18 June 2014
There once was a man who had a young black labrador bitch. The puppy loved to retrieve and the man was careful to work with the pup on a purely enthusiastic basis, tossing bumpers wrapped with old duck wings or grouse feathers. On some days he would simply throw plain bumpers in two different directions or have a friend stand in the distance and toss one to the left behind the man and one to the right. When the pup returned after having found the first “bird,” he usually dropped the bumper near the handler or owner and then using memory would immediately return to where the dog recalled seeing where the second bumper had landed. Usually with enthusiasm, the dog returned the second bumper as well, though perhaps having to hunt a bit in the area by running in circles using its nose, rather than operating strictly by memory. The pup would return the bumper to the master usually dropping the bumper near the master rather than delivering to hand or holding the bumper in its mouth and walking to heel, sitting on the left of the master and waiting for the master to remove the bumper from the pup’s mouth. The master knew that the first few years of the retriever’s learning to retrieve had to be filled with pleasure, allowing the dog to unleash its instinctive enthusiasm and doing so at picnic trials or also eventually during derbies. Some owners end the retriever trials once the dog is too old for derbies, keeping matters fun. However, following a retriever’s first two years, it is common for some handlers to decide whether or not to take a dog through “force fetch” training. This process is generally used on the field trial circuit though some hunters take their dogs through force fetch training as well. The idea is to have the dog learn that the bird will be retrieved and will be delivered to hand, period. The dog will sit at heel as well waiting for the master to remove the bird, making sure not to drop the bird. Sometimes a dog may refuse to retrieve a bird if the elements are poor. For example, maybe some broken ice or slush is flowing down the section of water one is hunting and the dog has decided it’s not for him though a nice goose is out there, having been shot and is now slowly floating downstream. Certain writers and trainers, who also had the money and good fortune to have owned and trained champion level field trial dogs, are very careful to point out that the force fetch period of training is a period where a large percentage of dogs decide both retrieving and their master are no longer for them. It is a highly delicate method that for two or three weeks removes all enthusiasm from the dog which the handler has been careful to build thus far in the dog’s life. It used to involve, and probably still does, pinching the dog’s ear, forcing the dog to pickup the bumper or an object off of the ground and hold it in its mouth while hearing “fetch.” If the dog drops the bumper prior to the handler removing it from the dogs mouth, the ear is continually pinched forcing the dog to hold the bumper until the master removes the bumper from the dog’s mouth, at which point the pressure is removed from the dog’s ear. So, when the dog hears the word “fetch” he realizes that he needs to find the bird or there will be pain in his ear until he returns the bird at heel or to hand. Now, imagine being a dog who has instinctively always loved to retrieve, suddenly being “forced” to do so. I’m not certain, Tetraneuris, what the percentage is, but it is a high number of dogs that decide they are not going to go through this process and are done with the retriever game. Some turn on their handlers. Some fold. Some dog owners pay trainers to take their dog through this process so that their dog does not have to associate such training with their owner. It is a delicate matter. I’m not certain which route or how far the owner will go in his training with his pup. I once knew a British trainer who thought the “force fetch” method was nonsense and simply ran away from the dog at rapid speed until the dog delivered to her hand. She too had written a fine little training manual keeping enthusiasm at the forefront. There are plenty of American training manuals subscribing to the same method as well. I hate to see dogs ruined. Usually the master goes about things wrongly during the process. What was once a highly enthusiastic matter for the animal becomes associated with utter distain and contempt. The dogs that go through the two or three weeks of pinched ears and make it through to their owner’s satisfaction are pretty amazing critters. Some keep their enthusiasm as well. Mechanization is perhaps is the best description, however, of what they are capable of in the field. Handling becomes everything, to a large degree removing the dog’s instinct. It’s a shame to lose a few birds now and then, but that’s hunting and perhaps, as may often be the case, the dog is smarter than the man! To me, you see, instinct and enthusiasm are everything.
Hoping you are well and the weather is cooperating for the Salmonflies, I remain
Very Truly Yours,