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Force-Breaking Your Retriever
Without a doubt, force-breaking (also known as “force fetch”) is one of the most difficult and time consuming steps in training a retriever. Even experienced trainers often find the process frustrating at times, and due to the fact that it cannot be accomplished without causing the dog some level of discomfort, it can be downright unpleasant.
On the other hand, it is NOT some mysterious procedure that only a pro can do, and positive benefits of it far outweigh negative aspects. As with all training, the key is to have a plan and follow it. In this issue and the next we will take an in-depth look at the force fetch procedure and try to break it down into a series of steps that any amateur can use.
Why Do It?
I am frequently asked why you should force-break your retriever at all. After all, these dogs are supposed to have fetching in their blood, aren’t they? While it is true that all retrieving breeds should have a genetic predisposition to run out and grab a bird, it is not in a dog’s genetic makeup to always bring it back to you, turn at heel and hold the bird until you take it from them. Instead reliable delivery to hand is a trained response.
Therefore, the purpose of force fetch is to teach the dog to bring the bird back to the handler and hold it until the handler takes it from him. While you will occasionally find a dog that delivers to hand naturally, most non-force-broken dogs will drop the bird after completing a retrieve. This can be particularly aggravating if the bird happens to be a strong cripple that subsequently escapes, or if the dog chooses to drop the bird in the water just out of your reach.
Additionally, some dogs will play with birds, hard mouth birds, or stick on birds (refusing to give them up). Force-breaking helps us deal with all of these problems.
Finally, most advanced training concepts such as handling and teaching a dog to break cover build on the force fetch process. As a matter of fact, teaching a retriever to take a line for a blind is an extreme extension of basic force-breaking. Therefore, force breaking provides the foundation for almost all future training.
The Sanborn Method
Strange as it may sound, the origins of force-breaking a dog to retrieve actually began with a pointing dog trainer over 100 years ago. According to noted retriever training author James B. Spencer, a pointing dog trainer named David Sanborn developed force-breaking in the 1880s to get his pointers to deliver to hand.
Back in the late 19th century, when Mr. Sanborn invented force-breaking, most dog trainers also worked with horses, and the terminology applied to horses often carried over to the dogs, too. Since training a horse was referred to as “breaking” the horse, it only seemed natural that training a dog would be referred to as “breaking” the dog. Thus, when Mr. Sanborn started forcing his pointers to retrieve, he called it “force-breaking” the dog.
Because pointing dog owners have always been concerned about style in their dogs, Sanborn’s approach to force-breaking was slow, methodical and gentle. It involves only applying the amount of pressure necessary to get a response, and it utilizes a great deal of praise. Sanborn began by teaching his dogs to hold a wooden dowel or “buck”. He would then teach the dog to “fetch” the buck by pinching its toes with a string. Later, he would replace the toe pinch with a pinch of the dog’s ear on the ground. By the time the process was finished he could send his dog after a dead bird on the ground, which the dog would retrieve and deliver to hand.
While all modern force fetch techniques derive from Mr. Sanborn’s method in one way or another, many no longer resemble it at all. In an effort to show fast results (or just get it over quickly) many pros have adopted what I call the “Hell Week” approach to force fetching a dog. This technique involves a great deal of pressure in a short amount of time. While it can be fast and effective, it is anything but gentle and can rob a dog of style. Perhaps more importantly, a Hell Week approach just will not work for some dogs.
I personally believe that Sanborn’s way is still best after almost 125 years. It is not as fast as the Hell Week approach, but when used correctly it will work with almost any dog that has a desire to retrieve. The only two requirements are that the dog has its permanent teeth, and that it be fully obedience trained prior to beginning force-breaking.
Breaking it Down
I have often written in this column that any good training program can be broken down into major divisions and/or smaller steps. This certainly applies to force training as well. Force-breaking can be broken down into two basic divisions: training on the table, and training in the yard. Additionally, each of these components involves a series of steps. Presented as an outline force-breaking looks like this:
(A) Work on the Training Table
1. Acclimating the dog to the table
2. Teaching “hold”
3. Teaching “fetch” from the hand with the toe hitch
4. Teaching “fetch” from the table with the toe hitch
(B) Work on the Ground
1. Review “hold”
2. “Fetch” from hand with an ear pinch
3. “Fetch” from ground with an ear pinch
4. Walking fetch with ear pinch
5. Reinforced fetch
The two general headings refer to where each step in the division occurs, namely, on the training table or in the yard.
(A)Work on the Training Table
We begin force-breaking all of our dogs on a training table that is 42 inches high, three feet deep and twelve feet long. Our table has a sturdy hitching post in the center of each end with a ¼ inch cable stung taut approximately 30 inches high down the center. Attached to the cable is roller and snap that can be fastened to the dog’s collar. There are also snaps secured to the post on each end of the table so that we may fasten the dog in place if necessary.
(Note: Having a table built specifically for the purpose of training a dog is nice, but it is not required. I have seen dogs successfully forced on counter tops, a door across two saw horses, and on the tail gate of trucks. The important thing is that the dog is in an elevated position about waist high where he can easily be secured to maintain stability and control.)
Acclimating the Dog to the Table
Since a great deal of time will be spent on the training table during the initial stages of force-breaking it is best to begin by making the dog feel comfortable there. Begin by teaching the dog to jump up onto the table. Depending on the height of your table this may require some encouragement. If the dog is particularly stubborn about loading up you may have to apply upward pressure with the leash just as you did when teaching sit.
After loading the dog onto the table, securely fasten his collar to the roller snap on the cable and have the dog walk back and forth over the length of it. Often the dog will appear scared or uncomfortable on the table. Reassure him that the table is a good place to be and positively reinforce his movements on it with a great deal of praise. If necessary, feed the dog on the table each day to build his confidence there.
Building a confident attitude on the table before beginning the force fetch process will go a long way toward making this entire phase of training easier.
Once the dog begins to feel comfortable 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”. Over the years I have seen trainers use a number of articles to teach hold, ranging from a knobby dummy to a ball peen hammer. However, I like the training buck best because it is easy for the dog to hold, and it is not an item that I will use elsewhere in training.
Training bucks can be purchased from various dog supply companies, or you can simply make your own. (I believe that my current dowels were made by sawing a broken shovel handle into eight inch pieces!) I always keep three or four on hand, so that 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 verbal command “fetch” while prying apart his teeth and inserting the dowel into his mouth. At first, most dogs fight holding the buck and try to spit it out. To avoid this I hold the dog’s mouth shut with one hand while holding my thumb in the “V” of the lower jaw under the chin with the other. At the same time I 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 occur with a couple of minutes; other times it will take up to half an hour to achieve this goal. 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 still I will begin to try to get the dog to move up and down the table with the dowel in his mouth. Should the dog drop the dowel I simply say “no, fetch” and remind the dog to “hold” after placing the buck back in his mouth.
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. Therefore, 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.
Teaching “Fetch” from the Hand with the Toe Hitch
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. When you are finished the “toe hitch” should resemble the one in the accompanying photograph, and it 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 is 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. However, 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 the “fetch” command.
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 is time to have the dog move in other directions for it. Start by holding the dowel off to one side and command 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.
Teaching “Fetch” from the Table with the Toe Hitch
Once the dog has begun to respond to the fetch command in different directions it is time to transition the dog to picking the buck up 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. Some dogs who have a truly ingrained desire to fetch will not give much opportunity to correct with a bumper. Therefore we incorporate the undesirables to pro more chances for correction.
Should you have a dog that eagerly accepts anything you put in front of it you can always hold the buck just out to the dog’s reach on the table while pinching the toe. In other words, apply pressure while denying the retrieve.
Finally, you should always use both a fresh and a frozen duck prior to leaving the table, otherwise the process is incomplete.
(B) Work on the Ground
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.
“Fetch” from Hand with an Ear Pinch
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.
“Fetch” from the Ground with an Ear Pinch
This part of the force breaking process can really be a back breaking chore. Just as it can be difficult to get the dog to pick up the dowel off the table, it can also be a tough transition to getting the dog to pick it up off the ground. 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 this process by placing several dummies out on the ground in a row resembling the rungs on a ladder. Then you have the dog walk passed them on lead at your side. Command the dog to fetch at random, and reinforce any refusals with an ear pinch.
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” on 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 on 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 that I work with has its own individual characteristics. Therefore, there really is no set time table for force training. Instead you should work to be consistent and fair with your dog. That means following the process step by step, and allow the dog to learn at his own pace.