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Teaching Mouth Control in the Retriever
California Waterfowl Magaine - Summer 1988
We control the mouth of retrievers by teaching them to hold and pick up a training bumper, then a bird, in an organized manner. This is done early in the dog's training, in a very controlled situation, (in the yard, on a leash). By teaching the right way to pick up, hold and deliver, most mouth problems never materialize in the field; but if they do, we can correct them on the spot. The training process that teaches mouth control is commonly termed "force training" or "force breaking". "Force training" is one of the more basic steps of retriever training and the most misunderstood. Most training books just avoid the subject altogether. There are many myths about it such as it ruins dogs or that every dog must undergo force breaking. Force training teaches a dog to fetch and hold on command. The most popular method used by obedience and gun dog trainers is the "ear pinch". This involves applying a gentle pressure or pinch to the dog's ear, commanding "fetch". This is uncomfortable and causes the dog to open his mouth, at which time you place the bumper in the mouth and command "hold" while releasing the pressure on the ear. This is repeated several times until it becomes a trained response to open the mouth and take the bumper on the command "fetch".
spins quickly, it can be disastrous for your fingers. Have the dog sit at heel. With one hand grasp the leather collar and bend the ear flap back over the collar buckle. Apply pressure with your thumb and the buckle. While holding the bumper in front of the dog with the other hand. Command "fetch". When the dog opens his mouth put the bumper in and release the pressure on the ear, commanding "hold". Some dogs react by gritting their teeth and you may have to pry open the mouth in the beginning by pressing the lips against the teeth.
The dog soon gets the idea there is an association between opening his mouth accepting the bumper and getting relief from the pressure on his ear. He'll then start reaching for the bumper. You keep lowering the bumper so he must reach further and further for it. Remember to command "fetch". We want him to reach for it by responding to the verbal command.
After several days, he should be reaching as far as the ground for it, eventually picking it up off the ground. When the dog will pick it up from the ground on the command "fetch", with no pressure, the job is done. This will usually take a couple of
Gently pinch the ear, while holding the bumper in front of the dog with the other hand, commanding "FETCH". When he takes the bumper, release the pressure on the ear and command "HOLD".
Keep lowering the bumper so that the dog has to reach further and further for it, eventually picking it up from the ground.
When the dog will pick it up from the ground, on the command "fetch" with no pressure, the job is done.
The dog should eventually reach to the ground and pick up a bumper or bird on command without any physical pressure being applied.
Force training is also used to teach many of the upland breeds to retrieve.
All this may sound pretty ridiculous and unnecessary if your dog already loves to pick up things and retrieve them. Maybe your dog has very little desire to retrieve and you feel this will cause him to dislike it even more. Force training is the basis of mouth control in the retriever. It is a tool to control the mouth.
"Hard mouth" is rarely seen in properly started dogs. If a dog is very birdy, there usually comes a day when he'll want to flip the bird in the air to play with it or maybe lay it down to examine its exotic aroma more carefully. This is normal. He likes birds. Why should he give them to you? Maybe he'll just get into the habit of laying the bird down at your feet, while he shakes off, rather than delivering to hand, or refuse to retrieve at all.
Well bred retrievers love to retrieve naturally, but coming directly in, holding and delivering to hand are trained skills. Whatever happens, with a force trained dog, we have a correctional tool. We can go to the scene of the incident, command fetch and use the ear pinch to make the dog pick up the bird and hold it properly. We don't have to worry about whether the birds will make it back to the blind or not. We have a tool or method the dog understands to correct his bird handling behavior, and we can brush up his skills at home between hunts if things are getting out of hand on shoot days.
The only types we do not force train are the dogs with very little desire to retrieve. With these dogs we use lots of birds to excite them and simply teach them to "hold" and carry the bird. We may go back and force train later, if the desire level builds up and we see signs of mouthing the birds. With a more aggressive dog, we need the mouth control that force training gives us.
Usually when a dog is ready for force training, he will be at least six months to a year old, although much older dogs can be force trained as well. The dog must first fully understand the command "hold", explained in depth in a previous issue. You should be able to place the bumper in his mouth commanding "hold" and heel and sit the dog holding the bumper until you take it commanding "drop". When he fully understands "hold" and drops only on command, you are ready to begin force training.
We like to use a leather or nylon collar on the dog as a handle, as well as a choke chain attached to the lead, to heel and sit him. Don't entangle your fingearoundrs in the choke chain because if the dog
weeks work. Make the sessions short. When you attain some success, such as the dog beginning to reach for the bumper, parade him around on the leash, holding it in his mouth so he knows you are pleased. Then make him fetch a few more times. Remember, this is training not punishment. Although, some days you make very little progress, try to end on a successful note. To carry the force training over into the field, keep the leather collar on him. When the dog brings in a bird and delivers to hand, often we will intentionally drop it. Command "fetch" and have him pick it up so he knows this is his job. If he doesn't, use the ear pinch to reinforce the command.
Now the dog is force trained. Any time in the field that he rough mouths the bird or drops it, you can go to him and make him pick it up on "fetch" by pinching his ear. If he refuses to retrieve or pick up a bird, grasp hold of the collar and march him out to it applying pressure to his ear, commanding "fetch", so he knows he must retrieve whether he wants to or not.
Today, most trainers reinforce the ear pinch or physical pressure with the electronic collar. This makes correction in the field very simple if the dog is wearing an electronic collar.
You can stop many mouthing problems immediately, before they become established patterns or habits. Often, when we can see the beginning of a mouth problem in the field, we will go back to the yard and review the force breaking procedure. When a dog retrieves a bird or picks it up on command, heel and sit him with it in his mouth a few times. This gets him accustomed to carrying it the right way. Don't always be in a hurry to take the bird from him.
The key to all of this is to establish the right patterns of behavior as habit and to be able to correct wrong behavior in an organized, productive manner that the dog comprehends. Many amateurs will make excuses for their dog's unruly bird handling until the situation is well out of control and then give him a good licking, for a reason that the dog doesn't understand. To properly train a hunting dog is a structured and organized, step by step procedure. Force training is one of the foundational steps in this process.
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