It’s a term commonly heard among retriever trainers who run dogs in hunt tests and field trials: “force fetch.” Others call it the “conditioned retrieve,” “force breaking” or, the term I prefer, “trained retrieve.” Whatever you call it, this is an important part of a dog’s training, regardless of breed.
Even a dog that has been through a proper trained retrieve program might, and will probably, refuse to complete a retrieve someday. If this happens, it will be easy to correct without a great deal of effort by using an e-collar. But if your dog hasn’t been through a trained retrieve program and he pulls this stunt, you have no recourse.
I can already hear some hunters saying, “That doesn’t apply to me. My dog would never let me down.” I’ve heard that countless times, and let me tell you that sooner or later, your dog will likely a.) refuse to go out to retrieve a bird, b.) will run out to a bird and not pick it up or, c.) drop a bird when he’s on his way back to you. Why? Because your “natural retriever” has been retrieving only because he wants to. At the first sign of a distraction, he decides to go his merry way. To me, completing “most” retrieves isn’t good enough. Your dog should complete every retrieve,regardless of the circumstances, because that’s what you expect of him, and that’s what you’ve asked him to do.
There are many methods to achieve your goal of a dog that will pick up anything, anywhere and anytime upon your command. All of them, to varying degrees, rely on creating an uncomfortable situation for the dog, and then teaching the dog that he gets out of the situation by holding the object (training bumper, bird, etc.). The ear pinch has been used for generations. Another is the toe pinch. In both cases, the dog learns that when the object is in his mouth, the pinch stops. It’s not a complicated concept, but some dogs yield to this pressure sooner than others.
Although the concept of the trained retrieve is not difficult, some dogs are easier to work with than others. If you have doubts, consider hiring a professional for the task.
I would never attempt to explain how to execute the trained retrieve in a short article like this. Especially if you’re working with a stubborn dog or a dog that isn’t terribly enthusiastic about retrieving to begin with, it can become frustrating for dog and owner alike. What sometimes happens in these cases, unfortunately, is that the owner gives up. By doing so, he creates another problem, because now the dog has learned that being stubborn will allow him to get his way. This will only make future training exercises harder.
My suggestion is this: if you want a dog that will give you 100% in trying to find and return to you every bird you send him for, enlist the services of a professional trainer. How do you know who will do a good job for you? Ask for references and thoroughly check them out. Any successful trainer should be able to give you dozens of references from satisfied customers whose dogs are reliable retrievers. Then ask your prospective trainer to show you some dogs he’s working with. Do they retrieve happily like they enjoy the task? Or do they plod and sulk like they’re doing it against their will? Sometimes that’s the sign of a heavy-handed approach, which might get the job done, but probably isn’t something you want to put your dog through.
Dogs vary in how quickly they become reliably trained for faultless retrieving, but expect it to take as long as eight weeks or longer. Much of this depends on the dog’s temperament and how much experience with birds the dog had at an early age. I believe that once your dog has been through a good trained retrieve program, you’ll be impressed with the results.
Always check your local and state regulations related to dog training and the use of game birds on private and public property.