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Is forced fetching the only way to guarantee a reliable retrieve to hand?
By: Thomas Aaron
Forced fetching has become a deeply entrenched method for training gun dogs to retrieve. Many claims are made about its effectiveness – some downright mythical. For example, a quick Google search for forced fetching will unearth (un-web?) many claims that are some flavor of “forced fetching is the only way to guarantee a reliable retrieve to hand.”
The point of this article is to deconstruct that statement into its fundamental elements and answer these questions:
1. Is forced fetching the only way to teach a dog to retrieve to hand?
2. Does forced fetching guarantee a reliable retrieve?
A Concise Definition of Forced Fetching
Forced Fetching (often called “force breaking”) is a training technique that uses negative reinforcement (usually in the form of an ear or toe pinch, and later a shock collar) to convince a dog to let an item into its mouth. When the dog lets the item into its mouth, the pinch ceases, and the dog eventually learns to avoid discomfort by taking the item. Through a process of gradual increases of criteria, the dog learns to avoid the application of a punishment by running out after an item, grabbing it in his mouth, bringing it back to the hunter, and delivering it to the hunter's hand – all on command.
Is forced fetching the only way to teach a dog to retrieve to hand?
To be fair, I think this statement must have originally been conceived to differentiate dogs who had been trained via forced fetching from those who retrieved only as an instinctual reflex and without the advantage of formal instruction. But even if that is the case, the notion is incorrect.
If forced fetching has any advantage at all, it is in the fact that it is a formal training process, which usually will trump the instinctive retrieve in style, complexity and consistency. But if formal training is its primary benefit (and I will show that it is), there are numerous other ways to formally train a dog to retrieve using positive reinforcement.
Probably the most noteworthy work on training a positive retrieve is The Clicked Retriever by Lana Mitchell, which is available on Amazon.com. The clicker-based, force-free method described in this book was developed to build a reliable retrieve for competitive obedience and can be used even for dogs who have virtually no retrieving instinct.
Alternatively, if a dog has a strong, natural inclination to retrieve, it is fairly straightforward to convert that drive into a reliable, trained retrieve. The most important elements of doing this are handsomely rewarding only deliveries to hand (which assures the dog will hurry straight back to you and naturally fosters a reliable hold); adding a “fetch” cue so that the dog knows when to execute the retrieve; and doing various drills to gradually build in situational complexity and increase the dog's drive and confidence.
Does forced fetching guarantee a reliable retrieve?
Forced fetching is developed from the “Negative Reinforcement” quadrant of B.F. Skinners Learning Theory. In layman's terms this means the dog learns to retrieve to avoid the application of something it finds unpleasant – a punishment. It is a compulsion-based system of training the retrieve that communicates to the dog: “retrieve or else.”
While Negative Reinforcement certainly is a way dogs learn, it is not ideally suited for developing reliable off-leash behavior. In fact, quite the opposite is true. At best, dogs who perform to avoid a punishment can only be truly relied upon when they are within the range of the punisher.
As an example, I recently was observing a field trial in which a dog escaped from the waiting area and was running around exploring the parking lot. The handler went after the dog yelling “Come! Come!” in a threatening tone. The dog would turn to face the handler and display a hunkering, slinky, submissive body posture. Each time the handler got close enough to the dog to grab it by the collar, the dog would dart a few feet away from the handler, his ears laid back and tail tucked tightly between his legs – always staying just out of punishment-range. And how many times have we heard comments to the effect of: “He is a perfect dog until the shock collar comes off.”
I often acquire clients whose dogs washed out of a traditional gun dog program by failing the forced fetch element of the training. These dogs either have a hesitant or sluggish retrieve, or they adamantly refuse to retrieve at all. This is not uncommon, particularly with softer, more sensitive dogs. In essence, these dogs have learned to dread the very thing they were bred for because it was paired with force and too much pressure.
When I discuss this loss of drive with others who have force fetched their dogs, I sometimes receive rebuttals like: “My dog was force fetched and he loves to retrieve!” I would suggest that such dogs love to retrieve in spite of being force fetched and not because of it. Why would a dog love doing something to avoid punishment? (Why would you?) Such dogs usually have a harder temperament and a strong enough retrieving drive that the forced fetch process wasn't punitive enough to quash that desire. In other words, the dog loves to retrieve because it finds the act of retrieving very reinforcing, not because it was force fetched.
The invention of the shock collar certainly worked to the benefit of the forced fetch process. It essentially gives the handler a very long-range way to apply pressure (a shock instead of an ear pinch) to an uncooperative dog, thereby making negative reinforcement uncharacteristically effective. While I won't argue that a shock collar cannot work to create a reliable retrieve at a distance, I will argue that it is a self-perpetuating handicap that poses a number of risks.
The risks include the dog developing hard mouth (if a shock is applied while the dog has a bird in his mouth), blinking or ignoring birds (if the dog is shocked while approaching a bird); fear of the patch of ground he was shocked on; confusion leading to shutdown if the dog has no idea why he is being shocked; and negative associations made towards whatever he was looking at when he was shocked. But from a performance and reliability standpoint, by far the biggest risk of using a shock collar is the loss of reliability when the shock collar is removed.
While forced fetching claims to be able to make a dog do something he may not want to do (a claim that is particularly without merit in the absence of shock collars, which are forbidden in most field trials and hunt tests anyway), consider the possibility of altogether bypassing the problem of a dog not wanting to retrieve.
Because positively training a retrieve builds drive and desire for retrieving, it creates a dog more naturally reliable and motivated than one whose primary motivation is avoiding punishment. Dogs who work to avoid punishment have a tendency to do the bare minimum required of them; dogs who work for an outcome they enjoy tend to raise the performance bar on their own – just like humans.
To keep everything completely honest, there is no single training method that will ensure a dog reliably retrieves every single time. Dogs are not robots; they are emotional and intelligent creatures who occasionally will kick the boundaries that have been set for them. They have their own interests, and sometimes they will choose those interests over us – or over the retrieve.
From a forced fetch-oriented perspective, the answer in that case is to punish the dog. If the dog is not wearing a shock collar, you are out of luck unless you can outrun, out-swim or outmaneuver your dog. If he is wearing one, you can hope the shock collar communicates what you think it will without negative blow-back.
From a positive training perspective, the answer is teaching the dog that deferring to you is always rewarding. On its face, this makes it easier to regain control of an off-agenda dog. But, during the training process, the dog also learns that ignoring you results in the termination of the hunt – which is a very powerful motivator to a dog who wants to be out there in the field where life is much more rewarding.
While neither way is absolutely foolproof, it is my contention that the positive method is ultimately the more psychologically healthy, naturally reliable method of training a retrieve to hand. On the other hand, forced fetching fails muster when it comes to living up to its claims of being the only way to develop a reliable retrieve to hand; its drawbacks and limitations far outweigh the benefits.
Thomas Aaron is the owner of FetchMasters in Denver, CO, and is the founder of the Positive Gun Dog Training Program and the Positive Gun Dog Association. He specializes in training gun dogs using positive reinforcement-based methods and developing off-leash reliability in pet dogs.
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