PROBLEM: Here are two questions I received in the past few weeks dealing with problems encountered with dogs retrieving. I suspect these were unexpected problems, surprises perhaps, that cropped up during last hunting season. Solving problems with hard-mouthed retrievers or those who simply don't want to retrieve downed birds is tough but not impossible. Here's how to deal with both of these problems now so you'll be ready for next season.
I have two setters and they both are hard-mouthed. How can I train them away from this?
#2 Won't Retrieve Downed Birds
I have a two-year-old German shorthair who does it all with little to be desired€¦except retrieving a downed bird. She'll retrieve bird dummies or sticks or balls of all sizes in the yard, in the field as well as from water, but for some reason she'll go to a downed bird and not retrieve to hand as she does everything I throw anywhere.
Though surely not the best gun dog trainer, I was a Scout Dog handler in the Army and I have tried everything in my box of tricks. I've applied some of my old army training techniques and she has been a great student, a fast learner in all the basics and then some.
I was wondering if there is something I might have done inadvertently or if you might have suggestions I might try.
SOLUTION: Although these two problems appear unrelated, or at most only vaguely so, the basic cause is the same in both cases and is probably the same in most problems encountered in retrieve training — or in any training, for that matter. The basic problem is, the training had gaps in it, holes or jumps/steps the dog didn't or couldn't make. The holes were left open with no way to close them.
Retrieve training, indeed all training, must proceed in step-wise fashion with each step building on the preceding one. Each step must be thoroughly learned before going to the next so it becomes a position of strength, a place to fall back on when a gap appears or the dog can't make that cosmic leap to the next step.
This is the fallback position, the dog's confidence builder. From the fallback position, the dog can proceed in increments small enough to allow him to succeed, "bites" small enough to chew up and swallow. Each small increment of learning success becomes a new position of strength from which more learning can happen.
For nearly every retrieve problem, especially problems of hard mouth as in the first question, I ask the handler to start from the very beginning of a new training program, which is as follows: Have the dog sit by the left knee, gently squeeze the dog's lips against the upper row of teeth so he will open his mouth, or hold a treat in front of his nose and tell him "fetch."
Either the pinch or reaching for a treat will cause him to open his mouth and after a few times the word "fetch" becomes associated with opening his mouth and neither the pinch nor the treat is required any more. At the instant the mouth opens, the handler should slide his right gloved or bare hand, palm up, into the open mouth.
The hand must be palm up so bite pressure can be controlled. If the hold pressure is too great, the hand is closed to squeeze the lips against the teeth to relax the pressure. If not enough pressure the back of the open hand is pressed downward onto the teeth of the lower jaw to have the mouth close reflexively. When the dog takes the hand and holds it with the correct pressure, the basic fallback position is established. From here the hand becomes the guide to a dummy held in the hand, the guide pointing to a dummy or a bird lying on the ground, and later pointing toward a bird lying in tall grass 50 yards out. And, most important, if the dog gets overly enthusiastic on a shot bird, the hand covering the bird — with both hand and bird in the dog's mouth — becomes the reminder not to go at it so hard.
Gradually more of the bird and less of the hand in the dog's mouth corrects the problem because you have the original fallback position. The hand he learned to reach for and hold properly becomes a general support for everything from further training to retraining and corrections.
Without a fallback position, there is no easy fix. Trainers sometimes resort to the 1960s-model quail harness with spikes protruding from it so biting down will prick the dog's mouth if the dog insists on chewing the bird. Or maybe they will toss out a bird and if the dog chomps down on it, they shock him severely to tell him the bird hurts.
The problem, of course, is that in either painful case the dog may start blinking downed birds. But with a fallback position of how much pressure is enough, and the dog getting rewarded each time he doesn't chew or devour the bird, he is getting paid for good work and so is more apt to repeat the correct thing. It is a job that pays well for work well done.
Retrieving Downed Birds
In the second problem, the dog was asked to make the large leap from things tossed first in the yard, then in the field and in the water to a shot bird falling with all the added excitement of bird smell on the ground, pointing, the bird flushing and one or more shots. The leap was too great for the dog to make because this was a whole new scenario he was not prepared for.
There is no fallback position from which to bridge the gap from a bird thrown by the handler to a shot bird falling from the sky and smelling entirely different from a bumper or bird dummy or a dead frozen bird. The handler, though a knowledgeable dog man with dogs for a different purpose, had no recourse but to start retrieve training all over again, beginning with step one as outlined above, then going through all the steps, building each on the one before as well as inserting intermediate steps or returning to a solid fallback position and proceeding more slowly, with smaller increments to bridge any gap the dog couldn't leap across.
For all the retrieve problems I received in the past two weeks including the two referred to here, I sent the step-by-step training procedure starting with the hand in the dog's mouth — palm up — with reward for the dog for every correct performance while ignoring any mistakes. In the latter case, the handler should simply back up a bit to what the dog knows, his fallback position, and do it all over again more slowly, with smaller increments of learning.
In this method, there is no need for punishment, no painful ear pinching and no shock because we are always building on the dog's success, on the strengths, with positions to fall back to if necessary so the dog learns to do it right and enjoys his work.
For help in solving your dog's behavior problems or behavior related training problems, you can contact Ed Bailey at: firstname.lastname@example.org