Interview with Thomas Stokke

When we wrote the book “Retrieving for All Occasions” it was very important for us to spread the knowledge that it is possible to do gun dog training with positive reinforcement methods. (With positive dog training we mean that you train your dog without physical and/or verbal corrections that can be perceived as unpleasant for the dog).

We want to continue to spread the knowledge that this is possible, we feel that it is almost a mission for us – to spread the word! That’s why we would like to publish an interview with Thomas Stokke who is an excellent instructor and dog trainer and he will answer a couple of questions and give you a couple of tips about gun dog training. Enjoy!

DSC_0203-680x1024Name: Thomas Stokke
Lives: Fjugesta outside of Örebro, Sweden
Experience with dogs: Trained dogs for 20 years and competed in obedience, search and rescue, agility, field trials for pointing dogs and spaniels, and herding.
Does: Own the company Klickerklok with his wife Fanny Gott. They teach classes IRL as well as online. Thomas and Fanny published a book about shaping in Swedish in 2012.
Dogs: Working cocker Kat (several placements in winner class at field trials for spaniels), Pogue (highest class in search and rescue and obedience, first price in novice field trial for spaniels), GWP Pax (First price in open field trial for pointing dogs in Norway), English setter Pi (Third price in open field trial for pointing dogs in Norway), GWP Alot (puppy),, Border collie Sarek (Open trials in herding), Border collie Volt and Nicks (puppies). Past dogs: Border collie Win (3rd in Swedish Nursery Final for herding dogs 2012).

Why do you do gun dog work?
I have been hunting birds for more than 10 years, but it’s not the same without a dog. Hunting with a gundog gives a new dimension to the experience of hunting. I started with pointing dogs in Norway and I now I also have cockers.

What is the philosophy behind your training method?
All distractions are potential rewards. Use that to your advantage. Teach your dog that it always pays off to engage in the activity that you invite to – always!

Why do you train the way you do?
I have previously trained dogs with both corrections and luring, but I did find clicker training before I got my first gundog. It was then given that I would keep working with the principles for clicker training in field training too.

When I watch gundogs who doesn’t listen (regardless of what method they are trained with), I always see that the cause of all problems are positive reinforcement. Hunting is such a strong reinforcer that it maintains a lot of unwanted behaviors – it’s so strong that dogs will take incredibly hard corrections without changing for the better. So why not turn it around and use all distractions as rewards. We want our dogs to hunt, flush game and retrieve. They just have to do it when we tell them to.

Another important factor is that I want dog training to be enjoyable for myself. If I don’t like what I’m doing to my dog, then I won’t train that much, and the dog won’t be more obedient.

Are there any disadvantages?
One disadvantage with reward based training is that it’s not very common in many places. You can then feel alone and have problems with other people not understanding you. It might also be harder to find someone who can help you and share ideas with you.

My best advice is to keep far away from theoretical discussions. Use your time to train your dog with people who respect your methods during foundation training. When your foundation is solid and your dog is under control, it probably won’t be a problem to train with people who use other methods. You can then learn a lot from experienced hunters.

What role models or sources of inspiration do you have?
I like to learn new things about dog training all the time, and there are many people that have inspired my training. I’ve found a lot of inspiration in Susan Garrett’s take on reward based training that covers a lot of areas.

I’m also very inspired by my students, and I have to mention Astrid Ellefsen who made a Norwegian Field Trial Champion out of her Münsterlender (By the way – in Norway the Münsterlenders compete against all pointing breeds like setters and pointers. A champion in Norway has to be a great hunting dog!).

How do you regulate your dogs level of arousal in your training?
thomas2By having calmness as a criteria for work, and by variation in the training.

What’s the most important thing to consider when training a dog from puppyhood to excellence in hunting?
Be practical! Exercises are for the obedience field – gundogs are supposed to be functional hunting dogs. Repeating exercises is seldom worth it. Generalize a few simple behaviors and don’t put so much effort into details.

If you are only allowed to choose one thing that you think is most important to train in order to get a dog to perform great in field trials or in the gun dog work, what is that? (What is on the top of your list?)
If I’m going to chose one thing that takes training, it would have to be a stop signal to be able to control the dog.

But without the drive to hunt (a really good search for game), you don’t have a hunting dog, only an obedient dog. Even if the dog is well bred it still needs experience with game in different settings to become good. I guess I’m less of a control freak now than I used to be.

Thank you very much for this interview, Thomas! Good luck with all training and trials in the future.

We hope that many of you have been inspired by the interview with Thomas. We will continue to interview interesting dog trainers. Tell us if you would like to know more about somebody!

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