possible for guidance. This is not easy, and support is out there to assist you in making a decision that is best for everyone, including your dog.


  6. jennifer says:


    My family recently adopted a one-year-old male GSP from a shelter. Apparently he came from a family with older children/teens, dogs, and cats. We have three young boys (under age seven) and a cat. I work mostly from home so am able to spend lots of time with him. Here’s the issue. He is wonderful in the house; he is generally calm and well-behaved. However, about a week after we got him, he started becoming very protective of the house. He barks aggressively at any movement or sound from neighboring houses (beyond our fence). He barks and growls aggressively (from the window) whenever he sees someone walk down the sidewalk in front of our house. Any time someone comes to the door, he is protective, even after I’ve opened the door and started talking with the person. And what really concerns me is that he lunged at and barked/growled at a mom and her five-year-old son while on a leashed walk after I had been talking with them and they went to pet him. He also charged at my son’s friend when they walked through the front door together. Other times I’ve had him around friends of mine with children he’s done fine.

    I walk/jog him for 45 min to an hour every morning. My husband takes him along on a bike ride every evening. I take him with me and my kids in the car sometimes when we run short errands. We play with him in the back yard and take him for hikes (on leash) sometimes. As far as training, I am trying to teach him “quiet” by giving him the command and treating him with extra special treats after he stops barking. I am also bringing a treat to the door when someone knocks and give him the quiet command while holding his collar.

    He did not show any of this behavior the first week. He was very quiet and docile. But now his protective/aggressive behavior seems to be getting out of hand. I did not think that this was a common GSP trait. And to see him inside the house, he is so calm and good-natured and so sweet with us (his family) and other extended family members who come over. I just don’t know how much time to give training. I am saddened by the possibility of having to give him back (though it is a real possibililty). I am concerned about his unpredictability with strangers, particularly children (though he’s always been good with mine). We’ve had him one month. I would welcome your opinion and any suggestions. Do you have any experience with this type of behavior or with rescued GSPs?

    Thanks for your time,


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