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Forced Retrieve

by George Hickox

In dog training there is no such word as "democracy." Sending a dog to retrieve a crippled greenhead from icy waters or a downed hot-footing pheasant from a slough is not an optional request. The dog should not have the choice of complying based on the water temperature, cover thickness or simply whether it feels like working. Neither should the hunter have to throw rocks to a floating bird and plead with the dog to fetch; nor, worse, jump into the water to show the dog how to do it. And bringing back crushed birds unfit for the table is unacceptable as well. The solution to all these problems is the forced retrieve.

Whatever new-millennium, politically correct term you care to use-be it trained retrieve, conditioned retrieve, forced retrieve, the bench, whatever-the fact is that this process requires that some "pressure" be applied to the dog. This pressure, or force, actually means pain in the beginning stages. But the end result is worth it-for everyone. The hunter wins because he ends up with a dog that finds and retrieves game. The dog wins because it pleases its master and earns its food and lodging. And the rest of us win because a dog that retrieves properly ensures that its owner will not shoot more than a legal limit, if all wounded birds are recovered.

Dogs that are hard-mouthed and present game unfit for consumption as well as dogs that are butter-mouthed will benefit from the forced retrieve. In addition, the forced retrieve will make subsequent aspects of training proceed more effectively. The reason is that the dog learns it must comply with the command that there are no options or escape hatches. A dog that challenges all commands and schooling is much harder to train and a lot less fun to work with. Once force trained, a timid dog becomes bolder and more confident. The dog learns to succeed and learns that it is the master of its own destiny. When the dog learns that it can prevent the problem (pressure) altogether, it becomes bolder and happier. By the same token, the incorrigible rebel becomes more compliant and a more enthusiastic student. It learns who is boss. Commands are not spineless pleas for compliance; they are orders to be followed immediately.

As mentioned, the forced retrieve does involve a certain amount of pain for the dog. This does not mean I am a callous trainer who doesn't love his dogs. I have cleaned up a lot of poop in my day, fed in the rain and snow, and babysat pregnant bitches when any normal person would have been fast asleep. I love my dogs. I don’t like inflicting pain. But as a professional trainer, I recognize the benefits of this process. I know that a dog that complies to commands with excellence; that does its job with enthusiasm and style; and that is bold, confident and happy will be prized and rewarded. The pain is a small price compared to the gains afforded by the results.

Now that I have listed the benefits of the forced retrieve, I’ll describe the nuts and bolts of how to do it. As in most aspects of training, there are different avenues that will lead to the same destination. I have my way of doing things, but certainly there are other approaches that will work as well. Through our training schools and the work we’ve done with clients’ dogs and our own, I can't tell you how many dogs I’ve put on the bench, but it would easily be in the hundreds. I’ve dealt with the gamut of dog personalities, from wimpy to aggressive. Every dog is different, and it is through these myriad experiences that we’ve developed our training methods.

I normally teach the forced retrieve to dogs that are between eight and 12 months old. (You can teach an old dog new tricks, but breaking old habits is just a wee bit more difficult.) By this time they have been exposed to lots of birds, have been shot over and have been properly introduced to the electronic dog training collar. The decision about pressure when to teach each dog the forced retrieve is based on how the dog has progressed with basic yard work and bird work in the field, not by the age of the dog. If a dog is a flat-out non-retriever or is a hardheaded delinquent, I will introduce bench training earlier. If a dog is unsure about birds and not hunting aggressively, I’ll delay bench training. I strongly recommend that a dog has had large numbers of birds shot over it before forced-retrieve training begins.

If an unwillingness to retrieve or a hard or butter mouth interferes with other aspects of training, I’ll normally put the dog on the bench. For example, I give flushing dogs lots of locked-wing pigeons during patterning work. If a dog smashes and kills every bird, this becomes an expensive proposition-and for economic reasons alone it’s worth putting the dog on the bench.

My bench for teaching retrieving is 2' (w) x 16'(1). The table stands at about the height of my navel. At each end of the bench is a 10~foot piece of pipe that runs vertically from the ground to above the platform. Each pipe is rigidly affixed to the middle of each end of the table. I run a cable with a pulley on it between the tops of the pipes, parallel to the centerline of the bench. I attach a chain with a snap at each end to the pulley. That way I can adjust the length of the chain to accommodate dogs of different heights. One end of the chain is attached to the pulley, and the other end is attached to the dog's collar. This way, the dog can run up and down the length of the table but can't jump off or lie down. Training a dog requires a building-block approach, with the success of any aspect of it being directly related to previous training and the dog’s experience. I like to break down training into a series of steps, then train one step at a time, starting with the most basic. With bench work, I first get the youngster accustomed to running up and down the table. I make the bench an enjoyable place to be. I start putting pups on the bench when they are seven or eight weeks old. I play with them and feed them biscuits there. The goal is to have them become comfortable with the bench before training begins-to not have their initial experience with it be on the first day of training and have them associate it strictly as a place for work.

Once the dog is confident on the bench, I stand it there and place my index and middle fingers in its mouth and my thumb under its jaw. The pup will fight, but at such an early age it can’t really bite me. Eventually, the pup will resign itself with a sigh and let me keep my fingers in its mouth. I pet the dog soothingly to show my approval. I do not say "Hold" or "Fetch" or anything at all. Months later, when I am ready to start teaching the dog to hold a dowel, a dog training dummy and a bird, my job will be much easier because this preliminary work has been done regularly.
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