Force Breaking - Part Two
J. Paul’s blueprint makes a dirty job less frustrating for the handler and the retriever
In the first part of our series on force breaking, we acknowledged that the procedure can be frustrating and downright unpleasant. The system detailed in this column is very effective while at the same time causing the dog a minimum amount of discomfort.
Once the dog begins to feel at ease on the table it is time to teach the dog the hold command. We like to begin this process by teaching the dog to hold a short wooden dowel or training buck. I have seen trainers use everything from a knobby dummy to a ball-peen hammer, but I like the training buck best because it is easy for the dog to hold.
Training bucks can be purchased from various dog supply companies, or you can simply make your own. My current dowels were made by sawing a broken shovel handle into eight inch pieces. I always keep three or four on hand so if one falls to the floor I can quickly grab a spare.
I begin teaching hold by attaching the dog to the table, standing in front of the dog and giving the dog the fetch command while prying apart his teeth and inserting the dowel into his mouth. Most dogs fight, holding the buck and trying to spit it out. To avoid this, hold the dog’s mouth shut with one hand while holding the thumb in the vee of the lower jaw under the chin with the other. At the same time, repeatedly tell the dog to hold.
Since holding the training buck is an unnatural act, a number of behaviors may be exhibited by the dog to avoid it. Probably the most common avoidance behavior during this phase of training is clamming up, or holding the mouth firmly shut to resist having the dowel placed in it. If this occurs, simply pry the dog’s mouth open with one hand while rolling the dowel into his mouth over his lower lip with the other.
On the first day of hold training, I will generally repeat this process over and over until I succeed in getting the dog to take the dowel with a minimal amount of pressure, and until the dog ceases to fight having the buck in his mouth. Sometimes this will take a couple of minutes; other times it will take half an hour or more. As with all training, quality is greatly preferred to quantity, and you should always try to end on a positive note if possible.
Over the course of several days I will gradually increase the amount of time that the dog is required to hold the dowel without spitting it out or moving. Once the dog displays an understanding of the hold command while sitting I will teach the dog to move up and down the table with the dowel in his mouth. Should the dog drop the dowel, I’ll put it back in his mouth and say no, fetch and remind the dog to hold.
Some dogs grasp the hold command very quickly, and within three or four days will walk up and down the table with the dowel in their mouths without dropping it. Others will never learn to move with anything in their mouths without being taught with pressure. While it is ideal that a dog moves with the dowel in his mouth before teaching the fetch command with pressure, it is not required. The important thing is that the dog understands the meaning of hold prior to moving on.
Now that the dog thoroughly understands the hold command it is time to introduce fetch with pressure. To do this you will need the same training buck that you used to teach hold, along with about three feet of small-diameter (about ¼ inch) rope, which we will refer to as a “toe string”. Be sure that your rope is small enough to easily slide between the dogs toes, but not so small that it will cut into them.
After securing the dog to the cable above the table, attach the toe string to one of the dog’s front legs with a slip knot just above the wrist. Next throw a half hitch around the dog’s leg just above the dew claw. Finally attach the toe string to the dog’s middle two toes with another half hitch (see photograph). When you’re finished, the toe hitch should allow you to pinch the dog’s middle toes by pulling on the string.
The purpose of the toe hitch is to allow the trainer to apply a small amount of pressure to the dog’s toes by pulling the string and pinching the nerves between them. While this pressure is certainly uncomfortable to the dog, it is neither unbearable nor permanent. Almost as soon as the string is released, the pain goes away. This makes the toe hitch a very effective tool at teaching the dog to “turn off” the pressure or avoid it altogether.
Once the toe hitch is properly in place it’s time to begin teaching the fetch command. To do this you will want to hold the buck in one hand while applying pressure on the toe hitch with the other. At the same time you should command the dog to fetch as you are pulling the string, but instead of forcing the buck into the dog’s mouth, you should wait for a response from the dog in the form of either an attempt to take the buck from you or as a vocalization.
In either case it is very important that you place the dowel in the dog’s mouth at the first opportunity and release the pressure on the toe hitch while instructing the dog to hold. Should the dog drop the dowel before you can take it immediately apply pressure to the string while repeating fetch.
Note: It has been our experience that a small number of dogs will clam up rather than reaching for the dowel or vocalizing. Should your dog do this it is important that you continue applying pressure until you can force the dowel in the dog’s mouth just as you did when teaching hold.
The goal here is to have the dog learn that he can turn off the toe pinch by grabbing the dowel and holding it. With a little luck by the end of the third or fourth day he will be reaching for the dowel every time you say fetch and holding it until you tell him to drop it.
After the dog has begun to reach for the dowel on the fetch command without a pinch on the toe, it’s time to have the dog move in other directions for it. Start by holding the dowel off to one side and commanding the dog to fetch. If he does not respond reinforce the fetch command with a toe pinch. Once you have the dog moving to get the dowel, start to vary the location.
Eventually, you should be able to have the dog go all the way down the table to take the dowel from you. Make sure that you respond to all refusals with a toe pinch, praise all successes and be sure to have the dog deliver to hand each time.
Once the dog has begun to respond to the fetch command in different directions, it is time to transition the dog to picking up the buck directly from the table. For some reason this is a very tough transition for most dogs, so be sure to ease into it only after the dog will reliably respond to the fetch command.
Begin by having the dog take the dowel from your hand right on the surface of the table. I like to have the toe hitch on my right and the dowel on the left. This way the dog does not have to reach across the string, and I can use it to pull the dog in the right direction if necessary.
After the dog begins to take the dowel from your hand on the table, start placing the dowel beside your hand and commanding fetch. Within a few days you should be able to work your hand out of the picture entirely.
Eventually you will be able to have the dog travel the entire length of the table on the fetch command. At this point you should begin to use other articles on the table, such as a bumper or a Dokken DFT. Before leaving the table for the ground, I always incorporate a few undesirable items, such as a hammer and an irregularly shaped rock. It is also important that you use both a fresh and a frozen duck, otherwise the process is incomplete.
To this point all of our work has taken place on the table. We have taught the dog to hold, and conditioned it to retrieve from the table on command. The dog has learned that compliance averts pressure, and that fetch means fetch no matter what item we want it to retrieve. Our work on the table is complete and it is time to move to the ground.
Force breaking on the ground is very similar to force breaking on the table. The main differences are that the dog is held by the collar rather than attaching it to a cable and the toe pinch is replaced by an ear pinch. I believe that it is best to begin ground work by reviewing the hold command without pressure. I also believe that it is best to begin all work on the ground with the wooden dowel.
Start by commanding the dog to fetch the dowel from your hand. If the dog does not comply, simply insert the dowel into his mouth and command hold. Repeat this process until you can place the training buck in the dog’s mouth and walk around the yard without having the dog drop it.
Now it is time to introduce the dog to a new form of pressure, the ear pinch. Begin by having the dog sit beside you on the ground. Take the dog’s collar with your hand wrapped around the buckle. Use your thumb to flip the dog’s ear over and pin it against the buckle of the collar. With your free hand hold the dowel in front the dog’s mouth and give the fetch command while pinching his ear up against the buckle.
Don’t be surprised if the dog does not respond right away. While it would seem that any dog that will lunge for it on the table would go doubly hard on the ground that is not always the case. Some dogs become very confused during this transition and want to wrestle away. Others clam up, and some even try to bite.
Regardless of what your dog does, it is important that you maintain control and see the task through. Additionally, you should reinforce all refusals with an ear pinch.
Before attempting to have the dog pick it up off the ground challenge the dog some. Don’t just hold the dowel in front of his face each time. Instead, make him work for it. I often hold the dog back while pinching his ear, thereby making him really work to turn off the pressure.
The next part of the job—getting the dog to pick a dowel off the ground—can really be a back-breaking chore. For some reason a few dogs that will lunge after the buck in your hand will refuse at almost all cost to pick it up off the ground.
At first it may be necessary to push the dog down to the buck and to help a little by picking it up with him. Stay the course, and help as little as possible. With consistency even the toughest dogs usually start to reach for it after a few days.
Also, it often helps to give the dog praise each time he does it right. The important thing here is that the dog learns that fetch from the ground means the same as it does on the table. With that in mind you should use a number of articles while you are on the ground, including real birds.
The final stage of the force fetch process involves having the dog pick up something while on the move. This process is often referred to as “walking fetch” or the “ladder drill”. You begin the process by placing several dummies out on the ground in a row resembling the rungs on a ladder. Then you have the dog walk past them on lead at your side. Command the dog to fetch at random, and reinforce any refusals with an ear pinch.
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Many times the dog will try to fetch each dummy as he goes by, however, you should not allow him to do so. The goal here is to get the dog to learn that he has to retrieve on your terms, and that he has to do it reliably.
During this stage of training I introduce the dog to a number of different types of pressure. I often give the fetch command in association with a tap of the heeling stick or a medium nick from the e-collar. However, I reinforce all refusals with an ear pinch.
Using varying types of pressure here prepares the dog for future corrections in the field. Additionally, it helps build a stable reaction to pressure by allowing the dog to easily avoid it by completing the retrieve.
Of course, the entire purpose of force breaking your retriever is to teach the dog to deliver to hand. Therefore, the final step in the force fetch process involves using the tools that you have developed through the preceding steps to get your dog to reliably deliver a bird to hand. That means that you have to apply some form of pressure any time that the dog drops a bird or bumper prior to delivering it to you.
I usually start by reinforcing fetch on happy retrieves. Most dogs fresh out of force fetch will try you by dropping the bird at your feet. When this happens you should always respond with a no, fetch accompanied by an ear pinch. In a short amount of time you should be able to get reliable deliveries on all land retrieves.
Next, move to water retrieves. Start by meeting the dog right at the water’s edge. Most dogs will emerge from the water and immediately drop the bird to shake the excess water off. Be prepared for this and respond quickly with an ear pinch. Gradually you should be able to move away from the water and still get a reliable delivery.
As with all training, each dog is different. I find that every dog has its own individual characteristics, so there really is no set timetable for force training. Instead you should work to be consistent and fair with your dog. That means following the process step by step and allowing the dog to learn at his own pace.