If you’re ever in need of a little entertainment, find a dog training group on facebook and ask a question regarding the most humane and effective way to train the retrieve. There have been volumes written on the subject, cyberspace is littered with tutorials and articles detailing various methods and arguing the merits of this guy’s system while shedding light on the barbaric cruelty of the other guy’s. We dog trainers have even coined the term “retrieve drive”, which stands in my mind as the second silliest bit of trainer lingo behind “fight drive” (a topic for a later date). There has been much written about the natural retrieve, the shaped retrieve, and the …(cue the dark, ominous, foreboding music) “force fetch”. What seems to missing out there is a really clear, comprehensive discussion of the subject. Why do some dogs want to retrieve? How can we promote the behavior? How can we refine the behavior? What if the dog doesn’t want to retrieve?
Natural Retrieve (manipulation of prey/ball drive)
For any trainer that routinely evaluates green dogs for purchase or as a third party, the retrieve is undoubtedly a large part of their objective analysis. Detection dog trainers, service dog trainers, gundog trainers, they all love to see a dog chase an inanimate object, possess it, and return with it willingly in hopes that it will be reanimated by the handler. Working dog trainers call this ball drive (at least the first two parts), and even though it is yet another bastardization of the word drive, I like the term. “Ball drive” could be described as a subset of prey drive (an actual, real drive). It connotes a level of trainability in a dog because the dog displays the capacity for drive manipulation. Most sporting and working dog breeds are expected to display “ball drive”. To me, ball drive is synonymous with natural retrieve.
Most trainers I know appreciate the fact that a dog wants to return an inanimate prey item to the handler to be reanimated, but they understand that the delivery of the prey item is the part that is easily conditioned. Detection and patrol trainers will often encourage possessiveness over the prey item in young dogs as a means to build intensity in the work. This is often done with back ties to trigger opposition reflex and frustration as well as choking the dog off of the prey item so that it will covet the item and not willfully turn it over to the trainer. Usually, once a ball driven dog understands that the prey item will be reanimated if returned, keeping the game alive, they will happily return and complete the retrieve.
There are a few ways we can nurture and refine the natural retrieve so that it may stand alone in the field:
1: Puppy retrieve games
-Establish the game early
2: Retrieve lane
-Limit options by limiting the environment
3: Moving away from the dog during his return
-An extension of engagement
-Promote “tracking the handler” and holding the retrieve object
4: Placeboard work
-Refine the delivery and presentation by limiting the environment
-Introduce steadiness (duration/impulse control) with a well delineated space
Shaped Retrieve (using food to build retrieve mechanics with R+/P-)
When discussing drives and dog training the conversation will invariably center on food drive and/or prey drive. There are other natural drives but most can’t be easily manipulated to achieve states of arousal and satiation as easily and precisely as food and prey. Of the two, food is normally delivered more with more precision than prey. This means that food is often used to condition the most refined motor movements by trainers. The retrieve is a surprisingly complex sequence of behaviors considering how common it is in dog training. The shaped retrieve is a way to bring dogs along that may lack prey drive or clean up mechanics on the natural retrieve.
The shaped retrieve requires food drive from the dog and a strong working knowledge of marker training from the handler. This is a great way to challenge yourself as a trainer and develop great retrieve mechanics in all dogs. I almost always shape a retrieve in the dogs in residence here prior to the force fetch (considering food drive is present).
Here’s a short video of a shaped retrieve
Force Fetch (the negatively reinforced retrieve)
This topic has been covered ad nauseum, so I will not attempt to defend it or explain it completely. The term force fetch carries more emotional value than most terms in the dog trainers dictionary, and that is quite a feat. We trainers that use negative reinforcement to teach or proof the retrieve should really consider inventing a new term and riding that one until pressured to change our vernacular again. If you’ve ever given the slightest bit of upward pressure on a lead to manipulate a dog into a sit then you’ve employed negative reinforcement in training.
If you own a dog that needs to retrieve cleanly in any and all environments and under challenging conditions then you’d be well served to learn this skill or to have an experienced pro force fetch your dog. Truth be told, there are more benefits to the process than just a non-slip retrieve, and it is only as brutal as the trainer’s intent. It is an experiential process, so it pays to find a mentor if you want to learn this one.
When layered over a strong natural retrieve and the shaped retrieve, the force fetch can be absolutely painless. Here’s a video of the same dog in the shaped retrieve section performing a walking fetch under pressure.