August 17, 2017
Editor's Note: Part 2 in a series
Last issue I broke down the importance of natural hold and carry, the foundation for force fetching, or the trained retrieve. This process of getting a dog to pick something up on command, hold it, return it to you, and release on command, is often viewed negatively by amateur trainers. This is because force fetching is often done wrong due to a lack of understanding the process, or worse, because you try to shortcut it.
This is such an extensive process that covering it all in a single column would require leaving far too much important information out. Instead, I'll break down the beginning stages of force fetching here, and then follow it up next time with the finishing touches. Dogs of all ages and all natural retrieving desires can benefit from force fetching. This is often viewed as a training method for dogs that don't like to retrieve, but that's not true. It's necessary for all duck dogs, but you need to understand what you're doing.
With bird dogs, we are taking a predator and teaching it to bring its prey back to us. Their natural inclination can be to shake the bird to death, or chomp it into submission. This is evident in some young dogs whenever they pick up a toy, but also can occur in seasoned bird dogs after they've dealt with enough crippled birds. Each live bird they get their teeth on is a chance for that natural killing instinct to surface, and over time it might through accumulation. What this means is that force fetching can be equally necessary for dogs as young as six months old, as it is for five-year-old duck-hunting machines that subtly shift into bad behavior. With the latter, the situation can get worse during a single hunting season because when we see a soft-mouthed dog suddenly crunch down on an early-season woodie, we tend to discipline them. If they make it a habit (and they very well might), and we discipline them enough, they'll start to believe that making contact with a downed bird is not something you want them to do. That's bad. Very, very bad.
It's much harder to take care of this problem once it has set in, versus getting ahead of it with the right force-fetch training. If you haven't done so already, you can still teach your dog to force fetch, you just need to be prepared for a lengthy commitment.
The first stage of teaching the trained retrieve is to get a dog to open its mouth. Your duck dog needs to tolerate you opening his mouth up, period. To do this, I like to use a training bench that sits about two-feet off of the ground and allows me to tether the dog in place because I need two hands to do this correctly.
Once the dog is tethered to the training bench, the next step is to use a heavy leather glove. Take your non-gloved hand and place it over his muzzle and apply pressure by pushing his upper jowls against his teeth. As soon as he opens his mouth, put the gloved hand in and clamp your thumb under his jaw so he can't shake free. At this point, your pup is going to struggle.
That's natural, but the next part is so important I can't stress it enough. As soon as he relaxes, remove your gloved hand immediately. Repeat this process six or seven times, always making sure you remove your hand as soon as he relaxes.
Eventually your dog will start to learn he can get rid of your hand simply by not fighting it. This may take six sessions or it may take 20, but at some point he will learn that the easiest way to not have that glove in his mouth is to become compliant. Once he demonstrates this, it's time to leave the glove in his mouth for about 10 seconds. If he struggles, hold your grip until he relaxes just like before. This is also a great point in which to introduce the verbal "hold" command.
You'll probably also start to notice that because of the way you grab him over his muzzle and pinch his jowls up, that he will anticipate that move and open his mouth automatically.
This is a sign the dog is starting to understand that he can avoid the pressure on his jowls, and that the reward for him opening his mouth right away is the glove in his hand. Essentially, at this point you've trained your dog to recognize that he can either have uncomfortable pressure on his jowls or an object in his mouth. He'll take the object every time, which is the basis for the trained retrieve.
THE RIGHT ORDER
By now you've probably noticed I haven't mentioned ear pinching or a toe hitch. This is because up to this point, neither are necessary. I've seen countless amateur trainers try to use these methods to teach force fetching and it rarely goes well.
The idea is the discomfort will cause the dog to open his mouth, which will then allow an object to be placed between his teeth. This is a low-control maneuver, and doesn't always result in the dog suddenly opening his mouth. It's also pretty much a guarantee the dog is going to f lip out — never a good thing.
When I first started training, this was the preferred style. There are still some holdovers who jump directly to an ear pinch or toe hitch, but there are better ways to accomplish our dog-training goals.
Force fetching is fodder for entire books and instructional DVDs because it is a multi-stepped, incredibly nuanced process. If you've encouraged natural hold and carry, and then worked on ensuring your dog will open his mouth and accept an object on command, you're well on your way to having a force-fetched pup, but the job isn't over yet. In the next column I'll break down the process for finishing up with force fetching so that you'll have true control over your duck dog on every at-home and in-field retrieve.