Force-Fetch On The Training Table 

Northern Flight Retrievers!

Published in 
 The Retriever Journal
Aug. / Sept. 2008

Force-Fetch On The Training Table
Part 1: Teaching "Hold"

written by Butch Goodwin

Northern Flight Retrievers  

In the previous column. I described how to build a training table for medicating, grooming patching wounds, trimming toenails. and. in general, dealing with all manner of health - and training-related issues where a dog must be under your total control. I concluded by saying, "A table of this design is necessary for force-fetch training that uses the nerve-hitch or toe-hitch method." And that's where we'll begin this time, with using the new table to teach "hold." Next issue, we'll finish the force-fetch process by teaching "fetch" with the toe-hitch procedure. 

But first I want to review a couple points I made in the last issue, By having a dog secured at eye-level on a table, you don't have to continually bend over to put bumpers in his mouth when teaching him to hold. He can also be taught to carry bumpers in his mouth and walk up and down the table while secured by the overhead cable system, which keeps him from leaping off the table. As your training progresses to force-fetch, a cord is attached above the dog's ankle, runs down, and loops around his two center toes. The over rhead cable secures the dog from above, and the trainer holds the end of the cord after it passes around the toes. When the cord is pulled, pressure to the toes can instantly be applied or released as needed. With control of the cord, the trainer never loses contact with the pressure point (the toes). If the dog refuses the command to fetch, the pressure can be instantly reapplied by tightening the cord. 

A few words of caution: An entire force-fetch program can be time consuming and frustrating, but once you begin, you can't quit or give up until it is completed. If you quit before you've finished it, your dog may realize that he has "won" by outlasting his trainer. And once he has won the first battle, he'll try to win again and again at almost any opportunity during his future training! 

How long will the entire force-fetch process take? I tell people that it's similar to a baseball game: "It takes from the time it starts until the last man is out - until it's done!" In other words, there is simply no way of giving you an absolute time frame. I have force-fetched dogs in as few as 10 days and have worked on others for three months with no success. Some dogs show very little reaction to pressure; others are very sensitive to any pain whatsoever and, by appearing to give in at the mere hint of pressure, can "fool" the trainer into believing that they are learning when all they are doing is simply trying to get it over with. So there's no time frame. I usually plan on about a minimum of six weeks of once-a-day sessions. If you can work a couple sessions each day into your schedule, the time can be cut down measurably. 

Also remember that dogs have an innate ability to read the human psyche . If you're frustrated because of outside problems or because your training has not gone as well as anticipated, your force-fetch sessions will definitely suffer. So keep your attitude in check, because you always want your dog coming out his kennel with his tail wagging but under control; you don't want him feeding off your attitude and dreading every training session. 

Similarly, don't be alarmed if your dog quits retrieving entirely while going through the training. Over the years, I have come to realize that it is simply smarter to totally curtail throwing all marks for the dogs during force-fetch. It just doesn't make sense (and could even undermine all your hard-won force-fetching efforts) to have a dog refuse to make a retrieve and you not have the means for making him fetch when he's told. My advice would be to completely stop throwing bumpers until you are satisfied that you have completed the - force-fetch steps and he is consistently fetching bumpers off the ground on command. 

Let's get started with some mouth conditioning and holding. There are a couple methods for teaching him to hold, and both work quite well. The first involves putting a couple fingers his mouth until he gives in to having a foreign object in his mouth. (It is probably best if you wear a glove so if he clamps down it doesn't hurt as bad.) Start by inserting your index and middle fingers inside his mouth, across his lower jaw and tongue, and put your thumb underneath his lower jaw so that he can't struggle and spit your fingers out. After several sessions, when he stops chewing on your fingers and is comfortable with them in his mouth, you can switch to having him hold a wooden dowel or a bumper. 

The other school of thought is to go directly to a wooden dowel or bumper and simply make him hold it. Personally, I think the gloved fingers in the mouth give you more initial control and a better feel for how well he will hold objects, and this is how I start. But once he stops resisting and gives in, I immediately move ahead, switching to a hard plastic bumper. 

Whichever way you choose to start, put him on your table and secure him to the overhead trolley system so that he can walk up and down but can't move his head to reach down much farther than his chest. Use either your hand, a wooden dowel (about 10 inches in length and the diameter of a broom handle), or one of the smaller, 2-inch diameter bumpers - and be sure the bumper is very hard so the dog won't chew or chomp down on it. At this point, we are just trying to convince him to hold the object until he's told to drop it. 

The first few days of teaching your dog to hold can be quite a struggle because most dogs don't like to have something shoved in their mouth and held in place. Carrying a bumper, stick, or whatever may be something he chooses to do on his own, but when he is made to do it, he'll try to spit it out or escape. If he tries to escape by moving down the table, you might have to snub him to one of the vertical uprights on the end of the table. 

You will likely need to put some pressure on his jaws to get him to open his mouth so you can insert your fingers or the object. Put your hand over his muzzle and squeeze on the sides of his jaws until he opens his mouth. When he does, insert your fingers or the object you have been holding in your other hand and tell him, "Fetch" so he begins to associate the word with getting something into his mouth. 

Don't wait for him to open his mouth while saying, "Fetch, fetch" over and over - it likely won't happen. Instead, squeeze his jaws and stick your fingers or the object in right behind his canine teeth. (A note: Check his lips to be sure they aren't caught and being squeezed between his teeth and the object.) Although we are not actually forcing your dog's compliance to the command yet, you should still begin to condition him to the word "fetch" each time you put anything in his mouth. 

Then say, "Hold," and put one hand on top of his muzzle and the other or your thumb, if you have your fingers in his mouth, under his lower jaw and hold his mouth closed. Please note that you are not forcibly squeezing his jaw shut. Start by having him hold it for just a few seconds, and increase the time as he begins to accept it. Praise him generously when he is holding it in his mouth, even if he struggles to spit it out. Just keep your cool even if you have to struggle to keep it in his mouth, and be sure to keep praising him for holding it. As the training progresses and he begins to calm down, lengthen the time he holds it. 

Make sure his lips are clear so that he's not pinching them between a tooth and the bumper.

If you started teaching him to hold using your fingers or the wooden dowel, now is the time to switch to a hard plastic bumper. He might resist a bumper, but if he has given in to accepting your fingers or the dowel, the struggle shouldn't last long. This is also the time you can begin moving your hands away from over his muzzle and under his lower jaw and just "chuck" him under the chin with your fingers to reinforce the hold. If he manages to spit out the bumper, try to catch it quickly and growl, "No" and then, "Fetch" before placing it back into his mouth, chucking hinl under the chin again and reminding him to hold. Don't get upset if he spits it out - it's a natural reaction. You will find that after making a few corrections, your dog will begin holding it fairly reliably and will likely begin to open his mouth when he sees the bumper and hears, "Fetch." 

All throughout these early stages, after he holds the bumper in his mouth for a short time, say, "Drop" and remove it or allow it to fall into your hand. As you progress, expect him to hold it for an increasing length of time. When he reaches the stage where he will open his mouth for you to insert the bumper and hold it for about a minute without any 'correction, it's time to apply some pressure to make him hold it more solidly. 

To firm up his hold, use a stick or the handle of a riding crop to tap on the ends of the bumper while it's in his mouth. Keep reminding him to hold and maybe even reinforce it with a chuck under the lower jaw while you are tapping the ends of the bumper. This should cause him to tighten his grip and hold it more solidly, but you don't want him to bite down hard. Tap the bumper lightly from both the top and the bottom on each end sticking out of his mouth. Remember, the point here is not to smack it so hard you knock it out of his mouth, rather it's to have him learn to hold it firmly without chomping down. 

If you are comfortable that your dog understands what you expect and is holding the bumper confidently, you can add a snap or two to the overhead cable so that he can move around more freely. This is when you want to have him walk up and down on the table while carrying the bumper. Some dogs that are very reliable at holding a bumper while sitting find it difficult to hold when they stand or walk. If he stiffens up and won't move, try walking down and patting your hand on the table, encouraging him to follow. If he spits the bumper out, put it back in his mouth, tell him, "Fetch," and remind him to hold with a tap under the chin. Then continue encouraging him to follow you up and down the table. This might sound odd, but learning to hold and walk at the same time can be a real transition for some dogs, so just keep trying - it will come with time. 

While you wait to begin teaching force-fetch, continue to work on reinforcing his hold on the table. Try having him sit at one end of the table while you walk to the other end. Then call him to where you are standing and have him sit again while carrying the bumper. If you really feel confident about how reliably he is carrying the bumper, unhook him from the overhead cable and snap a leash on him. Walk him off the table while still carrying the bumper in his mouth, and reinforce all of your obedience drills, such as heeling, sitting in front of you, and coming to heel beside you - all without dropping the bumper. 

You can do plenty of work over the next couple months to reinforce his hold reliably. When he will walk up and down the table, sit when told, and then stand up and walk again - all while holding the bumper securely - it is time to begin forcing him to fetch the bumper on command. But we will dive into that in the next column .

The End

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