Editors Note: Part 3 in a Series
It has taken two columns to get to this point, but your dog is ready to finish the trained retrieve, sans e-collar work—there’s always more to be done with gun dogs, I know. For now, this an excellent start, provided you get through the next phase, which begins with the ear pinch (you should not have employed this method until now).
At this point, your dog should be completely comfortable with a gloved hand in his mouth and understand the “hold” command. Tether your dog and slip a hand under his collar. With the same hand, use the corner of your thumbnail to apply light pressure to his ear.
It’s a new wrinkle in the routine and your dog might be confused. If you have to go back to a jowl pinch, do so. It may take five or 10 sessions with the ear pinch, but your dog should start to learn to open his mouth as soon as you put a little pressure on his ear. When he does open his mouth, put the gloved hand in. If he doesn’t, increase the pressure slightly. You don’t want to hurt or panic him, so be cognizant of that. Use light pressure to get him to comply.
When he does allow you to place the gloved hand in his open mouth, release the pressure on his ear immediately. The goal is to get him to anticipate the pressure and open his mouth, which to him, is a trade-off where he prefers the gloved hand over the pinch. It’s simple, but important.
If he seems to get it, repeat the drill, but make sure your gloved hand is an inch from his nose. The goal is to get him to move his head a bit to get the glove in his mouth. As soon as he does, release the pressure.
ADD A FETCHING STICK
Provided your dog grasps what is going on so far, you can incorporate a fetch stick into the drill. I make these simple tools out of a PVC pipe or a wooden dowel that is no more than an inch in diameter.
To get him to take hold of the fetch stick, go back to the jowl pinch. Once you apply pressure and he opens his mouth, insert it. Don’t be surprised if he doesn’t want to hold this new object, but again, be patient. He’s just used to the glove and this is something new. If necessary, you can hold the muzzle shut while telling him to “hold,” which reinforces the command.
Expect some resistance here, but remember it won’t take him long to learn he’d rather have the stick in his mouth than the pressure on his jowls. This may take 15 sessions or more, but he’ll get there. Then move on to the ear pinch, and as he progresses, start holding the fetch stick an inch off his nose so that he has to reach slightly to get it.
If this happens consistently, ask for two inches and then three. If he stumbles on this drill, back up the distance.
When he gets to the point where he’ll reach a couple inches to take the fetch stick, start incorporating the “fetch” command and add a new wrinkle. Instead of holding the fetch stick directly in front of him, hold it lower so he has to reach down. You can gradually move it farther and farther from him toward the platform so he has to pick it up (as he will any object).
Once you’ve gotten this far, you’ll probably (hopefully) notice he is fully anticipating the ear pinch and will eagerly open his mouth to avoid it. This is progress and a good indicator he understands what is going on.
TIME TO WALK
After all this, I like to use a different elevated training table where the dog is no longer tethered to teach him to walk with an object in his mouth. Again, anticipate failure with this new step. He may want to spit the fetch stick, but keep your hand in his collar and your thumb on his ear so he understands the pressure comes when the stick isn’t where you want it to be.
It’s important at this stage to not only anticipate failure, but also relax and not punish the dog for messing up. He is going to, but how you react will set the tone for the training session. Give him the opportunity to get it right and succeed, and you’ll see progress.
Once he can walk on the training table without dropping the fetch stick, back up to the tethered table and restart the process with other objects. This could be a rolled-up towel or a two-inch piece of PVC pipe wrapped in tape, but not the dummy you use for his fun retrieves.
It’s tedious, I know, but you’ve got to go through the stages of forcefetching with each object again. The good news is the success should come quickly because your dog knows the drill by now.
After he is good with four or five objects, repeat the drills while the dog is on the ground, which will take time to master. Eventually, your dog should be able to pick up, hold, and bring an object back to you to the heel position without any hiccups (this might require a 30-foot check cord in the early stages). If he can, then it’s time to introduce his fun dummy, dead birds, and then live birds. He should easily fly through these objects after the groundwork you’ve already laid so no matter what you ask him to pick up, hold, and bring to you, he will. If he doesn’t, don’t panic. This is a matter of going back to before the failure occurred and letting him find success so that his confidence will follow. This is a process that takes time, but you can’t hurry it because you could potentially sour your dog on retrieves by going too fast. The result will be a retrieve-loving duck dog that does what he needs to do every time.
And we all want that.