Force fetch, also known as the trained retrieve is the process of training a dog, through the use of pressure, to retrieve a bird downed in the field. A dog that is properly force fetched will not refuse to attempt a retrieve. It really isn’t about forcing a dog to retrieve. It is about making a good retrieving dog a better retrieving dog. Duck hunters will often hunt with Labrador Retrievers. These dogs are often natural retrievers. Even so, these dogs are often put through a trained retrieve program to help make them even better.
I’ve always stated that the purpose of these ongoing entries is to talk about actual dog training. This is the story of the dog being trained, not the story of the trainer. Today’s story is about Shiloh, my 3-year-old Brittany.
Shiloh is currently being trained to retrieve. Last fall, I hunted Michigan’s Lower Peninsula for ruffed grouse and woodcock. Few grouse were seen, but many woodcock were seen. Several of these were shot, but fewer were recovered. The reason for this is because Shiloh would much rather continue to seek out live birds than search around for dead ones. These birds are brown and the ground is brown with fallen leaves. If I do not mark well where the bird falls, the likelihood of recovering the bird without the aid of a smart dog’s nose is slim.
Also, while hunting on preserves this winter, we encountered a fair share of birds that had been wounded but not recovered by other hunters. These birds could not fly but could still run. I released Shiloh to go and run these birds down to recover them. Because I had never formally taught any fetch work, he became confused in the face of healthy birds that chose to run instead of fly. There were instances when he took off after these birds and flushed them out of range, since I had previously allowed him to chase the wounded birds.
So, in response to these two events (lost game and chasing game when he shouldn’t), it has become clear that I need to formalize his training on fetch.
This is no small task for this breed. These dogs are bred to seek out game and to point them. The breeder of this particular line of Brittanys seems to be targeting his dogs toward the field trial game. In that game, often, the dogs are judged on finding game, but not on retrieving game. So, the selective breeding does not focus on retrieving.
In comparison, consider any dog whose last name is “retriever”. Labrador Retriever, Chesapeake Bay Retriever. These dogs are used in the uplands finding and flushing game, but their strong suit is definitely retrieving the game after it has been downed. This is why these dogs are ideal duck dogs: when hunting ducks, the dog has no responsibility to produce game. The job of the dog begins after the hunter has called in and shot the duck. Only then does the dog spring into action. A retriever can do a good job producing game in the uplands, but he will shine when retrieving. In contrast, a dog like a Brittany can do a good job retrieving, but will shine when it is tasked with producing game.
All this to say, this is the first time that Shiloh is being trained in something that is not his forte. He is not a natural at this. Kind of like me and dancing. I can dance if I have to. But I’d rather not. Because of this, this job and this training is going to be hard. It will be drudgery. Kind of like dancing.
The program that I have purchased is called SmartFetch by Evan Graham. I will not give you the details of the program as it is copyrighted material. I will tell you the overall idea behind this kind of training…information that I was already aware of before I started this program.
The basic idea behind force fetch, or the trained retrieve, is negative reinforcement. I plan to explain negative reinforcement at length in future articles, but the idea is this: something negative or unpleasant is happening, and a particular behavior is required in order to cause this unpleasantness to cease. In the case of the trained retrieve, the unpleasantness is discomfort or minor pain. The way that the dog can avoid this pain is by picking up the fetch object. The pain needs to be noticeable but minor. Excruciating pain is not the goal, as no animal or human can work with that kind of pain. The goal, really, is to use the least amount of pain possible.
There are a handful of objects that qualify as fetch objects. What is commonly used is the dummy: a canvas cylinder filled with stuffing that the dog can easily pick up. There is also something called a buck, which is just a wooden dowel with large ends that keeps the dowel off the ground, making it easier for the dog to pick it up off the ground. Many people, when training their dog, will get the dog used to picking things up by throwing all sorts of random stuff and training the dog to pick it up. Things like car keys and the remote control. This kind of training might be useful for training the dog to pick up the morning newspaper. The ultimate and final fetch object is the bird itself. This is trained by working the dog on whole frozen and feathered birds.
There are also a variety of methods used to cause the pain that the dog learns to turn off by picking up the fetch object. I’m not going to get into these, as I do not want to sensationalize or advertize ways to hurt a dog. All of the techniques can be varied in intensity. They could be used to cause extreme pain. That is not the goal. Again, the pain needs to be as slight as possible. Just enough to get the desired action from the dog. No more.
The basic idea is to shape the response to the pressure or pain. That is a fancy way of saying you take baby steps. The initial step is the dog reaches and takes a fetch object from your hand. And by changing things little by little, and making it a little bit closer to the goal, with baby steps you one day have a dog that will, on command, range out and search, find and bring back the bird that has just been shot.
Teach Before Enforce
One last bit of theory. There is one theory that states you need to teach a dog something before you start enforcing it. We teach a dog to come with treats before we start demanding compliance with force, pressure, or pain. Otherwise, it isn’t fair. You cannot expect a dog to do something when it does not know what you want.
How is Shiloh’s training going so far? Ssssssllllloooooowwwwwlllllyyyy. Shiloh is in the very initial stages of the trained retrieve. I am teaching him exactly what I want; I am teaching him to hold onto a fetch object. Some pressure, in the sense that I am making him do something that he does not want to do. However, I have not yet reached the stage where there is pain that he needs to learn to turn off. This, most basic of steps, is being met with sad eyes and and a bit of struggling and resistance. And he really doesn’t want to do it. He is doing reasonably well at holding the object. The next step is getting him to move, to walk, while holding the object. He can walk, or chew bubblegum. Not both. We have miles to go.
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