There are few gun-dog-training procedures that haven't produced varying opinions about what's necessary or unnecessary—right or wrong, good or bad. None of these procedures, however, generates as much contention as the notion of force training a dog to improve its retrieving skills. That said, love it or loathe it, the forced retrieve as a primary training tool is here to stay. But this column isn't meant to convince you to force train, nor is it a description of techniques. Rather, I'll talk about the broad process and let you determine its virtues.
The objective of the forced retrieve is to train a dog to unquestioningly pick up or fetch an object, hold it, then release it, all on commands like “Fetch,” “Hold,” “Leave it” or “Give.” The procedure is a step-by-step progression in which each step builds upon those that came before. Ideally, at the end of the structured steps you'll have a dog that will reliably retrieve any bird under any circumstance, hold it securely when delivering to hand and release it only when you give the command. In addition, there are benefits from forced retrieving that some trainers consider as important as producing a dependable retriever. I'll mention them later.
A legitimate question is why, with well-bred gun dogs, should we have to teach them to pick up and hold birds? Keep in mind that a good many pointing dogs are not natural retrievers; in fact, some are non-retrievers that have no interest at all in dead birds. Unless owners are willing to do their own retrieving, such dogs must be taught (forced) to fetch, hold and deliver game whether they like it or not.
But how about dogs like Labradors, Chesapeakes or springer spaniels, whose genetic backgrounds drive them to retrieve. Indeed, there are dogs working today that haven't been through forced-retrieve training—not only retrievers and flushers, but members of the versatile and other pointing breeds—that deliver game in an acceptable manner. On the flip side, there are more dogs that have some sort of mouth or delivery problem: Dogs that are hard-mouthed; that freeze on a bird (freezing is when a dog refuses to release a bird, though he might not damage it); that are overly soft-mouthed and drop birds; that pick up birds by the wing or head, are all candidates for the forced retrieve. As are dogs that exit water, drop a bird to shake and, worse, don't finish the retrieve; or those that play “keep away” rather than delivering straight to hand.
Pinching Your Pup
Traditional forced-retrieve training involves varying degrees of discomfort for a dog. Whether trainers cause that discomfort by using a toe squeeze, toe hitch, ear pinch or lip pinch is a matter of preference, though most pros I know use the toe hitch or ear pinch. The point of yanking on a cord attached to a dog's toes or pinching its ear between a thumb and forefinger is to make the dog yelp. When it does, a trainer inserts a wooden dowel into its open mouth and releases the toe or ear. With enough repetitions, and the introduction of the “Hold” command, every dog will figure out that holding the dowel turns off the pressure. Then the dog learns to reach out and take the dowel when force is applied, followed by taking it on “Hold” alone, anticipating, thus avoiding, discomfort. At that point, a dog is taught to pick up the dowel, carry it reliably and release it on command.
Trainers who do forced-retrieve work often use a waist-high bench that's roughly 16 feet long by at least 2 feet wide with sturdy uprights at each end and a cable strung between them. A good many of these pros, when beginning force training, immobilize a dog by attaching its collar to one of the uprights, which reduces the possibility of being bitten and the need of controlling a dog trying to escape. For especially active dogs, the trainer might also run a rope around the dog's belly and over the cable, plus secure its hind legs with Velcro straps attached to the bench. After a dog has learned to pick up and carry a dowel, its collar is clipped to the cable by a short swivel chain that allows the dog to move up and down the bench. When the dog is reliable with the dowel, it is taught to pick up a variety of new objects, ending with birds. (Note that to minimize negative associations, birds are not used early in forced-retrieve training.)
At differing points in this process, trainers bring in the electronic collar and transition from the bench to retrieving on the ground. Although the use of a bench simplifies the forced retrieve by emphasizing greater control, some trainers carry out the entire process on the ground.
Investing The Time
From this generic encapsulation, forced-retrieve training might sound straightforward. Occasionally, it works that way; more often it's difficult, time-consuming and frustrating. For one thing, it typically takes a block of 4-8 weeks of daily sessions to complete forced retrieving, a period when trainers usually cease all other work with the dog. In addition, you're dealing with a nearly full-grown animal; most professionals prefer to begin forced-retrieve training when a dog is between 8 and 12 months old, though when to begin has less to do with a specific age than with how a dog has progressed with yard work and bird exposure.
Whether you or a pro force trains your dog, there are desirable prerequisites to the process. It should have completed yard training and be obedient and under control. Ideally, it's been exposed to a lot of birds, has confidence around them and a burning desire for them. This drive for birds is a trump card when they're reintroduced during force training. A dog should have been introduced to gunfire and had birds shot over it; with certain dogs, trainers might delay forced retrieving until they have a hunting season under their collars.
Earlier, I mentioned there are positive by-products of forced-retrieve training. A primary fringe benefit is that the process locks in a dog's place in the pecking order by reinforcing the trainer's dominant position. Contrary to popular myth, normal dogs harbor no resentment at the end of force training. The reverse is usually true in that a stronger trainer/dog relationship is established as a result of the process. Forced retrieving teaches a dog that there's no escaping commands given, which facilitates all subsequent training because a dog understands that it has no options but compliance. It has accepted your authority and learned to succeed, to prevent discomfort by obedience, which makes it a happier, bolder, more confident and enthusiastic dog.
Forced-retrieve training isn't for every gun dog or owner, but, done correctly, it can cure or improve certain retrieving and behavioral issues. The process can sharpen a sloppy retriever; eliminate mouth problems; turn a timid dog into a bolder, more confident animal; and, conversely, change a youthful rebel into a cooperative hunter. As much as anything, forced retrieving can turn a potentially ineffectual or problematic dog into a good citizen.