We are now getting into the nitty gritty of training a retriever. We will cover the concept of teaching “Hold” and then “Force Fetching”. In the first phase we teach “Hold”. Another label we might put on this behavior is “Pressure Conditioning” Phase 1. Studies have clearly demonstrated that positive reinforcement only does not work. Dogs and children must have boundaries.
Put the dog up on a table, bench or other platform so you can work with the dog easier. Professional dog trainers leave their vocation because their backs giving out from bending over so much. You have far more control of a dog when he is on a table. Professionals will have a table with a hook on it situated above the dog. A rope is then fastened to this hook and the rope to the collar. Now you have control of the situation. If the dog really starts to fight you just back away and let him thrash for a while. You are trying to teach the dog to learn to learn. You do this by breaking it down and make the lesson as simple as possible. You are attempting to teach the dog to work with you not fight you. There is a reason veterinarians put pets on an examine table. It gives the vet an edge when it comes to examining the dog and performing procedures.
While controlling the dogs head with one hand put a bumper in the mouth of the dog. You may have to open his mouth to do this. The dog will try and spit it out. Repeat the word “Hold” and have him hold the bumper for a few seconds. Give the command “Out” and praise the dog. Be sure to use pressure and praise in equal measure. In time the dog will accept the bumper willing when placed in his mouth. Gradually increase the time you insist he holds it. Anticipate when he is about to spit it out. You want to be the individual in charge of when the bumper comes out. In time have him hold the bumper and step away from the table for a few seconds. Walk up to the table and say “Out”. Praise him. Later put the dog on the ground while on a leash. Say “Hold” and place the bumper in his mouth. Now go for a short walk while praising him. If he drops it, make it clear that was the wrong thing to do and immediately insert the bumper into the dogs’ mouth while saying “Hold”. When he has perfected the “Hold” command we will make a huge step in his training life.
This brings to us to one of the most important commands “Force Fetching”. I hesitated to cover this concept because there are so many variables. The time it takes to force an individual varies greatly, the methods used to force also are dictated by the individual dog. Amateur trainers shy away from just the word “Force”. A smart person would not even attempt to cover the “How” and “Why” of forcing. Fortunately I have never been overly bright so I willing to attempt it.
This phase might well be called “Pressure Conditioning” Phase 2. I don’t start force fetching until the pup has all its permanent teeth. In physics, the word force means “Influence that changes movement”. This is not a cruel command but it is an essential one. Too many trainers never truly convey this command to the dog – Big Mistake. This is the one command that is not taught, we have lead up to this command by teaching. Now we take a leap biased on a lot of teaching. We impose it. The dog knows how to “Hold” so we use that step to achieve our goal. Some people shrink from “Force Fetching”. That’s OK. Seek a professional or advanced amateur to assist. I find singing Kum bah yah during the training makes it politically correct.
Put the dog on the table, hold his ear in one hand and the bumper in the other. Give the command “Fetch” while simultaneously pinching his ear with your fingernail. He will vocalize, when he opens his mouth, repeat the command “Fetch” and insert the bumper. Stop the pressure on his ear immediately as soon as the bumper is in his mouth. Insist he holds the bumper for a few seconds and then give the command “Out”. Repeat. After a short time, you will be rewarded when you say “Fetch”, his mouth will open and in goes the bumper. We are using pressure to get a result. How much pressure should you apply? That depends on the individual dog. Rex had a saying that summed it up. “The pressure of the correction must exceed the pressure of the cause”. Don’t rush through this lesson – be sure it completely understood before moving on. Reach out for help from a professional if needed. Remember this is a seminal moment for your dog. I have seen too many wonderful dogs ruined at this stage by improper forcing techniques. We are not just teaching a command, we are teaching him how to accept pressure so he can advance in his training. As in all our lessons keep the sessions brief but do be thorough.
Now we go to the next step, say “Fetch” with the bumper a few inches in front of the dog. Apply pressure until he reaches for it. After he reaches for it consistently, lower the bumper a few inches so he has to reach down for it. Continue this until you are holding the bumper on the table and he is picking it up when you say “Fetch”. Now comes the big step. Place the bumper on the table just where you have been holding it. Take your hand off the bumper. Greater than 90% of dogs will not fetch it. That’s OK. Expect it and act. You have released the bumper and put the dog in control. Pinch the dogs’ ear and say “Fetch”. As in all training if he starts to regress go back to where you had success and then advance. The dog is now lunging for the bumper on the table, we next place the dog on the ground and have him “Fetch”.
Once he is proficient at fetching on command place a bumper about 10 feet away. With a leash on the dog, approach the bumper and when you are in the correct position give the “Fetch” command. If your basic work is solid he will pick up the bumper. Many trainers will say “This dog is now “Forced fetched” no he is not. He has been started but not totally forced. In order to be truly forced, pressure must be added. This means putting a bumper on the ground, say “Fetch” and tap the dog on the butt with the heeling stick. Once he gets use to this concept, walk with him say “Fetch”, tap him with the heeling stick and he should lunge for the bumper. In time add the e-collar to the mix. Say “Fetch” and nick on a low but appropriate setting. When correctly forced the demeanor of the dog will change when you give the command. Make it clear to him that this is a command always to be obeyed, never questioned. The entire process and time frame of force fetching correctly done varies with each dog. This is one command where one method does not fit all. Be flexible. Take as much time as needed so the dog truly understands what is expected of him. There is a huge difference between a hard charging high roller to a very soft dog. Make accommodations. Males of all species will achieve the results quicker when given instructions. That is because males always do exactly what they are told.
We will now go the final step of Force Fetching. Running the ladder. Below is an example of running the ladder.
Place 12 bumpers about 3 feet apart so they resemble a ladder on the ground. With the dog on leash walk up to the first bumper and say “Fetch”. “ No problem he says” and grabs it. Now drop the bumper behind you onto its original position and walk to the next bumper, say “Fetch”. When you approach the third bumper say “Fetch” and nick at the same time. Continue with the drill and nick 3 or 4 times out of the 12 retrieves. Turn around and come back along the ladder repeating the process. Don’t be concerned if at some point he balks. You are putting pressure on the dog so he does what you want, not when he feels like doing it. Don’t correct the dog if he lunges over one bumper to get another one in front. He is doing what he thinks you want him to do. He is fetching on your command. You are becoming an advanced trainer with the goal of having a trained dog not just a partial trained dog.
Now go back to the beginning and repeat the steps using dead birds. I once trained with someone whose dog would only pick up domestic birds placed on the ground breast up. That dog was one hell of a trainer.
John Schulte DVM