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Force Fetch

by Amy Dahl, Ph.D.

Amy Dahl is also the co-author, with her husband, John, of Retriever Troubleshooting - Strategies & Solutions to Retriever Training Problems.

FORCE FETCHING RETRIEVERS is difficult, especially when you lack experience. When a dog does not respond, do you need to apply more pressure, less pressure, ease up on requirements, shorten the session, or perhaps bear down and keep trying until he gets it? Even experienced trainers can find it hard to read a dog that is doing nothing.

To force fetch more efficiently, with less distress to both dog and trainer, consider what you are trying to accomplish. You want the dog to "fetch" from the ground on command, reliably, carry dog training dummies and birds without dropping or mishandling them, and deliver properly. Finally, you are teaching a constructive response to "pressure" for use in future retriever training. The majority of force-fetching struggles arise from the trainer's failure to recognize that dogs do not automatically understand pressure. You must teach the dog that he can make the pressure stop by finding the right response. While some dogs can be force fetched in a few days, others must be taken slowly, to bolster the notion that they can, through their responses, control what happens to them.

Many of us have heard that noncompliance means dogs are resisting and require convincing that the trainer's will is law. We no longer wholly agree with this interpretation. If force is involved, we think refusals most often mean that the training foundation is inadequate. Either the action called for is over his head, or he does not understand that he can "turn off the pressure" by his response, or both. Obvious as the required action is to us, we have failed to get the message across.

A question we have not yet answered is whether resistance is essential to force-fetching success. Force fetching is something of a black box-the focus is on bringing retrieving under the trainer's control, but along the way other things happen. Most notably, obedience improves sharply; we don't know exactly what causes this. We have had some retrievers, particularly bitches, come through force fetching smoothly, with little resistance. But when we attempted field work, we found that the force-fetching didn't "take." The retrievers in question failed to deliver properly, dropped dummies, refused to pick them up, and did not demonstrate the anticipated gain in overall compliance. When we returned to force-fetching, we encountered resistance, worked through it, then achieved the desired results. Does this indicate that we must provoke and overcome resistance in order to get a dog thoroughly force-fetched?

We don't operate on the notion that dogs defy us or want to take control. We do find that some "test" us, trying out options other than compliance. When dogs test us during force-fetching, where we have control over the dog, the effect carries over into field work. Some resistance may be conducive to thorough force-fetching. Persistent refusals, however, usually call for simplification of the process. Having described the assumptions with which we approach force-fetching, we now turn to specific problems.

Extraneous Responses
Some dogs try to escape pressure from the ear pinch or toe hitch by struggling to get away, lying down, or biting. While we are sympathetic to dogs who fail to grasp the reason for the discomfort, we must teach them that they can succeed only by taking the dummy in their mouths. As long as dogs think they can stop pressure by other means, they will not develop the habit we are trying to instill.

If you are force-fetching on the ground and your retriever is solid on the "Sit" command, repeating "Sit" with a correction will often do the trick. Some otherwise obedient retrievers, however, are so upset by the ear pinch that prior training seems to escape them. Physical restraint is effective for removing options, and lessens attempts to escape pressure by struggling. We train without restraint when possible, and we reward correct responses with a break and some heeling. If it doesn't work, we use restraint.

There are a variety of ways to restrain dogs. Some truss them to a bench or table. Usually they are restrained by the neck, sometimes with a strap around the belly as well. We use solid tables, but other trainers say that a less stable bench reduces resistance. Restraints may be attached to a plywood board behind the table, or to a cable or shelf above the dog. Working on a table is easier on the trainer's back, but you can also restrain dogs on the ground. You can stretch a cable between two trees and construct a fixed point to attach his collar with a bolt snap. An oversized collar strap, for his belly, may be added. Thus restrained, most dogs will soon focus on the desired response-taking the dummy.

Fighting the pressure occurs mostly early during force-fetching. Sometimes it starts when we try to make them pick up dummies from the ground. Instead of struggling with these dogs, we use a restraint that allows them to pick up dummies from the ground, but little else. It consists of two check cords attached to separate buckle collars. One check cord is attached to a tree, and we hold, or stand on, the other. Confined by cords stretching in opposite directions, a retriever can lower his head to the ground, but can do little else to escape pressure. We have been successful, by keeping the cords taught, in preventing dogs from reaching us to bite. We acknowledge, however, that there are probably dogs that are more inclined to bite than those we have trained, and urge caution in training any dog that displays aggression. We do not respond directly to attempts to bite. We use restraints and heavy gloves for protection, adjust pressure, and reduce difficulty to promote the desired response fetching-over biting

Occasionally dogs resist vigorously when force-fetching is almost complete. We have found that if we reduce our demands and give them opportunities to succeed, they will usually cooperate. Their struggles seem to say, "I get it! Let me show you."
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