Training for a Reliable "Fetch"

by Jim & Phyllis Dobbs

We are constantly looking for a better way to train dogs. Whether its molding inherited behavior of structuring new ones, the teaching method used should make it easy for the dog to learn. In Pointing Dog Journal, Sept/Oct 1999, we brought you up to date on teaching your dog to "Hold". In this column we will bring you up to date on the methods we currently use when teaching the dog to fetch.

After a dog has been taught to hold and carry birds, he must learn that retrieving them is not a voting issue. To get a reliable fetch command and to prevent hard-mouth problems, the dog must be taught a proper retrieve.

First Review "Hold"

Whenever you use a retrieve object that is new to the dog, first put it in the dog's mouth and have him carry it. The dog should be familiar with an object before you use it for training.

Don't forget to have him hold and carry a live bird. It's especially important to have him get used to carrying birds before going to the field where, sooner or later, he will have to fetch a wounded bird. If he isn't taught to carry live birds he may shy away from picking them up. Or, he may start killing them, which leads to hard-mouth problems even with dead birds.

We stress teaching "Hold" as doing so will prevent many problems. And with "Hold" fully understood and accepted, you will find that training "Fetch" goes much easier.

Training "Fetch"

Your "Hold" lessons taught him not to drop until given a command to drop. The objective for "Fetch" is to first have him reach and take it and eventually go and get it.

We prefer to begin with a plastic dumbbell because its shape makes it easy to pick up. Using a dumbbell, teach the dog that when he doesn't fetch on the first command, a toe or ear pinch will accompany the second command. The pinch is applied until the dog grabs the dumbbell. (We have found that pressing the ear between your thumb and index fingernail and rubbing them together works well. You don't have to press hard, just make it annoying for that individual dog.)

Since the dog has completed the "Hold" training, he has learned that he can avoid pressure from a pinch by holding onto the dumbbell. Therefore, he will make the transition to fetching it in order to turn off pressure much easier than if you begin by teaching "Fetch" without first teaching "Hold".

Start training by holding the dumbbell about an inch from the dog's mouth. As training progresses, hold the dumbbell down further away from his mouth, until he will reach down about twelve inches. Just remember the cliché, "Inch by inch, its a cinch". It really applies to this part of training.

Next, walk him forward while dragging one end of the dumbbell in front of him on the table. Having him fetch while he is moving is easier than having him fetch from a stationary position. Apply ear or toe pinch pressure as you repeat the command. Practice until he will consistently take the dumbbell out of your hand the first time he is given the command "Fetch".

Now place the dumbbell on the table and walk him toward it. Not having your hand on the dumbbell changes the picture making this a big step for most dogs. Consequently, this step in training the dog to fetch often takes many repetitions before the dog is consistent. Be patient, and if necessary, touch one end of the dumbbell to help him. Gradually you will be able to get him the fetch without your hand near the dumbbell.

Using the e-collar

After the dog has accepted reaching down and picking up a dumbbell off the table, start using an e-collar to enforce the command "Fetch". While still on the table, place the dumbbell about six feet away from the dog. Walk him toward it, and when he is halfway to it, tell him "Fetch".

Keep walking. If he passes the dumbbell, let him get a body length past it and then give him a few "nicks" with the e-collar while you turn him around. The last "nick" should occur just as he begins heading back in the direction of the dumbbell. Use the familiar ear or toe pinch to make him fetch when he gets to the dumbbell. At this stage of training you are using the e-collar as a correction for leaving the dumbbell without picking it up.

Repeat this procedure several times always "nicking" him as he approaches the end of the table if he doesn't pick up the dumbbell. Gradually increase the length of time you are "nicking" him until he is ending the pressure by picking up the dumbbell. Once he understands that picking it up stops the "nicks", he will begin to pick it up on your first "Fetch" command.

If you have been using a training table, now is the time to make the transition to the ground. Toss a dumbbell about eight feet away. Walk the dog on lead toward the dumbbell and give the "Fetch" command when he is about four feet away from it. If he passes the dumbbell use the same "nick" technique with the e-collar that you used on the training table to make him fetch. Then repeat the sequence but use a dead bird instead of a dumbbell.

Next walk the dog toward a bird that is lying on the ground without the attraction of seeing it thrown. Use the same procedure to make him fetch as you did when you tossed the bird.

Delivery to Hand

Delivery to hand is very important. It is not just a fancy completion of the retrieve. It actually establishes a "working attitude" in the dog.

The dog must understand that he is working for you and delivering the bird to hand is his job. This perspective helps prevent the dog from believing that he is "self-employed".

Using the previously taught commands of "Here". "Whoa" and "Hold" will give you the necessary control needed to establish a nice delivery to hand. (Teaching the dog in a sequential learning order is extremely important. Without a "Here", "Whoa" and "Hold" trying to get the dog to deliver to hand can be a real hassle)

Back to a Pile

To have a reliable retrieve, we address removing the dog's option to quit. Forcing the dog back to a pile of bumpers or birds is designed to teach him that quitting isn't a viable option.

To begin, spread six or more birds on the ground about two feet apart. Throw a bird to the pile and send the dog to fetch. Then send the dog to retrieve a bird from the pile without the attraction of throwing one.

Gradually move farther away from the pile. If the dog won't go when sent, put him on a check cord. Have an assistant guide him toward the pile with the check cord as you repeat your command. "Nick" him with the e-collar until he starts going back toward the pile.

If you don't have an assistant, run the check cord around a post at the pile so you can guide him yourself. Whenever the dog fails to go, shorten the distance to the pile on the next repetition. You want him to be successful the second time so that he can easily see what works and what doesn't.

Gradually lengthen the distance to the pile until he will go, off lead, at least twenty yards when sent back to a pile.

Faster Pick-up

Most dogs love this lesson. To develop a fast pick-up, we use a rubber pheasant attached to a 30-foot long line. Have an assistant stand about 60 feet from the dog and throw the bird towards the dog. Send the dog, and when he gets close to the bird, have your assistant pull the bird so it is moving away from the dog.

After the dog gets used to picking up the moving bird, pull it away fast so that the dog has to speed up to catch it. It usually doesn't take long until the dog views this procedure as a lot of fun and develops a quicker pick-up.

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Marysville, CA 95901
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