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THE FETCH COMMAND — LESSONS IN FEEL, FUN AND FORCE
With a Review of the New Bill Hillmann Fetch Command DVD
by Dennis R. Voigt

Working retrievers must fetch without question when commanded. A failure to fetch is a failure to retrieve to hand. Many decades ago trainers developed ways of ensuring that dogs complied. They called this force fetch or force breaking with good reason because “force” was the operative word. Most trainers used an ear pinch to reinforce the fetch behaviour. Some Pointer trainers used a toe hitch which a few later retriever trainers also adopted. Finally, some used the e-collar either at the end of force fetching or in some cases exclusively.

Another group of trainers has primarily used praise and positive reinforcement only. Virtually all British trainers do not use an ear pinch or force procedure nor do most Europeans. A group of American trainers that pursue “British” methods (such as Milner and Stewart) also avoid ear pinching or e-collars for fetching

In the past, I have used a variety of methods including ear pinch, toe hitch and e-collar. I have done it on a table both restrained and unrestrained (for a complete and thorough description see Milner’s Retriever Training for the Duck Hunter book), while on the ground and sitting on steps. I have always thoroughly taught “hold” first, unlike some who skip that step. After hold is established, I emphasize fetch and teach the dog to grab bumpers on command. The dog would then be taught to avoid or escape the an ear pinch which would start with the command and end with the behaviour (fetch). This is classic negative reinforcement in which the aversive is removed during a behaviour. This increases the likelihood that the behaviour will be increased (reinforced) in the future. The sequence was followed by praise which is positive reinforcement in which something pleasant is added to increase (reinforce) the behaviour. The timing of the aversive and the praise helped the reinforcement but unfortunately some dogs get the wrong idea and the likelihood of desired behaviour often decreased. This is, in fact, punishment training – adding an aversive which decreases a behaviour. Thus, some people got dogs clamming up and weeks and weeks of stress for the dog (and the trainer!)

I am well aware that many trainers not only hate doing force fetch but that many dogs do also. For many dogs it is a chamber of horrors as some take weeks and weeks to finish the ordeal. In contrast, I always enjoyed working with my pup and learning about him and his response to pressure and how quickly he caught onto the ideas I was trying to teach. Sure, I would often have 2-3 challenging days when progress seemed minimal but I could usually finish force fetch in 10-15 days by having 2-3 short sessions per day. The key as hinted above was to not let the dog get the wrong idea and clam up or resist. That required reading the dog and praising when appropriate to make it clear what I wanted and for them to feel good. It was important to be persistent and consistent with both praise and pressure.

E-collar Fetch

In the past, like most trainers, I started formal basics training when the pup was 5-7 months old. This is when they were believed to be mature enough and also approximately when they had their permanent teeth. The puppy was force fetched using conventional methods. When basic obedience and e-collar conditioning was complete, I also reinforced fetch with the e-collar. Most often I used a method I modified from the teachings of Jim Dobbs of California. Basically, I got the dog real excited and in prey drive mode. I would excitedly throw a bumper on the ground only a few feet away and get the dog to break and dive for it. As he dove for it, I would say fetch and give a nick. And then praise. My nicks were of short duration and medium intensity but I would escalate the intensity until the dog clearly was affected by the e-collar but still drove through it to fetch. Although some do, I did not hold the transmitter button on until the dog had the bumper in his mouth. I have done this method with all my dogs since I started using the e-collar for training in the mid-1980’s.

Problems with the Ear pinch and Force fetch

Over the years, I merrily did my force fetching, all the while hearing about problems by others. Some of the stories sounded exaggerated but gradually I concluded that it was true that some dogs and some trainers had serious problems while force fetching. With the proliferation of Internet training forums and many more discussions with others, I realized that for the many retrievers and for many trainers, the force fetch process is, indeed, traumatic. This continues today. As I write this in August 2011, the forums are chock full of force fetch posts describing all sorts of problems and suggested solutions. Some advice is good and some is frighteningly misguided in my opinion.

I have written about force fetch before and many others more experienced than I have also. Some have produced DVD’s. But it seems people still can’t get the timing or the teaching right or have to resort to escalating pressure way beyond what I believe should be necessary to get a reliable fetcher. I think the biggest problem that people have is that they use the ear pinch to get the dog to fetch rather than teach the fetch and use the ear pinch to reinforce the fetch.

About 5 years ago, I suddenly realized how little I used the ear pinch with my dogs once they had finished formal force fetch. Perhaps, I used it a total of 2-3 times for not picking up a bumper or avoiding a fetch when moving on to Pile work and to T-work. Even my walking fetch work didn’t require a lot of ear pinch. It turned out that with all my Transition and more Advanced dogs that I used fetch and the e-collar whenever reinforcement was needed. Examples of need might include a dropped bird, a failure to fetch up, or a mouth or hold issue. I began to realize that the e-collar was all I used if pressure was necessary other than the occasional swat with a heeling stick. It occurred to me that I was putting the pup through all that stress with the ear pinch to teach him to respond to pressure but began to wonder why that was necessary. I realized that all of my other commands such as sit, and here, actually were also reinforced with pressure (using the heeling stick and the e-collar) and thus I began to question why ear pinch was necessary. Perhaps the ear pinch was not necessary including the lessons that went with it. These thoughts continued until I got a DVD which convinced me to try force fetching a dog without the ear pinch.

No More Ear Pinch!

Bill Hillmann’s DVD, Training a Retriever Puppy, came out in time for my 2nd last puppy obtained in the spring of 2009. As many of you know, I have become a firm advocate of Hillmann’s approach to training puppies including the early schedule. For me, some of the most valuable features are the emphasis on ‘sit, steadiness and developing patience. Bill does this by balancing excitement and discipline. Puppies are started at a very tender age of 10 weeks or so and respond beautifully to the proper balance of exciting retrieves and lessons in “do as I say – when I say.” They do not get fireworks, gunners and birds until many fundamentals are sound and yet, they get tons of retrieves, albeit short. They are never restrained on line but taught to wait until commanded. No jumping around and breaking without permission. For me it fit perfectly with my oft mentioned advice to emphasize the ABC’s of Attitude, Balance and Control.

I was also attracted to this approach because I seek and all too often, perhaps, get very high-powered dogs, some of which I struggled with to control at times. I currently have one dog that was trained conventionally and I struggle with his line manners and control all of the time. He would have been a great candidate for the Hillmann approach. My 2009 pup, Ghillie, is turning out to be a top notch competitor even in all-age field trials at 28 months but I am convinced he would have “eaten my hat” with wild line manners and noise without his pre 6 month training.

In Hillmann’s puppy DVD, he introduces the puppy to sit and later heel and here. He conditions/reinforces these with the e-collar after the commands have been taught. Nicks are used at low intensity. He also emphasizes “hold” and then eventually teaches “fetch” and later finally adds a nick with the e-collar to reinforce the fetch. In his puppy DVD he stops around the 6 month mark. I didn’t know what he did next but I assumed I would then follow my conventional Basics steps as I would work with any 6 month old pup. This would be similar to the Lardy Basics program for those of you familiar with that. I was amazed to discover that my pup was thoroughly collar-conditioned and force fetched to simply carry on. I think I might have tried to ear pinch him literally two times before I realized how strong his fetch command was with and without pressure. I now know that Hillmann must have similar experience because he talks about the next step being go to force to pile after the fetch command is sound.

Bill Hillmann’s New “Fetch Command” DVD

Bill has now released a sequel DVD that deals exclusively with the fetch command. It provides: 1. Greater detail on the requirements before starting the fetch command; 2. How to teach fetch before reinforcing, and; 3. How to reinforce fetch with the e-collar. In some ways it illustrates an even simpler and more dog-friendly version than in his first puppy DVD.

In the DVD, Bill illustrates the process with a 5-6 month old Golden female. No chamber of horrors, no clamming, no days of shut down, no abuse. But there is a lot of fun for the dog who seems to learn a whole series of skills in a seamless happy way. I don’t say this is all praise and positive reinforcement because it isn’t. But the reinforcing is “soft” as Bill calls it. It is well-timed nicks with a command. There is Feel, Timing and Balance — a set of teaching concepts that are espoused by some of the greatest horsemen in the world. I doubt Bill knows those horse trainers but it is noteworthy to see the convergence. The training is done with “Feel for the dogs, the Timing is strongly linked to the desired behaviour and throughout the emphasis is on Balance. I again was greatly reminded of my ABC mantra – Attitude, Balance and Control. I might also add that I have often seen dogs that were fun fetched but not force fetched. I the end, I believe Hillmann’s technique although it is more fun for the dog does achieve force fetching. It is much more than pure fun fetching when done properly.

This DVD is well-produced. It moves along smoothly and has very good voice-over narration by Bill which interprets exactly what is happening as it happens. You see complete sessions so you see much of what the pup does both good,  bad and indifferent. You’ll see distractions like cats and ducks. Bill will tell you when the pup doesn’t do perfectly what he thinks and it is usually, “I am not worried in the least about that!”

For those of you that watch and listen carefully, you will find this production loaded with Bill’s philosophy, insight and approach to training. For me, this new production was way more than a puppy or fetch DVD but rather a description of an approach to training dogs in general.

Mary Hillmann has once again done the filming and editing and has continued to improve greatly. There are lots of nice clear dog shots, good colour and focus, slow motion segments when appropriate with the e-collar and very good audio. Mary has also added considerable special effects and some artistic content along with educational subtitles.

I’ve watched and studied the entire DVD at least 5-6 times already and still see little things each time. I can’t say whether Bill’s fetch process is confirmation mostly of where I was headed anyway or where I was mostly headed was spearheaded by his earlier DVD but I suspect both were happening at once.
If you are thinking about a new pup, I strongly recommend both of Bill’s DVDs, I do think any novice should be able to follow them and put into practice the methods .As always, there will need to be study, effort and at least an average field bred retriever. I suspect most dyed-in-the-wool trainers and even young-dog training professionals will simply stick to what they have always been doing; too bad in some ways. All I can say is that after 40 years of doing things a certain way, I have been pleased to incorporate new ideas and seek a better way for the dog.

Reprinted with permission from a review by Dennis Voigt in an issue of Retrievers ONLINE    (www.retrieversonline.com)