Force Breaking to Retrieve

Note: Make sure to distinguish between negative reinforcement and punishment. Punishment extinguishes a behavior while negative reinforcement causes a behavior to start or continue as does positive reinforcement. The e collar, when used after a behavior is a form of punishment, but when used before the behavior and then stopped when the behavior happens is negative reinforcement. Force breaking is a negative reinforcement and is meant to create a Pavolvian response to retrieving.

A training table 2 feet wide and sixteen feet long works very well for force training. At each end attach a metal post poking up approximately thirty inches past the top. To the posts attach a steel cable running the length of the table. To the cable should be attached a line with a snap so that it can easily slide along the length. On the other end of the line attach another snap so that the line can be run through the dog’s collar. The line should keep the dog on the table but allow it to reach the table to pick up dummies or other items. On one of the end posts attach a collar with a hose clamp so that the dog may be collared and held immobile for early sessions on the bench. Provide a way for the dog to get on and off the bench without jumping and damaging shoulder structure.


1) Introduce the table. Create a positive response toward the table. Feed the dog on the table, pet her, and give the dog treats. (est. time: 3 or 4 days).
2) It is helpful to teach the dog that you can give commands when she is on the table. This can be accomplished using the “Sit” and “Over” commands. While the dog is on the table and with the lead attached to the overhead cable reteach sit using voice and whistle. I use treats as rewards at this point, just as I do on the ground. When the dog is sitting reliably begin the over command. Have the dog sit at one end and drop a treat where she can see it at the other end of the table. Back away a few feet and command “over.” Encourage her to get the treat if needed. Continue to work on this until she can go either way reliably. The use of other commands, which can be easily accomplished on the table, is recommended.
3) To do this next step the dog’s head should be held immobile as is explained earlier.
4) Get the dog use to something in the dog’s mouth. Do this by using a gloved hand. Teach the meaning of the “keep it” (“hold” for retrievers) command. This includes calmly holding and not chewing. (This is not fetch. Fetch has to do with reaching.) Use two fingers in the dog’s mouth coupled with the “hold” command. Keep them there until the dog quits trying to spit them out. Reward the dog holding by saying “drop” and taking the gloved hand from the dog’s mouth. When the dog mouths the gloved hand or attempts to pull away, pull up on the nap of the neck behind the head and repeat the command “hold.”
5) As the dog is holding calmly start saying “hold” as the fingers are introduced into the dog mouth.
6) Now extend the time the dog is holding gradually up to 30 seconds. Continue to inject the hand coupled with the “hold” command.
Now replace the hand with a paint roller. I use a paint roller because it seems to be more desirable to hold and thus easier to work with at the start. Switch to the “training buck” after this.. (You can make a “training buck” by using a 12 inch long by 1 inch buck. Cut 2×4 pieces 3.5 inches long and place a 1” hole in the center. Glue the buck in place so the buck sits flat on the table.) Continue this until the dog will hold the buck for at least 30 seconds without trying to spit it out. Transition to a variety of items to hold. Use small and large plastic and canvas dummies. Also include things that are not particularly easy or desirable to hold such as a bristle brush, wooden handled hammer, even a brick. So far you have the dog comfortable on table, understanding the command “hold” And “drop.” All of this is called the “show pup” stage. It is very important. This may take 2 weeks if you are doing two-a-days. If you are not diligent, it will take longer.

Formal training using the toe pinch

(Note: The ear pinch will work just as well. I have used both and don’t find a lot of difference.)

Continue to collar the dog to the post.
7) Pull the string (I assume the person reading this knows how to attach the string) and when the dog opens his/her mouth to yelp, insert the buck and release the pressure on the dog’s toe simultaneously and instantly. Timing is everything.

8) Hold the buck in the dog’s mouth until the dog swallows or changes breathing and then turn the buck slightly so the dog will release it. Don’t use any command at this point to cue her to take the buck. Go ahead and use the release command—“drop.

9) Once the dog is holding the buck without chewing it or trying to spit it out start introducing the “fetch” command. You will still be inserting the buck with the toe pinch, but start using the “fetch” command. Continue to use the “drop” command and remove the buck as soon as she acquiesces to holding it.

10) Reminder: Make sure that you insert the buck the minute she opens her mouth to yelp and release the string instantly when the buck is in her mouth. Timing is everything.

11) Now you can stop snubbing the dog up so tight. Still, keep her head tied with the cord attached to the cable. As the dog is reaching, start lengthening the lead on the dog’s head so that she can start going down the table for the buck on the command fetch. This is where the overhead cable comes in helpful.

12) Start lowering the buck so the dog has to reach down and pick it up when given the command. (You are still using the toe pinch.) This should lead to her starting to reach down and pick the buck from the table.

13) Now switch to a canvas dummy so she has to reach down and pick it up. You may have to go back to step one for a day or two. At this point use the toe pinch only as necessary, but be consistent. If she is not performing use the pinch until she does. Don’t use it intermittently.

14) On command (“fetch”), now have her go down the table and pick up the buck. Be sure and go both directions. Now is the time to begin intermittent reinforcement, if she is complying quickly. This will reinforce her quick pickup. Do not being intermittent reinforcement until she is complying every time well.

15) Half hitch the string directly to the ankle and not on the toe. This is an intermediate step to not using the string at all.

16) Put a sheet of wood on the table so that the sheet blocks her view of the buck. Now give the fetch command. Make sure the wood is 12 or so inches high so she can reach over it. We are now teaching the idea that she can be sent on fetch that she cannot see. Never heard of this before. Sounds good.

17) If all this is going well, start her out side. It is good but not necessary to move the table out side and repeat these last steps for a time or two before going forward. Now build a ramp on each end of the table. Start by throwing the buck out and giving the fetch command. Make sure she doesn’t go until the command is given. Then switch to placing the buck out there and sending her on the fetch command. (she won’t see all birds shot and fall and this reinforces blind retrieves later on.) Go both directions. (Don’t give up. We are about there)

18) At this point you can switch from the toe or ear pinch to the e-collar. The e-collar has distinct advantages. One of the problems with the toe pinch is that if the cord gets on the back side of the toe, it won’t release when the dog picks up the buck. This is counter to the need for the dog to be conditioned to expect a release of pressure when he/she pick ups the buck. The ear pinch has the disadvantage that you can’t easily pinch the ear when the dog is on the ground and some distance away from you.

(Using the e-collar assumes that you have been through all of the steps of collar conditioning.)

To start, you need to transfer the conditioned response on the toe pull (or ear pinch) to the collar. To do that you should start by combining the two methods of stimulation.

First, immobilize the dogs head as you did to begin the forced fetch training. Then stimulate the dog with the collar using the lowest level of continuous stimulation the dog can feel, followed by the toe pull.

Begin by holding the transmitter for the collar and the cord from the toe pinch in one hand. Turn on the lowest level of stimulation the dog feels, as ascertained in collar conditioning. Follow this immediately with the toe pull. The dog will take the buck because of the toe hitch. After a few repetitions anticipating the toe pull, the dog will begin taking the buck on the stimulation alone. Now I say, “fetch” and apply stimulation alone. The dog should reach for the buck. If that is going well, I give the command “fetch” and only apply stimulation if the dog does not take the buck.

To fully transfer the dog to the e-collar, you should now repeat all of the steps previously described up and including step 17.

19) Add multiple bucks (whether using the toe pinch, the e-collar or the ear pinch) so she goes down and picks up one and then another and another until all are retrieved.

20) You should now have her totally on the ground. She should love to retrieve and when you throw something she should just quiver with anticipation.

21) Do “Force to Pile” where you have a pile of dummies. Command “fetch” and send the dog to the pile. Only apply stimulation to the dog for a second or until the dog travels a couple of feet. Use intermittent stimulation on this step.

22) Do force using “over” commands, if these have been taught previously.

23) Now introduce cold birds, fresh killed birds and then live birds. You will need to back up a few steps to introduce birds but you should be able to move along very quickly.

If you do this right it will be an everyday project for a bout 15 or 20 minutes a day for about 6 weeks. Professional trainers will do it for about $500, but they usually want to take a month and they leave out some steps. Nevertheless, most dogs comeback as good retrievers.

Bryan Dunn
August, 2009
Revised January 2, 2011

Revised by Alan Dunn, the younger, smarter, brother February 3, 2011