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Helping You Get the Most From Your Hunting Dogs

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Dogs intolerant of restraint:
We sometimes put dogs on the table from the start. Most adjust quickly, or struggle a little and give up, but a few seem to panic. Sometimes a vigorous fight will cause them to escape the belly strap. Frightened dogs have difficulty learning, and may be better off on the ground. Methods that work on most dogs won't necessarily work on all. If yours doesn't respond "by the book," don't give up. Retriever personalities vary widely. Adapting to individual requirements pays off

Thus far we have not had to go from the ground to the table and back to the ground again. We have, however, had a small number of dogs we thought might have trouble with both approaches. With these we spent several days introducing the table setup, starting with only a loose collar restraint. We created favorable associations, using treats and pats, and kept initial exposure to the table brief. The belly strap was introduced with more petting and treats. In a few days these dogs were jumping onto the table and accepting restraint. We don't know what the results would have been if we'd trained these dogs differently, but all showed fearfulness similar to the ones that panicked.

Dog objects to pressure and/or the initial fetch response is hard to establish:
Most dogs get the basic idea of fetching in response to pressure quickly, and their efforts to avoid pressure by other means soon fade. Some, however, are so distracted by pressure that progress stops. Their focus on what the trainer is doing to them prevents them from making the connection between the dog training dummy in the mouth and the relief of pressure. Some dogs retreat into their boxes or act aggressively when we come to get them for their training session.

Fortunately, there are several means of applying pressure. We use the ear pinch or toe hitch, and occasionally the electric dog training collar in the continuous mode (usually at a low setting). Those dogs that are distracted by one form of pressure will sometimes tolerate another. Some react negatively to the ear pinch. We have found that taking hold of the collar can badly distract dogs, whereas holding a dog training lead attached to the collar usually does not. Holding the collar while applying the ear pinch may be too distracting for some.

We have switched individuals from ear pinch to toe hitch with good results. The toe hitch requires putting dogs on a table, usually with restraints. We have also switched dogs from toe hitch to electric dog training collar with good results. That is, the dogs have seemed to better grasp "turning off pressure," and showed less resistance at the beginning of training sessions.

We are not confident the e-collar is the best for most dogs. Some dogs seem more distracted by collar pressure than by other means. We usually try the toe hitch or ear pinch first, then try the e-collar if the dog responds poorly to the others.

Unstable response:
Some retrievers respond to force-fetching with an aggressive lunge for the dog training dummy. This is okay if the dog is calm but positive, but not so good if he is agitated. If the dog grabs the dummy fast but spits it out, mouths it compulsively and/or drops it, seemingly unable to concentrate and hold on, he may be emotionally worked up. Dogs in this state do not learn as well as those on a more even keel, and are prone to developing mouth problems. It is important to correct this response when you see it, instead of trying to build advanced training on a weak foundation.

A nervous response to force-fetching may be an indication of a dog that is excitable in general, and will benefit from deliberate handling as discussed in the chapters on Mouth Problems and Line Manners. It can also be a sign that too much pressure has been applied. Calm, methodical, low-pressure review of holding and fetching will help in either case. Watch for mouthing and dropping of dummies to reappear as training advances, and don't push ahead too fast.

By "refusals," we mean instances when pressure is applied and the dog makes no move to reach for the dummy. We are convinced that many of these are the result of advancing too fast. No matter how obvious you think you have made your retriever training, simplifying it even more is almost always a good solution to refusals. In dog training, success begets success. Failure tends to lead to more failure. Perhaps a dog loses confidence he can stop the pressure, even though he did so in the past. Keeping sessions short and limiting demands so as to maintain a high success rate gets faster results than trying to jump ahead. Try not to see these adjustments as giving in to a contrary animal, but as controlling his learning by controlling what you ask him to do.

Outside of the Big Three retriever breeds, we have encountered individuals that were extremely difficult to force fetch, including some we could not get retrieving.

Dog won't retrieve following force-fetching:
Many retrievers quit retrieving during force-fetching, but start again after the process is complete. For most others, the walking fetch drill convinces them to pick up and deliver any dummy they see. Gradually increasing the length of tosses will get them retrieving willingly. A few dogs are more reluctant. After all of the formal work on fetching, a retrieve seems out of the question. These dogs must be started retrieving again somehow, before their training can continue.

Different solutions work on different dogs. Try a low-pressure approach first. Be willing to relax obedience demands in the process. Once the dog is retrieving, it's usually easy to clean up the retrieve and get perfect deliveries.

If you can't get a retrieve by informal methods, establish a pile at close range. First, introduce the stick and get your retriever fetching in response to stick pressure. Follow this with a "walking fetch" drill, where dog training dummies are laying on the ground several feet apart and you heel your dog up and have him fetch each, using stick pressure on some of the fetches. This establishes picking up dummies he did not just see you drop. Next start the dog fetching from a "pile" of two dummies, about one step away. Toss both down, have him fetch one and then the other, and repeat. Add pressure with the stick. Move back half a step and repeat. In subsequent sessions, move farther away, keeping the pile at the same location. This goes much more slowly than with a dog that is eagerly retrieving, and it is difficult to get the dog to go unless the pile is in sight. In short cover, you will probably be able to get your dog going the distance of a short hand throw. Next you can try hand throws near the location of the pile, then gradually farther away. Work at this easy distance for a time and wait for the dog's enthusiasm to return.

With dogs that still don't retrieve, we have resorted to forcing the dog all the way to the dummy with the e-collar. We set the collar on continuous at a low level, holding the button down from the time we say "fetch" until the dog gets the dummy. We start at short distances, and lengthen the distance at a pace that maintains success.

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