Pups: Thinking Finished from the Very Beginning, Part 4

by Rich Carpenter

Force Fetch. The first thing that popped into my head when I thought about writing on this subject was wondering, over the years, how many brand new club members have been discouraged from getting active by someone telling them at their first PV training day, “Well, first you need to get an e-collar and then you need to force fetch your dog.” Many of us feel very strongly that both are central to advanced retriever training.  But sometimes it takes a dog or two to convince some of us of this and we forget where we started.  And, for most of us, what we consider advanced retriever training today wasn’t even in our realm of understanding as beginners.  I’m here to tell you if I’d been met with that e-collar statement when I first showed up 20 some years ago, I’d have just left.  I didn’t like e-collars of the day or e-collar training methods of the day.  But CC and FF are not the only ways.  There are people who still don’t like collars and won’t use them and people who don’t believe in force fetch. 

The purpose of this article isn’t to argue one side or the other, but to report on one hunter’s thoughts on puppy training that will result in a hunting dog you can be proud of and have some success running Finished tests.  Clearly there are a number of other acceptable approaches to training as well as various other methods of FF and CC. 

I’ve been a FF believer since before there was a PVHRC, but being an e-collar trainer is more recent.  I became convinced with modern collars and some newer collar approaches that an e-collar was the way to go for me and seemed more humane to the dog than the old tennis shoe approach, or Amish Training, as some refer to non-collar training. 

I’m not going to go into detail about how to do Force Fetch, which is also known as the Trained Retrieve and the Conditioned Retrieve.  I was recently asked by an individual to do just that and my response was that doing it once every 10 years or so didn’t keep the details fresh in my mind and he needed more detail than I’d remember.  He should do what I was going to do: watch a FF video.  I sent him off to the Tri-Tronics website and suggested he purchase the T-T Trained Retrieve: Hold and Fetch.  What a bargain.  Used to be about $40 for the two VHS cassettes, now it’s on DVD and you get both for $19.95.  It’s available a lot of other places as well.  I watched it several times as I got ready to go through it with Din.  There are a number of other methods described in books and videos.  Evan Graham’s Smart Fetch seems has also been getting good reviews.  Be advised that if you are planning to train by the Lardy method, his TOTAL RETRIEVER TRAINING video gives very little detail on FF (or CC, though he has a separate DVD on that). 

If it’s your first time to do FF, I can’t recommend strongly enough to get good, detailed instruction.  It is not easy to do, the dog doesn’t like it, you won’t enjoy it, and if you lose heart halfway through, you’ll have done more harm than good and when you quit the process; the dog, not you, will be in control.  So, if you are going to do it, learn how and commit to going all the way through it.  When you are done, you can be proud and so will the dog be as work progresses.

I’ve done FF on the ground and on a table and for me the table is 1000 times better and easier than on the ground.  On the ground holding the dog, besides wearing out your back and/or knees, you really feel like you need a minimum of 3 hands to do the job.  Done on the table with the initial stages of both Hold and Fetch done with the dog secured to the upright at the end of the table by a collar attached to that upright and Velcro hobbles for the front feet, things get much smoother.  The dog can’t pull away, the dog can’t fight you or the dummy with its feet and you can just quietly and calmly go about the work or teaching hold and fetch.  You can do the same securing to a fence post or tree if you are young and flexible and have a good back.  But the table is sure easy and not hard to build. 

Starting and not finishing is probably the biggest problem.  The second biggest mistake by beginners, and very common, is to decide that you have a pup prodigy on your hands and in 15 minutes of ear pinch the first evening, he has “HOLD” down pat.  Next day, 15 minutes of ear pinch and “FETCH” is going swimmingly, and the new trainer declares victory and moves on.  If you buy that, I’ve got swampland in Florida I’ll make you a deal on.  You’ve just become the last in a huge line of 1st-time trainers suckered in by a bright pup! Later on, at a time you least suspect and can do little or nothing about it, your error will come back to bite you in the butt, big time.  My son got conned by Gunner in his first attempt at FF and promptly Gunner had a ball playing with a bird at an HRC test.  Back to square one.  Next thing I knew we are turkey hunting and bring Wade’s gobbler back to the Shack.  He lays it on the ground and says, “Gunner, Fetch.” Mr.  Gunner wasted no time finding the handle on that 19# turkey and sat there holding it just as pleased as a pig in poop.  Mission really accomplished that time around!

So, don’t be conned.  Keep at it.  If you persist in the repetition, eventually most dogs through boredom, or with a particular hold object they detest, will suddenly decide they are done cooperating.  Then the true trained retrieve conditioning can begin.  It isn’t fun.  It is conditioning.  It’s an imposition of will and very much will determine how much of your training will go from that point. 

Another thing to watch for as you go is that what doesn’t even seem like a little step to you may be a mile-wide chasm for the pup.  For example, you have the pup grabbing for the dummy in your hand to where you have to count fingers after each time you offer it.  Then you lay the dummy on the table or the floor and say Fetch, and the dog looks at you like it has no clue what you are even talking about.  They don’t.  Same way for many pups in “hold” when you have them start to walk while holding something.  Sometimes it can almost be comical in that what seems like walking and chewing gum at the same time becomes mission impossible.  They are focusing so hard doing “hold” right they can’t incorporate moving.  So, be alert for those kinds of things and be patient.  Look for the gradual transitions as the process continues.  Hopefully you will pick an instructional method that will tip you off about things like this.  I can’t speak from personal experience for Smart Fetch, but the T-T Trained Retrieve video gives a lot of detail and things to watch for, good and bad.  I’d used other methods for previous dogs but liked the T-T video program really well when I did Roux, and saw no reason to go to something else with Din.  It also incorporates use of the collar in similar fashion to how I’ve CC’ed Din.  But, even if you are not a collar trainer, you will find this method very workable and the collar is not central to it. 

The program you follow will likely show you what they use for hold objects.  Some use only a 1-inch wood dowel about 1 foot long.  Some use a wood or plastic dumbbell.  Some use only the small plastic retrieving bumper.  Again, you pays your money and you takes your choice.  The T-T program uses a variety of hold objects including the above mentioned, a piece of pipe wrapped in duck tape, large bumper, a dowel wrapped solidly with wire, a very stiff scrub brush, unbalanced dumbbell, etc., plus a variety of frozen birds.  I like to also use fresh birds of a variety of sizes.  Also, a good time to learn about holding a dove with their loose feathers if you planned ahead and put one whole in the freezer.  A coot proved to be very frustrating for Din.  It seemed to have no firmness or substance and would ooze out of a less-than-firm grip.  But he figured it out.  I really like a fairly heavy unbalanced object.  Din’s was a 1-1/4″ diameter 45 degree plastic electrical conduit elbow.  In the flare end I wedged a chunk of lead.  It was a frustration for him: awkward, heavy, slick and totally out of balance.  I could be wrong, but I think something of this nature is really valuable in teaching a young dog about just how tight must I hold something to keep it in my mouth.  I don’t want my dog just holding every bird in a death grip if I can help it, but I want him holding the struggling cripple tightly enough it doesn’t escape.  This unbalanced curved object is like 4 or 5 objects in one, depending on which part of it is presented to the pup to gasp, and at what angle.  But, could be my imagination and a waste of your and the pup’s time.  But it’s what I do. 

Stick with it and succeed.  You’ll need to focus on good transition of the new skills and standards to the field.  Having the trained/conditioned retrieve down cold, as well as really solid “sit,” “Come” and “Heel,” commands will make lots of other training much, much easier and more efficient, as well as more enjoyable for you and the dog.  Then you both can concentrate on learning new skills and concepts and advancing old ones without wrestling the dog on the line or trying to get it to sit in the field, etc. 

FF is important to having a dog that will hold and not drop things even in unpleasant circumstances and gives you a tool to deal with mouth problems.  But the second HRCH dog I trained was not force fetched as I took it over from my son and he didn’t want to do force fetch or have it done.  He never dropped birds and was fine.  BUT he’d have probably passed twice as many tests had he been force fetched, as force fetch is as much or more about who is really in charge here. 

If FF has been done well and basic obedience is really solid, now the pup is ready to enter into more formal yard work and more interesting things afield.  For the way I train, following the 3-in-a-row fetch or don’t fetch drill on the ground wrapping up the Trained Retrieve, I’m ready to move over to Lardy at the point of 3-handed casting.  Soon after that, Indirect Pressure will be introduced on that drill.  Then we are off to the races, but no prize for getting there fast, only for getting there well.  Then pile work.  It will be followed up with the double T, Swim-by (when water available and not too cold), Taught Blinds, Taught Blinds with Diversions, 1st cold land blinds, 1st cold water blinds (after swimby can be done), cheating singles, and a variety of yard drills to sharpen and fine tune lining and casting ability.  Meanwhile marking and concept work will continue. 

There is one other thing that you’ll need to decide when you are about to start FF.  That is whether or not you will continue to throw marks for the pup during FF.  Some do and some don’t.  I’d guess perhaps more stop marks all together than continue them.  I do continue marks, as I like to try to keep balance in our training for positive attitude.  If I’m doing nothing but obedience and add the stress of FF, it seems to me being a pup wouldn’t be much fun and I think fun is an important ingredient of training from start to end.  But, if you decide you will continue throwing marks, you need to go write on the blackboard 500 times: “I will not impose any new standards of holding or delivery on my dog until “fetch” has been fully taught and proofed in formal FF.  If the pup has been spitting the dummy out at your feet going into force fetch, then let the pup spit the dummy out at your feet during FF until Hold is complete.  Until then it is fine to notice the dog is doing better and praise by saying “Good Hold” when the dog does it correctly on his own.  But you just clamp your tongue in your teeth and say nothing when he spits it out the next time.

And when hold is done, and the pup spits it out, you put it back in the dog’s mouth, you don’t get after the dog with “fetch” and an ear pinch or e-collar stimulation (if that’s in your formal program) until that has been completed in the FF program.  I think Trained Retrieve or Conditioned Retrieve is perhaps more descriptive than Force Fetch, in that there really are two components: 1.  The dog holding the object without dropping, chewing, or mouthing.  2.  The dog actively reaching out to grab the object.  These are two very different things.  The way I do it, Hold comes first. 

But, please remember, repetition is key to success in retriever training and good progress and growth will only be made with lots of repetition and practice of these skills in a variety of locations to where the skills become generalized and where the dog can apply them in new settings.  Also, while being reasonable and not punishing honest mistakes, once a standard for obedience and hold and fetch has been achieved, the young dog must be held to that standard.  That means you need to be consistent, pay attention, get after the dog for lack of effort, yet cut it some slack for confusion or honest mistakes.  For example, you may just be coming out of FF and the pup is holding and delivering well.  Then the first snow comes and that icy dummy dripping on his teeth feels awful and the pup starts dropping.  What to do? Probably several things.  Minimize snowy dummy retrieves.  Work on a good hold under those conditions.  Have plenty of dummies.  Rome wasn’t built in a day.  The pup will get to where that’s old hat. 

Some dogs will come out of FF and bring the dummy back like they are smoking a big cigar.  Others will grab where the rope joins the dummy.  Different people address this in different ways.  My experience is that with a little time spent showing it how you want the dummy held the pup outgrows it.  I guess everyone has to decide what battles to fight and if there is a good hold, I’ll generally work on the “how” of holding through ongoing demonstration of what I want and praising when I get it, rather than a full-scale battle.  To me there are more important places in training to draw a line in the sand. 

With this stage of puppy training complete, the door is now open to the real training world and much fun lies ahead for you and your charge.  There will also be a lot of study and work.  In the future we can talk some about helping a dog do the most they can with the marking talents they have.  And we can talk about ways to make blind running fun for the dog and maybe some handling strategies.  Reading the dog and some things to read can be key to good training.  Of course Din might raise his paw and allow as how I ain’t bright enough to teach him anything, let alone suggest how anyone else should train.  And Roux claims to have taught himself, so you may want to quit reading this garbage.