The Trained Retrieve

By Jim & Phyllis Dobbs and Alice Woodyard

In previous articles, we covered the three-action introduction to the Tri-Tronics training collar including the "Whoa" command. We then covered stop to flush, honoring, how to prevent creeping on birds, and teaching a good hunting pattern. We also taught the dog not to chase "off game," and to leave snakes alone. The dog's basic training for the foot hunter and shoot-to-retrieve enthusiast should also cover the retrieve and delivery to hand.

The "Trained Retrieve"

We do not use "force fetch" methods that use fear and panic to make the dog retrieve. We call our method the "trained retrieve" because we base it on training the dog to "turn off" mild discomfort by retrieving, rather than using pain to make the dog open its mouth. We use mild pressure to give the dog a comparison between actions that lead to comfort and actions that lead to discomfort, and we teach the dog how to control and prevent the discomfort. We use this program of comparison even if the dog is a natural retriever, because this program will produce a reliable retrieving dog that does not mouth or drop the birds.

The Training Table

We start the trained retrieve on a training table, rather than on the ground. A training table allows you to control the dog and keep it compliant. A table also saves your back if you're working several dogs.

A training table should be of a height, which is comfortable for you, so you can reach the dog's body without bending over. To make our table, we cut a 4' x 8' sheet of plywood down the center lengthways. This produces a long table 2' x 16,' which is a good size for retrieve work. The table surface is about three feet off the ground, with an overhead cable attached to the top of posts positioned at each end of the table. The overhead cable is about 30 inches above the tabletop.

Introducing the Table

Put the dog up on the table and lead it up and down on leash. Let it get used to the surface and the height. Praise it as you lead it up and down, and soon it will be comfortable walking on the table.

Once the dog is relaxed about being on the table, fasten its neck into a flat collar that is attached snugly to the post at the end of the table. Fasten hobbles around its front feet as shown in the photo. If the dog moves around a lot, you can use a strap around its flank and fasten it to the overhead cable.

Teaching the Meaning of "Hold"

Many retrieve problems can be traced to the dog's failure to understand how to hold the bird properly. You should teach the dog the command "Hold" before expecting it to retrieve on command. By teaching "Hold" before you require the dog to reach out and fetch on command, you can calmly teach the dog that it can prevent mild discomfort by holding something in its mouth. A dog that knows this will not be stressed when you start asking it to reach out and fetch in order to stop mild discomfort.

Teaching a Calm "Hold"

Begin with the dog tied to the post. Slip two fingers of your gloved hand into the dog's mouth right behind the dog's canine teeth. The dog will try to spit your fingers out of its mouth, but don't let it. Be calm and reassuring to the dog.

When the dog finally stops chewing your gloved hand, immediately reward it by giving your release command and removing your fingers from its mouth. This teaches the dog that by holding calmly it will get what it wants (getting rid of your fingers). Give your release command just as you remove your hand. Trainers typically choose "Out," "Drop" or "Give" as a release command. It doesn't matter what word you use as long as you use the same word each time.

Be sure you do not command "Hold" before you slip your hand into the dog's mouth. If you give a command and then immediately follow it with something the dog finds unpleasant (your hand in its mouth) you will simply condition the dog to feel apprehensive or fearful whenever it hears that command. Once the dog understands the action of holding calmly, you should overlay the command "Hold" as you slip your fingers into its mouth.

Also notice that we are placing the gloved hand into the dog's mouth at this stage. We are not asking the dog to reach out, or even to open its mouth on its own. This comes later. Right now we are just teaching the dog to hold calmly and not to drop until told to.

While doing this training, make sure your repetitions are not too close together. The teaching method we describe in this article is based on the dog making a comparison, and it cannot identify what "worked" if you start another repetition immediately after removing your fingers. Give the dog some time to feel successful after each repetition.

After several repetitions of this initial stage, the dog will not chew your fingers when you put them in its mouth. This reflects the dog's understanding. When you see this, begin saying "Hold" in a calm voice as you slip your hand into the dog's mouth each time.

Now that the dog knows that holding calmly leads to the reward of getting your hand out of its mouth, it is ready for you to begin leaving your hand in its mouth for longer periods of time. If the dog begins chewing again because you didn't remove your hand, immediately grasp the skin on the back of its neck and pull up, as though you were going to pick up a small puppy. This has a calming effect and causes the dog to continue to hold calmly.

If at any time, the dog is unwilling to release your hand, wiggle your finger against its tongue as you give the release command. You want the dog to pull its mouth away from your hand, rather than you taking your hand out of the dog's mouth. This training will ensure that your dog is not reluctant to release objects on command.

When the dog will consistently hold your hand without chewing for a period of about thirty seconds, it is ready for the next stage.

Teaching a Firm "Hold"

Now instead of using your hand inside a glove as the object for the dog to hold, use a retrieving buck or dumbbell. Say "Hold" as you place the dumbbell in the dog's mouth right behind the canines, lifting the dog's lips so they don't catch on its teeth. As soon as the dumbbell is in the dog's mouth, gently take hold of the dog's ear between your thumbnail and fingernail. As soon as the dog drops the dumbbell, immediately apply mild pressure on the ear by rubbing your thumb and forefinger together. Calmly reach down, pick up the dumbbell, and slip it back in the dog's mouth. The moment the dumbbell is back in the mouth, release the ear pressure. (You might want to have a second dumbbell handy, in case the one the dog drops has bounced too far away for you to reach.)

The pressure on the ear should be uncomfortable but not too strong. Let the dog take responsibility for holding the dumbbell, and let it make the comparison. Holding the dumbbell is comfortable--spitting it out leads to immediate discomfort.

After the dog has held the dumbbell calmly for several seconds, give the release command. Gradually extend the time you leave the dumbbell in the dog's mouth until it will hold it calmly for about half a minute.

Start tapping the dumbbell gently to cause the dog to tighten its grip so that the dumbbell will not fall out of its mouth. Now the dog will have to try harder to keep the dumbbell in its mouth until it hears a release command.

Teach the dog that when you reach toward it, it is not a cue to drop the dumbbell--it must wait for the release command. To teach this, sometimes move your hands toward the dog's head but don't take the dumbbell--scratch its chest instead. Correct the dog with ear pressure if it drops the dumbbell.

Holding Different Objects

The next stage is to introduce different, hardertohold, objects. You are doing this to increase the dog's understanding that it must calmly hold whatever is put in its mouth when the command "Hold" is given. Use such things as a dumbbell weighted only at one end and a piece of pipe wrapped in burlap. You should also introduce frozen game birds to the dog at this time.

Lightly tap on the objects to encourage the dog to resist dropping them. Any time the dog drops something before you give your release command, apply continuous mild ear pressure until the object is back in its mouth.

When you see the dog trying to hold despite the challenge, take the dog out of the snug collar attached to the post, and loosely tie it to the post and cable. Repeat "Hold" with each object now that the dog has some freedom to move.

Hold and Carry

Once the dog understands to hold onto various objects, begin walking it up and down the table with the objects. The dog should be loosely fastened to the overhead cable. An important part of training "Hold" is teaching the dog that it can walk and carry calmly at the same time. If you skip this step, the dog can have problems later when it is expected to carry game birds in the field.

Walk beside the dog as it carries, and apply ear pressure the moment the dog drops what it is carrying. If at any time the dog begins to chew the object, remind it to "Hold," using a stern voice.

Have the dog hold and carry each of the objects up and down the table until it is comfortable with each of them and does not drop them. Praise it quietly for carrying successfully.

The Delivery

Now is the time to build in a willing delivery, and prevent the dog from swinging its head away so that you cannot take the bird. Begin by not taking delivery from the dog until it stops and turns toward you. Encourage it to look at you, and do not reach for the object until the dog stops and focuses its attention on you.

Since the dog knows it isn't allowed to drop what it is carrying until you take it, it will learn to seek you out to get rid of the object. Attract the dog to you with your body motion, and encourage it to make eye contact with you. Then reward it by taking the object and praising it.

Introducing the Retrieve Command

At some point in the training on "Hold," you will see your dog open its mouth voluntarily to take the object as you bring the dumbbell just in front of its mouth. When you see this, you can begin using the command "Fetch" each time you put something in front of the dog's mouth. The "Fetch" command is different from the "Hold" command. "Hold" means hold calmly and don't chew or drop. "Fetch" means reach for the object and take it.

Now your dog is ready to begin learning to reach out and fetch the objects. From now on, do not place the object in the dog's mouth. It must reach. We use a toe hitch for this lesson. A toe hitch (see the photo) is created by a cord fastened above the dog's carpal joint, and brought down and around the two middle toes. Tie the cord around a Velcro strip that fits around the dog's leg. This makes the toe hitch easy to put on and take off the dog. When you pull the cord, the half hitch applies pressure to the dog's two middle toes.

The toe hitch works very well to introduce the "Fetch" command because a dog will reach with its mouth towards a pressure point. With the toe hitch, you can pull the foot forward as you put the dumbbell between the dog's foot and its mouth. The moment the dog's mouth is on the dumbbell, the toe pressure stops.

Fasten the dog loosely to the post at the end of the table. Apply the toe pressure by pulling the cord forward. Give your retrieve command and place the dumbbell between the dog's mouth and foot. Relieve the pressure the moment the dog's mouth is on the dumbbell. Have the dog hold the dumbbell a moment while you praise it. Repeat this process several times, giving the dog time to relax between each repetition.

Now take the dog to the middle of the table, fastened only to the overhead cable, and apply toe pressure as you command "Fetch." Hold the dumbbell between its mouth and foot. Let the dog carry the dumbbell up and down the table so it can feel successful after each retrieve.

When the dog will grab the dumbbell quickly, begin putting it on the surface of the table twelve to eighteen inches in front of the dog's front feet. Command "Fetch" and pull the cord. Let the dog carry the dumbbell up and down the table after each retrieve as you praise it.

Introducing the Electronic Collar

The dog has now learned to hold firmly and calmly, to carry, to deliver to hand, to retrieve off the table surface, and to "turn off" two forms of pressure, ear and toe, by retrieving. Now it is prepared to begin retrieving on command to "turn off" the collar.

Begin with the dog at the end of the table, fastened on a lead to the post, and wearing the toe hitch. Place the electronic collar so that the contact points are on the top of the dog's neck. Wrap the toe cord around the transmitter so that you can conveniently pull the cord and press the button with one hand, leaving the other hand free to present the dumbbell.

Now press the low button on the transmitter, pull the cord, command "Fetch" and present the dumbbell all at the same time. Release the cord and the button the moment the dog grabs the dumbbell. Repeat this until the dog is grabbing the dumbbell eagerly.

You want the dog to make the association that grabbing the dumbbell turns off the collar. So now do not pull the toe hitch as you push the button and command "Fetch." Then pull the toe hitch if the dog hesitates. The dog will quickly learn to respond to the collar, and not wait for the toe pressure. Give it calm praise when it takes the dumbbell.

As the next step, fasten the dog to the overhead cable so that it can move up and down the table. Repeat the procedure, but place the dumbbell on the table for the dog to fetch. After the dog is quickly picking up off the table, you can remove the half hitch from the dog's toes, but leave the cord still fastened to its leg. Pull the cord a few more times as you press the transmitter button and command "Fetch." Having the cord on its leg helps the dog through the transition.

As the final step on the table, remove the toe hitch and use just the electrical stimulation as you command the dog to fetch from the surface of the table. At first, take a step toward the dumbbell to help the dog move forward. Release the button when the dog has the dumbbell in its mouth.

Increase the distance until the dog will move forward confidently to retrieve something that is about six feet away on the table. Give the dog plenty of repetition at this stage, using mild stimulation with each "Fetch" command, and praise whenever it succeeds. Phase out taking a step toward the dumbbell as you press the button and command "Fetch." Eventually, you will be able to stand still as you give the command and the dog's response will be quick and confident.

When you see that the dog is moving quickly to turn off the stimulation by grabbing the dumbbell, you should move the collar to its normal position with the contact points underneath the neck.

After at least two sessions in which you use stimulation with each "Fetch" command, begin commanding "Fetch" without stimulation if the dog is responding promptly to the command. Use stimulation if a second command is needed. (If this happens more than once in a session, you should go back to using stimulation for a while longer with the first command.)

When the dog will move confidently toward the dumbbell when you command "Fetch" and you do not have to step forward to help it, your dog is ready to begin retrieving off the ground.

Retrieving off the Ground

Because the dog is thoroughly prepared on the training table, and understands how to retrieve in order to turn off the collar, the transition to the ground is an easy step for the dog and handler to make. Take the dog off the table and put it on a leash. Work right next to the table, because being in that same area helps the dog understand what is wanted.

Place a bumper eight feet in front of the dog. Walk with the dog toward it as you press the low button and command it to retrieve. Release the button as the dog takes the bumper.

Repeat this sequence a few times, and then switch to a frozen bird as the object to be retrieved. When the dog is confident and does not hesitate to go promptly for the frozen bird, take just a single step toward the dead bird to get the dog moving. Next, eliminate the step forward, so that the dog is starting on its own without the aid of your body motion.

When you see your dog moving quickly to turn off the collar, stop using stimulation with each command. From now on, use your collar only if the dog fails to retrieve on the first command.

Retrieving Only on Command

Next teach the dog that it may retrieve only when you command, and not whenever it pleases. Place three dead birds in a row beside your training table, each one about twenty feet from the next. With the dog on leash, heel it alongside them. If it tries to go for one before you command "Fetch," restrain it with the leash and command "NO". Heel." Periodically, when you are about ten feet in front of a bird command the dog to retrieve.

As the dog completes the retrieve, heel it in a small circle to allow the dog time to carry the bird and feel successful. When you have circled back around to the place where the bird was, stop and take delivery. Drop the bird behind you as you heel away.

This exercise builds controlled expectation in the dog, because at this stage of training, the dog is anxious to retrieve. With this training, the dog will give you a fast response whenever you do give the retrieve command

First Appeared in:
Pointing Dog Journal
, May/June 1994

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