Gun Dogs: The Force Fetch

Whether you're training retrievers for a Minnesota duck marsh or pointing breeds for a Georgia quail hunt, the trained retrieve is an important aspect of many dog training programs.
For many American retriever enthusiasts, and even dogs that may well never be required to retrieve, such as the pointing breeds, the trained retrieve, or force fetch, can be the backbone of an entire training program.
Force fetch -- the application of stimulation to cue a dog to pick up an object on command -- teaches the dog to deal with pressure and to turn pressure on and off, a key to much of the dog's future training -- depending on the program being used. Force fetch can also help define the trainer's alpha role in the pack hierarchy, as well as bolding up timid dogs and bringing dominant dogs under control.
No matter the type of dog or the use that it is intended for, the trained retrieve will bring about many of the same issues, problems and frustrations for the trainer; working through those obstacles is the key to properly engraining the trained retrieve.
And properly is the key word. For as important and fundamental as the trained retrieve is, it is also one of the most difficult parts of a training program for a novice to get right. There are a multitude of resources available: books, DVDs, online message boards and the like, but direct supervision and instruction are always the best way to learn a complicated task.
To that end, Sharon Potter of Red Branch Kennels in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., conducts trained retrieve clinics throughout the country for people wanting to learn more about the process and how to force fetch their own dogs. Potter is a contributor to Retriever Journal and Pointing Dog Journal and is a member of Team HuntSmith -- named for, and including, the family of Delmar, Rick and Ronnie Smith of bird-dog training renown.
Potter's two-day clinics cover everything from the foundation of the process -- table dimensions and setup, the sacking out process and familiarizing the dog with the table and hold/mouth conditioning -- to the more critical aspects of the ear pinch, handler timing and recognizing and dealing with the dog's escape responses. While participants can use their own dog, the clinic is about more than just force fetching that single animal; the point of the clinic is for their human counterparts to better understand the force fetch process and be able to successfully and properly execute the various aspects of the program -- kind of a canine version of "give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."
The first step covered in Potter's clinic is "sacking out," or the process of familiarizing the dog with the table that is to be used during the force fetch process and associating positive experiences with the area. "The dog should enjoy being on the table," said Potter, who has forced fetched hundreds of dogs in nearly 20 years of experience. For some dogs, just being placed on and moving about a table can be a taxing experience. Many obedience trainers will elevate an obstinate or aggressive dog onto a table or other elevated item in order to suck some of confidence out of it. By "taking a dog's legs" a trainer has already started to put himself into a more dominant role and has made the dog less sure of itself. For this reason, the sacking out process needs to be a happy time, you want to alleviate the dog's insecurities on the table and have it enjoy its time there as much as possible.
After a period (that may last several days or weeks) of just sacking out, which constitutes a thorough rub-down and handling of the dog, the process is repeated for several minutes prior to each session on the table. Chris Larson of Six Oak Gun Dogs in Stillwell, Kansas, notes that when sacking out you have to tailor the session to the individual dog. "If you have a dog that's real excited and animated, you'll want to go slower, giving the dog a more thorough, deeper massage. The more excited they are, the slower I go," said Larson. "If the dog is already a really calm dog that really relaxes and gives himself over, I might not be so slow and deliberate; but rather give a cursory rub down, one that's not so deep, just a petting and stroking."
"When the dog is compliant and you can handle any part of the dog and they are quiet and calm and happy, then you move to the gloved hand in the mouth and then the hold process," said Potter. "You're starting a foundation, starting with sacking out, then the mouth and up, up, up from there. If you have a problem, you can always step back."
While much ado is made about the ear pinch or toe hitch portion of force fetch, Potter believes it's the step that comes well before any pinching or pulling of the dog has begun -- that being getting the dog to accept holding and releasing an object, any object, on command.
"If you don't have mouth control none of the rest of it will work," said Potter. "You can pinch a dog's ear forever and it can still be hard mouthed and munch birds."
By building upon the touching done during sacking out sessions, the dog has already started to give itself over to you. By sliding your gloved hand over the dog's body and muzzle repeatedly, it's a small step to placing your hand in the dog's mouth and teaching it to hold.
Once the dog understands the basic concept, you can move onto a wooden dowel and continue to build upon the time the dog is required to hold the dowel, incorporate a release command and tighten up mouth manners.
From there you teach the dog that it can indeed "walk and chew gum" at the same time. Holding an object and moving at the same time may present problems for some dogs at the beginning but they quickly catch on. After the dog understands what is being asked of it, you can introduce new objects for it to hold, including frozen birds, thawed birds and eventually fresh-killed birds.
The stimulation, or ear pinch/toe hitch, is what turns many people off to the trained retrieve process. Potter contends that if people build a solid foundation and spend adequate time in the sacking out and mouth conditioning portions of the process, the actual stimulation portion goes by quickly.
"The biggest misconception is that (force fetch) is hard on the dog. It's not torture, it's teaching a dog to respond to a specific cue in a specific manner. It's really no different than the rest of the training we do," said Potter. "The hardest part of force fetch is over in 10 minutes. In the 20- to 40-hours it takes to go through a very thorough program those 10 minutes are not a big deal."
Of course, nobody likes to actually hurt their dog, but the stimulation portion of force fetch isn't about needlessly inflicting pain -- it's about teaching the dog to respond to a cue and turn the stimulation off. Potter's position is that the stimulation involved in the process "isn't a threat, it's a promise," and if the trainer can get their head around that and just carry out the steps properly, the entire exercise will go smoothly. "Get your mind set right and get through it. Push through it, don't be tentative, mean it. Don't baby it. Don't get emotional when the dog gets upset," said Potter. "The biggest problem is that people are tentative and afraid to get started on it and I think that has more to do with the misconceptions about what it is more than anything."
Timing
While the stimulation may be the hardest for trainers to deal with emotionally, it is actually not the hardest part for them to deal with physically. The timing required by the trainer when stimulating the dog's ear or toe is critical. Releasing that physical stimulus as the wooden dowel is place or taken into the dog's mouth is the most important, and according to Potter most difficult, part for novice trainers to correctly carry out.
"People release too late during the hold/fetch process. The point of force fetch, of the ear pinch, is to turn off the stimulation," said Potter. "Getting the buck in the dog's mouth and being late makes it difficult for the dog to understand how to turn it off. The stimulation has to stop the minute the buck is in the dog's mouth."
Novices may need an instructor like Potter to help them emotionally get through the stimulation portion of force fetch, but having a person experienced in timing is perhaps the most critical and worthwhile aspect of the seminar. Potter guides each pupil through the pinch-and-release aspect of force fetch and helps develop that timing. And, with better timing comes a dog that can quickly put together what you are asking of it, which in turn will produce quicker results and an easier process and less time pinching or pulling on a dog's extremities.
Beyond the Clinic
While the seminar is two days in duration, it's nearly impossible to force fetch a dog in that time. However, participants will have a thorough understanding of the mechanics of the process and can go home and carry out the steps with confidence.
"(Participants) can expect to be through the hard part of the ear stimulation. They can have the basic stimulation done and will have the tools to finish the rest when they get home," said Potter. "And that's the important part: going back and starting over with the steps they've learned because we have to rush through it."
In addition to covering the fundamentals of force fetch, Potter's seminars also give a cursory overview of the finishing aspects of the trained retrieve and how to get from the table to the finish line -- topics covered include walking fetch, force to pile and overlaying the e-collar.
Another aspect that causes concern for the inexperienced or average trainer is the time commitment required to complete the force fetch process. As with any topic concerning dog training and time frames, the answer is subjective.
There's nothing like hands-on instruction for completing a difficult task. And when you're talking about force fetch and building the entire foundation of a dog's training program, Sharon Potter's trained retrieve seminars are time and money well spent.

The trained retrieve, or force fetch, is one of most important and difficult aspects of many dog training programs.