Interview with Bill Hillmann and his Training Philosophy-Part 2

Written by: Dennis Voigt - January 01, 2014



by Dennis R. Voigt




his is a continuation of excerpts from my discussion with Bill Hillmann in September 2013. Part 1 is in the Fall Issue 2013 of Retrievers ONLINE.

                        We talked at some length about learning from others, especially from other disciplines. I described how some of the natural horsemanship teachers talked about “making the right things easy for the horse and the wrong things difficult for the horse.” The right things are rewarded by releasing the horse and doing something the horse thinks is good or wants to do. In contrast, when the horse acts up, things get difficult such as being put to work doing circles for awhile. Bill explained that this is similar to his philosophy about training dogs. He likes to do what could be labeled “contrast training.”


Bill: One of the ways that we teach a dog what we want is by showing him the contrast between what he wants to do and what I want him to do. We have the negative when he does not do what I want and the positive when he does what I want. The positive is this enormous amount of praise and fun and saying, “Yes that’s what I want” and the negative is a 15 minute obedience session. After awhile the dog thinks I would rather have ‘this’ than ‘that’; they figure that out. Note, that you haven’t taken anything away from them. You haven’t reduced anything in them but you have created the contrast. We use contrast all the time. Rex Carr said it is the training ‘ying’ and the ‘yang’. Sometimes you do the opposite of what the dog wants. It’s a way of saying he doesn’t get to do what he wants, he gets to do what you want. But, the thing that I have discovered and it’s very universal is that when a dog makes a mistake he gets a correction. But when he does it right few say anything! So, one of the things that I want is a conditioned response. Example – when a puppy picks up a dummy every time you tell him, “good,” right then! I want a dog to want that praise. He is doing everything he can to get it. He wants to dig that bird out – he wants to please you.


Dennis: I know some that think their dog is doing everything just to please them. But frankly, most dogs haven’t been conditioned the way you describe and many of them are doing things just to get what they like – be it birds, lack of correction, food, whatever. It is probably like a lot of the horse training I mentioned to you being based on the horse’s desire for safety, comfort, food and not being hassled. But in the process they end up wanting to be with you and working with you and being a cooperative partner.


Bill: Yes, the puppy will want to please you but that also means he wants to please himself – so it’s the same thing. He likes praise. He gets it if he does it right. If you are consistent, he gets the praise, he likes the praise and in this way becomes happy to do it your way. So it’s the same as your horse example. Why don’t we investigate these horse people more and others like them? Why do we think we retriever people know everything? Most retriever people are not very well versed in other disciplines.


Dennis: Yes, agreed! I wrote a bit about this last summer when I mentioned how we could learn from many other sports and very accomplished athletes like Jordan or Gretzky or great coaches.


Bill: Yes, but how did he get that way? It’s one thing to say “learn from Michael Jordan” but how many are going to study what he did and then dig into it. What did his mother say, what did his coach observe, how many hours a day did he practice, what did he do compared to others? Then you can learn something!


Dennis: Well, you probably know there are several books on him describing that – I have them and you can learn the positive and the negative of what he did. Are we off-topic?


Bill: Not at all if you are going to get dogs trained. Why not study peak performance ideas for example? But most want the short cut or just the procedure.


Dennis: Yes, you hear the question all the time – how many feet apart should the dummies be. Rarely do you hear questions about philosophy or approach or how to better oneself. I suppose it is natural for the newbies to focus on the how rather than the why. It is also a mistake to think they should know at the outset how much effort it takes or how much the top people work and practice fundamentals.


Bill: Practice. This is another one of my favourite topics. People who train dogs will spend some time teaching the dog something and the dog gets it. He learns to ‘kennel’ or to ‘sit’. Why is it that the fundamentals of retriever training are learned and then abandoned? Why is that they are taught and then they don’t get it again like that. Think about the musicians that practice basics and not just play music. Retriever trainers aren’t like that.

            Note: This led us to long discussion about practice and training setups, what a typical day would be like and how different dogs require different strategies. In the two previous days, we had worked our 4-5 month old puppies with a series of 4-5 roving marks with “fire drill” marking, first on land and then on water (“fire drilling” is throwing more marks while the dog is en route – it’s a great way to extend the youngsters and keep them focused on a target). For the puppies, Bill thought these were good enough sessions for the day, but that he would add a one-on-one 30 minute walk with the pup with a bumper handy for a variety of retrieves. A couple of my older dogs and one of Bill’s had 3-4 marks punching across water, some retired, and interrupted with a land-water blind. The very hot weather and other commitments prevented more. I felt this was insufficient work. Bill agreed and would liked to have added at the very least, a session beforehand of walking singles where the dog just went out and nailed a few marks. This is the sort of practice that is routine but keeps fundamentals alive. He felt that the big dogs had all had a very good lesson and cautioned that, while additional work was to be considered, beware! If your additional work results in more big corrections or conflicting lessons, you can undo what you had gained with less work. He noted that trainers who try to do everything every day often end up confusing lessons. Sometimes, quitting on a good note or a good lesson is most valuable.

            Then, we discussed tests and repeating. I suggested that just calling them setups rather than tests would help one design lessons that practiced concepts with 2-3 peats and themes rather than just corrections for failure. Bill was quick to point out that he would often come back the next day with the same setup and repeat it BUT with an added wrinkle or challenge or additional distraction. I noted that during the summer when I train alone a lot and on limited grounds, about half the time I wait a few days so that I can get more out of it. Bill replied that generally he comes right back the next day because everything is set up and ready to go and also fresh in the dog’s mind. He likes this kind of repetition because it practices what was learned. If the dog still can’t do it, this also tells him the lesson was not well-learned. I noted that perhaps this is a nice blend of the “never ever repeat” school and the “repeat right now until they get it” school.


Bill: To me this is about practicing and then adding. I tell this story about “Cutter” (NAFC FC AFC Hawkeyes Coast Guard) when we were down in Texas pre-national training and we had this setup and the last chapter of it was that there were 11 birds down on the ground and there were no blinds but he had to remember all that. Not many people can convince me that’s not a good thing to do for this level of dog. I have seen no evidence that this harmful.


Dennis: Well, there are many dogs that can’t do that and you are talking about Cutter who achieved a very high level.


Bill: Yes, so let’s take 3 birds and now 5 and stretch his memory. Get them thinking and get them more thoughtful about how they do these things.


Dennis: Bill, I can’t let this end without talking about Derby dogs and marking – your claim to fame. Let’s talk Derby dogs in general. Among the good upper list Derby dogs, how many don’t make it big league and why not?

Bill: Well, I don’t really know about many of them. I do know of one really good dog and, incidentally, a good producer but he never made an FC. It was because he didn’t have good fundamentals, wouldn’t stop on a whistle and wasn’t very steady. I even heard a story that this dog was so spectacular that even though he could barely deliver to hand, he won a derby under a top judge who was renowned for strict obedience.

            Generally, many of the great markers went on to succeed. They might have had problems but most got solved because they were spectacular dogs. They found a way to do it.


Dennis: On the flip side, are there not many examples of dogs that had few Derby points but went on to greatness?


Bill: Yes, there were many of those. Super Chief had 5 derby points. I think it’s fairly common for people like you these days not to run many Derbies because they are devoted to working for the All-Age. But, even if you are focused on nationals, I want to take this young dog and really develop his marking skills.


Dennis: Let’s talk about the newer owners and running their first dog in the Derby/Junior. I see some Good, Bad and the Ugly. The Good is that they get hooked, they get their feet wet, and they get great experience. That first ribbon can be a huge event. It gets them in the game. At the same time, I see people getting very frustrated at field trials. If they came from a hunt test background, they expect to get a ribbon for a pass most weekends. They can go to a field trial and their dog can do pretty good and they get kicked out. In the minor stakes, sometimes the judging can be erratic and hard to accept. But the final thing, the Ugly, is that dogs can develop habits that become lifelong bad habits at trials. So with your experience with Derby dogs and having seen the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, what advice do you give?


Bill: A big subject. If you want to run the 100 yard dash and you are slow, you are not going to get even fourth. It takes a pretty mature person to recognize when they don’t know how to train well enough or when their dog is not good enough to play. That’s the first thing.


Dennis: Most newbies wouldn’t automatically know those two things.


Bill: Yes, and that is why they need a friend, some coaching one way or another. As far as bad habits, you should ask if you should even enter a trial or go duck hunting or do anything if you are not prepared. It’s like, should you even mow your lawn if you don’t know how to operate the machine? C’mon! People want to do things but not always do the work. I understand that they want to get ribbons and I support that. The hunt tests can provide that without the competition. But when there is competition it is different. Now you have to be prepared because others will be. There is a process and you need to follow it. But you are right, you can develop bad habits if your dog is not prepared. But if it is not prepared, it may not make it whether you run trials or not. There have been exceptions, but it takes a lot of work or know-how to fix some things.



Dennis: I can’t let you go without talking a bit about marking, although maybe in many ways we have been talking about it all the time. I am sure we could spend many hours on this topic.


Bill: If you’re talking about field trials – what does it say in the Rule Book?


Dennis: Of “Primary Importance!”


Bill: Yes, nothing but “primary importance” and that is one of the reasons why it is of “primary importance” to me. That’s what I love – a dog that learns to mark.


Dennis: I understand that you are not planning on producing a separate video on marking but that you are planning on doing a series on one of your websites about marking. Tell me about that!


Bill: I decided that it is so important to understand the process of teaching the dogs to mark. That’s a big word, “process,” and everybody is going to say, isn’t it genetics or natural ability? I am saying that the training process is a big part of a dog that gets to be a good marker. I have decided that it’s important enough that I want to make what I know available to anybody that wants it. I am doing a series of short videos on this topic of marking starting with the basics of marking. Marking is the concept of watching a bird to a spot and then going to that spot. There are so many factors that go into whether a dog can actually get there or not. Did he see it? Were there some hazards on the way? Were there distractions? Does he even want to go? Is he a dog that can’t wait to get there? It’s an endless and huge and wonderful topic.


Dennis: This is on your website Do you have to subscribe or anything?


Bill: No, you just go there and there are a variety of video clips that you can watch.


Dennis: Well, thanks, Bill. I encourage readers to have a look and we’ll be tuned to your future thoughts on marking!  


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Written by: Dennis Voigt| January 01, 2014
Categories:  Miscellany

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