Forced or Natural Retrieve

Paul Fuller is the gun dog columnist for Northwoods Sporting Journal. The Journal has granted permission to re-print Paul’s articles. Thank you Northwoods Sporting Journal

July 2010

Natural retrieve or force-fetch? I’ve mentioned in this column before that if you get five professional trainers in a room, you’ll get five different answers on a training question. That rule certainly applies to the above question.

First, let’s discuss force-fetch. There are trainers who feel the only true and reliable system is to teach the retrieve through a force-fetch program. This is also referred to as the trained retrieve. If done correctly, this technique produces a reliable and consistent retrieve to hand. It does not instill passion to retrieve; it mandates the retrieve. This mandate is accomplished through negative reinforcement. There is no sugar coating the process; it is what it is. Pressure is used to insure a proper pick-up, hold and delivery. When the dog performs correctly, the pressure is removed.

There are many reasons for using force-fetch retrieve training. One reason was mentioned above: a consistent and reliable retrieve to hand. You may have a dog that has little or no retrieve instinct. The force-fetch program overcomes this problem. It also completes the “brag” dog process. You have a dog that is steady to wing and shot, a dog that honors and now a dog that delivers the bird to hand. Your friends will be in shock and awe.

The force-fetch also produces a more obedient dog. If you have a headstrong dog, you will definitely have a dog more responsive to all commands after completing the force-fetch program. You’ll have a new level of control in the field.

In addition, if you compete with your dog or enter a test program through groups like North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA) or the American Kennel Club (AKC), you’ll need to have a dog that reliably retrieves to hand. Force-fetch training will provide a reliable retrieve. A word of caution: Your dog needs to be at least one year old before entering a force-fetch program. It needs to understand pressure.

Unless you have successfully taught the force-fetch, you must work with a professional trainer…at least to learn the beginning steps. Performing the step-by-step procedure incorrectly could result in a permanent negative behavior. Blaine Carter in Maine (207-725-8229) and Dave Trahan in New Hampshire (603-494-3802) are both highly experienced professional trainers for the force-fetch method of retrieve.

Okay, you’re primarily a hunter and would find it convenient for your dog to retrieve but perhaps dropping the bird at your feet is satisfactory. The foot-drop wouldn’t stand up under testing or competition but will certainly serve the hunter. Simply developing a dog’s natural retrieve instincts may be the only work required. Most of the versatile breeds have a natural retrieve instinct.

I started Dillon (my shorthair) on retrieve exercises at four months. This was done with a check-cord and small dummy. He naturally chased the dummy and picked it up. I used the check-cord to make sure he returned the dummy to me. Initially, I would throw the dummy perhaps six to eight times and then stop. After five or six sessions with the dummy, I switched to a frozen quail. His passion was commendable with the dummy; however, it really elevated with the frozen quail. Throughout both the dummy and the frozen quail drills, I used the “dead-bird” command when he ran to get the dummy and the “drop” command when he came to me. I’ve never used a “treat” to encourage his retrieve. His natural instincts developed and, for a hunter, he’s always executed a reliable retrieve. For sweet tasting birds, he will bring the bird to within two feet of me and drop. Perhaps one out of every three woodcock, he’ll come 10’ and then drop; however, he promptly picks up the bird again and returns to me.

Talk about natural instincts, Dillon has never lost a wounded bird. Last year in Ontario, Canada, he tracked a wounded grouse 200 yards before catching it and returning to me. Again, his natural instincts were allowed to develop early. This fall he will be entering his fifth hunting season and I’ll feel confident that I will not loose a wounded bird.

So, the choice is yours. If you need or want a reliable and consistent retrieve, then see a professional about a force-fetch program. If you’re a hunter who simply wants a dog that recovers your dead or wounded birds, you may be able to simply develop your dog’s natural instincts. Good luck with whichever method you use.

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