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When Is the Proper Time to Start Hold Conditioning?

Knowing when to start hold conditioning will strengthen your bond with your dog and develop trust.

When Is the Proper Time to Start Hold Conditioning?

Bella’s natural ability made hold conditioning much easier to begin when the training started after her teething stage was complete. (Jeremy Moore photo)

Why do we dread so many things that we know are good for us? If I’ve got a toothache, it takes nearly unbearable pain before I schedule an appointment. Once I am done getting whatever needs to be taken care of, I feel instant relief and always wish I’d just gotten it done sooner. For me, the most difficult part of doing something unenjoyable is getting past the resistance and simply dealing with it.  

The process of hold conditioning can be like going to the dentist—most dread it. It’s not fun. Bella is 15 months old and has been with us for a little over a year. We are just now wrapping up the process of hold conditioning with her. The toothache that created the need to schedule an appointment was her less than perfect delivery. In her defense, it wasn’t all that bad. If you recall from an earlier column, Bella has a terrific natural retrieve and a lot of this goes back to what I think is a very important concept when it comes to breeding and developing today’s retrievers. The simple idea of a retriever retrieving naturally, without a need for us to force it into them is ideal for me. If we recognize that, bring it out early and minimize undesirable habits from the start, we set pups up to succeed and the process becomes quite enjoyable for both you and the dog.

In that prior column, I talked about Bella’s desire to always have something in her mouth. She was obsessed with carrying objects of all kinds, at all times. That behavior wasn’t discouraged when it happened, instead it was encouraged and ultimately turned into a lot of opportunities for mini retrieves. Afterwards, we avoided repeating the action of picking up undesirable objects and instead set her up for success by picking up the things that we didn’t want her to get at and controlling her freedom to roam the house.   

No Forcing Anything

Before we get too far into this, it’s important to describe what “hold conditioning” is and what it isn’t. It is not “force fetch,” “force breaking” or “trained retrieve.” To significantly simplify things, the result of completing hold conditioning ensures a sound, reliable delivery to hand and does not use or require ear pinching, toe pinching, or e-collars to get there.

Hold conditioning is something I believe every retriever must go through at some point and is a remedy to many common issues that develop with most retrievers. A few of the more common ones include dropping dummies, playing keep away, victory laps, chomping, or hard-mouthed tendencies. They all need to be addressed and cleaned up prior to moving on in the training process.

Beyond improved delivery, I think hold conditioning also allows me to take the next step in building a connection with my dogs. When done correctly, it fosters trust and confidence. I look at hold condition and heelwork as primary steps in forming and strengthening the bond with my dogs. Both are processes in training that take multiple steps to complete and both leave me with dogs giving more and better eye contact, which is a clear message of mutual respect.

Proper hold conditioning will strengthen your bond with your dog and develop trust. (Jeremy Moore photo)

A Runaway Train 

As far as the hold process with Bella, I’ve seen and dealt with much worse when it comes to symptoms. That’s likely one reason it didn’t take that long to go through it with her. She’s never blinked on a dummy and her recall has always been strong. She never dropped short and her grip was firm but not hard. Any time she picked up a dummy poorly, we simply corrected it before taking it from her.

But there was one issue that I just couldn’t seem to get right: her pace needed to be slowed. She came back in like a freight train and as she got older and more mature, that train wasn’t slowing down. Returning from retrieves, the momentum she built up was just too much. The last 10 yards left me dodging a black streak and frantically trying to pump the brakes.

I don’t start any kind of formal hold conditioning until after the puppy is done teething—somewhere between four to six months of age. Up to that point, and usually for a period of time after, I make simple, controlled, fun retrieves. “Fun” being the key word. Those first months of retrieving should be nothing more than an informal game. The formality, time and consistency necessary to complete hold conditioning is just unnecessary and too much pressure for a pup any younger.

Hold conditioning is not going to train a dog to retrieve. It, on the other hand, ensures a sound, reliable delivery to hand. That delivery will do you no good if you don’t have a retrieve to connect it to. The retrieve itself must be there first in order for you to have something to polish.  

When the Time is Right

Although I never use age or time to measure things in training, I realize there will be times when things happen and need addressing. Bella, at 13 months old, is the longest I’ve waited to go through this with any dog and I think it was just right for her. I’ve done it with some dogs as young as six or seven months old, but most are somewhere in between. I only mention her age because I think it is important to understand a few simple timelines and the reasoning behind them. Keeping this in mind will help determine when you and your dog are ready. To see the entire process of Bella’s hold conditioning unfold, watch Episode #85 titled “Hold Conditioning” on the Dogbonehunter YouTube channel.  

If you’re interested in more of Bella’s journey to “be good,” check out the complete “Bella…Be Good” series on YouTube, as well as the DogBoneHunter Instagram and DogBoneHunter Facebook page.

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