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Helping You Get the Most From Your Hunting Dogs

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Using a toe hitch (below), the author applies pressure to get a dog to reach out and take a dummy
Next, I strap the dog’s head to the pipe at the end of the bench by running a collar through the dog’s collar and cinching the second collar around the pipe. The dog is now immobile. It may try to pull. It may try to bite the pipe. I will gently massage the dog until it relaxes. I will leave the dog strapped to the pipe for longer periods during the ensuing weeks. The youngster should become completely comfortable with being restrained. Once the collar introduction and yard work are complete, along with the necessary bird and gun work, I am ready to proceed to teaching the command "Hold," or "Fetch." I use "Hold," but you can use "Rumpelstiltskin," if you wish. (Later I’ll switch to using the dog’s name so that if I’m running two dogs at once, there won’t be any confusion as to which is being sent to retrieve.)

For this process, I use a toe hitch rather than an ear pinch, as I don’t like my hands to be near the dog’s mouth for the initial pressure. (I have never been bitten, and I’m going to do my best to keep it that way.) I use a 16-inch piece of clothesline for the toe hitch. To attach the hitch, I make a slipknot and place it over the dog’s ankle joint on one of its front legs.

Whichever leg I choose, I make sure that I use the same leg every time, I run the line down the back of the dog’s leg, under the dog’s outside toe, over its two middle toes, then back between itself and the dog’s leg. Now, by pulling on the end of the line, I’m able to exert pressure on the dog’s two inner toes. The harder I pull, the more discomfort the dog will feel.

I next take a 12-inch wooden dowel (dog training dummies and birds come later) and wrap it tightly with a piece of rope, to prevent the dog from getting splinters in its mouth. With the dog’s head strapped to the pipe, I pull hard enough on the line to make the dog open its mouth, in effect saying Ouch! When it does, I insert the dowel into its mouth. When the dog spits out the dowel, I don’t say a word but simply administer the toe hitch and reinsert the dowel. After a number of repetitions the dog will understand that taking and keeping the dowel in its mouth will turn off the pressure. Now when I pull on the toe, the dog will reach out and take the dowel. This is a monumental breakthrough, as the dog has learned that it can turn the pressure off by itself.

Next, I introduce the command to retrieve. Understand that at this point the dog does not know what "Hold" means. I say, "Hold," then immediately pull on the toe hitch. The dog takes the dowel in response. While the dog is holding the dowel, I do a lot of petting for reassurance. I also tap both ends of the dowel to ensure the dog has it securely and to prevent my hand reaching in from becoming a cue to drop it. I then take the dowel out of the dog’s mouth. You might have to work at getting the dowel out. Once the dowel is out, I repeat, "Hold," and pull on the line. After a number of repetitions, the dog will anticipate that the toe pull follows the command, and when you say "Hold" will reach out and take the dowel before receiving pressure. At this point I praise the dog and give myself a pat on the back. The hard part is done.

When the dog is reliably taking the dowel on the command alone, I go to the electronic dog training collar. The reason for the collar is that later, on the ground, it would be very awkward to have the dog running around with a toe hitch. I don't use the collar from the outset because stimulation shuts off after 10 seconds. A dog may not say Ouch! Within that time, instead learning to grit its teeth and bear the pain until the collar cuts out.

I begin by turning on the lowest level of stimulation the dog feels, as ascertained in collar conditioning. I follow this immediately with the toe pull. The dog will take the dowel because of the toe hitch. After a few repetitions the dog, anticipating the toe pull, will begin taking the dowel on the stimulation alone. Now I say, "Hold," and if the dog does not take the dowel, I apply stimulation.

A toe hitch
Once the dog is religiously taking the dowel solely on the verbal command, I unstrap it from the pipe but keep it attached to the chain on the pulley. I hold the dowel a short distance away so that the dog has to take one baby step to grab it. If on the command the dog refuses, I turn on the stimulation until it takes the dowel. I gradually increase the distance the dog has to travel to get the dowel and also begin placing the dowel on the table. I make sure that the exercise is upbeat, giving the dog lots of praise when it succeeds. I apply stimulation if it fails. When the dog is running the length of the bench to pick up the dowel and bring it back, we move to the ground. Starting off in a confined area, such as a garage, is a good idea. I first get the dog, which is on a check cord, taking the dowel from my hand, then I begin throwing the dowel on the ground right in front of it. I continue increasing the distance the dog has to go to retrieve. Again, I keep things upbeat.

Once the dog is retrieving the dowel on the ground, we return to the bench. I get the dog to hold sundry articles, such as gloves, hats, whatever. The dog will probably fail on the first introduced object other than a dowel. I stimulate on failure, praise on success.

When the dog will take and hold various objects on command, I proceed to a locked-wing pigeon. When starting with a bird, I go back to the very beginning of the procedure, with the toe hitch. I mirror every step exactly as I did with the dowel. When the dog is consistently successful at a particular stage, only then do we progress to the next one. Once I can toss a clipped-wing pigeon and the dog retrieves it, I know we’ve made it.

Moving on to ducks, pheasants, chukar or geese, I go back to the beginning of the training procedure. However, each new bird will take only a few sessions, and perhaps the dog will succeed immediately. The complete process may take six or eight weeks. The important thing is to be patient and not rush. If your dog has retrieving problems and you don’t have the time or inclination to deal with them properly, seek professional help. Retrieving is that important.

I tell gundog owners that if their dogs retrieve to their satisfaction without being put on the bench, they should forget the forced retrieve. However, if there are retrieving problems or attitude problems that need fixing, the forced retrieve is the way to go. The result is that you’ll get an honest effort from your dog to bring back downed birds. You can’t ask for more than that.
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