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Force-Fetching Without "The Collar" - Part I

by Amy Dahl, Ph.D.

Amy Dahl is also the co-author, with her husband, John, of The 10-Minute Retriever - How to Make an Obedient and Enthusiastic Sporting Dog in 10 Minutes a Day.
Force-fetching is the process of making a dog absolutely reliable in its bird/dummy handling and delivery. It converts retrieving from a matter of play to a matter of obedience. It provides a foundation of confidence for advanced training--no matter how confusing or stressful a situation, the dog knows that going when sent is the right thing to do. This confidence is the basis of greater style and intensity than is possible in any play-retrieve.

Although many owners are uncomfortable applying systematic direct pressure (i.e. pain) to their dogs, it is far more humane to force-fetch, and yields infinitely better results, than to situationally reprimand a dog that lacks the foundation to understand clearly what its trainer desires.

Place the dummy in the dog's mouth as described in the text.
Photo by: Author
You do not need an electric collar to force-fetch your dog. The main advantage of the collar is in giving well-timed corrections to a dog working at a distance. For close-in work, other methods of reinforcement are equally or more effective.

Force-fetching may be the most intimidating part of training for the novice. Many feel it can only be done by a professional. Some of the best retriever writers--James Lamb Free, for one--say that it is unnecessary. Others mention it but don’t provide instructions. Why such frustrating vagueness? One reason is that it is done differently for every dog, and experience is a great asset in knowing when to apply pressure, when to let up, and when to move on.

We hope, in this article, to give you the information you need to make these judgments, and to do a good job force-fetching your own retriever. Our procedure works on a wide variety of dogs, including the softest Chesapeakes; while some tough Labs may be rushed through by increasing the pressure, we do not recommend this, particularly for novice trainers.

Support the dog's chin and praise.
Photo by: Author
You do not need an electric collar to force-fetch your dog. The main advantage of the collar is in giving well-timed corrections to a dog working at a distance, with greater safety and less elaborate setups than older methods such as the shotgun, slingshot, or BB gun. For close-in work, other methods of reinforcement are equally or more effective. Many successful collar trainers today teach obedience and force-fetch without the collar, then use the dog’s understanding of commands to introduce electric-shock correction, instead of teaching with the collar.

The first key to successful force-fetching is to judge progress by the dog’s response at each step, not according to what you have done or a timetable of predicted results. No one can tell you how long it will or should take to force-fetch your dog. Dogs vary widely in the time it takes to master force-fetch, and progress depends further on the trainer: how effectively he/she communicates with the dog, consistency of work, etc. Be sure the dog has fully mastered each step before attempting the next. Don’t get hung up on trying to get the job done fast--focus instead on what a good, reliable retriever your dog is going to be.

If necessary, make a loop to put over the dog's muzzle.
Photo by: Author
The second key is patience. Most retrievers will try your patience! Progress in force-fetching is not steady, but tends to go in jumps and breakthroughs (with periods of no apparent progress in between). At some point, or at several points, the lack of correct response is likely to make you feel that you are in a struggle or contest with your dog, and by golly, you are going to win! The way to win is through patience. With continual insistence you will outlast all of your dog’s explorations of how not to fetch properly. Do not be in a hurry; skipping or shortcutting steps will cost you much more time and frustration down the road.

The third key is the dog’s attitude. As Mike Lardy says, "there is no attitude drill." The only way to develop an eager, happy retriever is to maintain the dog’s trust and enthusiasm throughout its training, including force-fetching. This is the most demanding phase of training the dog has yet faced--don’t make it a miserable grind. We want to teach a productive and confident response to training pressure. In every session, mix in movement (heeling, coming when called) and build confidence by reviewing work the dog knows. Some sessions may begin or end with a "happy bumper" if it doesn’t reinforce bad habits like dropping the dummy. Keep sessions short--five minutes is plenty. Do not begin before your dog’s permanent teeth are fully in; it must be able to hold the dummy firmly without pain.

Snug it up and the dummy stays in.
Photo by: Author
Give some thought to your attitude, too. Refrain from trying to evaluate your dog’s quality or potential while you are force-fetching it. Ease of force-fetching has very little to do with the overall quality of the dog, and progress will often seem slow or imperceptible. Do not take this as a reflection on your dog or on you as a trainer.

The details of the procedure, such as commands used, ear pinch vs. toe pinch, and whether or not to use a training table, can be varied with good results. We describe our method, but if you are fortunate enough to work under the supervision of an experienced trainer, we encourage you to follow his or her instructions.

Before beginning force-fetch, the dog must have mastered basic obedience: "heel," "sit," "stay," come when called. It is easiest if the dog wears a choke or pinch collar, to which a check cord is attached, and a wide (one inch) buckle collar adjusted to be snug and ride high on the dog’s neck behind its head.
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