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A Primer On Force-Breaking

Trainers insist on force fetch for good reason.

What Is It?

Here's a dictionary-like definition: Force-breaking is a structured training procedure in which you teach your dog to hold and carry an object on the command Fetch (or Hold), to release it on the command Give (or Leave it or Out or Drop) and finally to reach for and pick up the object on the command Fetch.

"Structured" means that you follow a fixed series of training steps. First, your dog learns to accept and hold the object. That done, he learns to carry it. Next he learns to reach an inch or so for it. Then he learns to reach farther and farther for it. Finally, he learns to pick it up off the ground.

Initially, the object should be a "training buck," which is a 12-inch piece of 1.25-inch wooden dowel with legs on both ends to hold it up off the ground. After taking your dog through all the steps with this buck, you repeat them with various retrieving dummies and birds.

Beginning with the step in which you teach your dog to reach for the object, you use mild force to induce him to obey the command Fetch. The most commonly used methods of force are the ear-pinch and the paw-squeeze. This force teaches your dog that he must reach and that he must pick it up.

Why Do it?

Most experienced retriever trainers routinely force-break their dogs for several reasons. First, it insures reliable delivery to hand. The non-force-broken retriever often drops birds rather than delivering them. This is especially aggravating in water work, where the dog drops the bird on the shoreline to shake water from his coat. A force-broken retriever normally won't drop birds, but even when he does, he'll pick them up again on the command Fetch.


In multiple marks, reliable delivery to hand improves the dog's marking by smoothing the between-bird transition. The force-broken dog delivers each bird at heel and then focuses on the next bird to be retrieved. The non-force-broken dog may play various games with the bird, tossing it up, dropping and picking it up, lunging after it and so on. These not only waste time, but they also dim the dog's memory of the birds remaining to be retrieved.

Force-breaking also establishes a framework for dealing with two nasty mouth problems that may crop up at any time, namely, hardmouth and stickiness. If the dog has been force-broken, curing these problems is easy. However, the various methods sometimes recommended for curing a non-force-broken dog (nails driven through a dead bird, and so forth) have one thing in common: They don't work, at least not for long!

Finally, field trial trainers use force-breaking as a basis for certain blind retrieve lining and casting drills, like "driving to a pile," which is an "anti-no-go" drill.

Force-Breaking History

Just as they borrowed the blind retrieve from herding dog trainers, retriever trainers borrowed force-breaking from pointing dog trainers. Back in the 1880s, pointing dog trainer David Sanborn developed force-breaking to teach elementary retrieving to bird dogs that have little or no natural retrieving instinct. Since that's a common failing among pointing dogs, especially the long-tailed types, his force-breaking technique became popular among his peers rather quickly. The Sanborn method is slow and gentle because pointing dog trainers have always been concerned about style and what they call "class" in their dogs.

For many decades, retrieverites scoffed at force-breaking, saying. As late as 1949, James Lamb Free, in his classic, Training Your Retriever, all but foamed at the mouth at the very thought of force-breaking a retriever. (He did, however, recommend teaching retrievers to hold on command, apparently unaware that this is the first step in force-breaking.) However, they gradually discovered the above-listed other reasons for force-breaking. The 1968 classic Charles Morgan on Retrievers recommends force-breaking every retriever.

However, professional retriever trainers have a problem that precludes David Sanborn's slow and gentle technique. Every pro knows that, after a client drops his dog off for training, said client will return in about 30 days to check on his dog's progress. To keep the dog, the pro must make significant headway within that 30-day period. For the pointing breed pro, the improvement must be in ground pattern and bird-handling. The owner won't care much about retrieving right away, so the pro can force-break at a very leisurely pace (ala Sanborn). However, the retriever pro must make significant progress specifically in retrieving, and he knows he can't do much beyond puppy stuff until force-breaking is completed. Thus, he must force-break in about a week, so he can have three weeks to advance the dog's retrieving in the field. Necessarily, therefore, retriever pros developed what I call "Hell Week" force-breaking, which is quick and effective, but some considerable distance from gentle.

Thus, in the retriever world, force-breaking acquired a bad name. To escape this opprobrium, retriever people started changing the name on a regular basis: "force-fetch," "force-training," "the trained retrieve" and so on. Each term has taken on the same bad name, and for the same reason. I prefer the original term, force-breaking, because it reveals so much about the history of this training procedure. Back in the late 19th century, when Mr. Sanborn invented it, most pointing dog trainers were also horse trainers. Therefore, horse-training terms have always permeated the language of pointing dog trainers. For example, "Whoa!" Then, too, a horse trainer doesn't train a horse; he "breaks" it. Thus, when a pointing dog trainer trains his dog in obedience, he "yard-breaks" him. When he steadies his dog to wing and shot, he "breaks" him and a steady pointing dog is a "broke dog." Since among horse trainers, "breaking" is a synonym for "training," the term force-breaking was quite natural for David Sanborn and his fellow pointing dog pros.

In the past 25 years, professional retriever trainers have improved their force-breaking technique substantially, primarily because of improvements in the electronic collar that have rendered it more gentle and reliable. Judicious use of the e-collar in force-breaking has made the process less physical, less painful for the dog and less abhorrent in polite society, without taking excessive time. Then, too, the "training table" has made the process less tiring for both trainer and dog.

Should You Force-Break?

If you have hunt test or field trial ambitions, you should force-break your retriever. Otherwise, you'll repeatedly waste time, entry fees and travel expenses because your dog doesn't deliver to hand consistently under judgment. If you're a hunter who can't be satisfied with less than perfection in your dog's work, you should force-break him. However, if you're a hunter with a more casual attitude, you can get by following James Lamb Free's recommenda

tion that you teach your canine buddy only the Hold and Give commands. Keep in mind, however, that many retrievers develop hardmouth or stickiness problems after retrieving a lot of birds. If yours does this, you'll have to stop everything, including hunting, while you force-break him before you can truly cure either of these problems. If you force-break him now, before the problem crops up, you'll probably save yourself a lot of hunting time later.

If you decide to force-break your retriever (which I frankly recommend to all), you should use the slow and gentle Sanborn technique, not Hell Week, not even in the current gentled-down version. You're not a pro, so no one will take your dog away from you if you spend a month or so force-breaking him. My book, Training Retrievers for the Marshes & Meadows (available from the Wildfowl Bookshelf), devotes an entire chapter to the Sanborn method. By using it as described there, you'll force-break your dog without the e-collar and so gently that you can invite your neighbors and their kids to watch every session without fear of offending the most sensitive spectator.

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