When training dogs these days, it's not difficult to find an answer to just about any question you could ever think of. If you have even the slightest level of tech understanding, the answer to everything is literally at your fingertips between your computer, tablet or phone coupled with Google, Wikipedia or Snopes. Heck, these days you don't even have to know how to use your fingertips to type or swipe, instead a simple conversation with Alexa or Siri can get the job done. On top of that, if you can't find the answers there, you still have all of the various social platforms to pose your question. Trust me, if you want an answer just post a question out there to any open page or forum and you're guaranteed to get a response from all the "experts"out there!
It's for that reason alone, I tend to shy away from putting my thoughts and opinions out there on the public forum-type platforms. It seems that in those arenas a simple question asked by someone looking for help inevitably turns into a heated debate of whose way is right or wrong. Many times, the threads and comments take dramatic twists and turns and ultimately, the core question that started it all is completely lost. Don't get me wrong though, I find a ton of value in using social media to share information and content, and we use our outlets as our primary means of doing just that (@dogbonehunter IG, FB and YouTube). It's a tremendous way to share a lot of ideas and information quickly and easily.
When it comes to raising and training dogs, I have long believed in the idea that there are many ways to do things. And I am certainly not the one to say, nor do I believe one way or another is always going to be right or wrong. I do know that when you do something for a long period of time, it is almost without fail that you will also develop a level of confidence in whatever it is you are doing. It's just a matter of time and gaining that needed experience. I think this idea can be applied to any skill, trade, hobby or recreation. When you have the opportunity to experience something long enough, you begin to react to situations as a reflex and you just don't have to think much about it any longer. I think that's when you know you've reached a point where you can and should be willing to offer guidance to others who are looking for help.
Over the years I have been fortunate enough to have had the chance to work with and observe a lot of really good dog trainers. Each of them may have their own style, but they also all do some things very similar and other things quite differently. My personal strategy has always been to try and peel off from each of them what works for me and the stuff that doesn't, I just discard. In the end, I manage to create a style of my own that has and will likely continue to evolve for as long as I keep doing this. In my early years of working with dogs, I was lucky enough to witness what I think can be referred to as a "softer" style or approach to training. I knew right off, that was the way I wanted to adopt. I believed that way of training dogs would allow me to get the most out of my dog's potential. I made a particular point and effort to seek out and gather as much information as I could from those using that style. At that time, there was no option to just Google, YouTube, or like and follow social pages. I really had to go out of my way to witness this kind of training, but I was convinced and determined to figure it out. My other option was to learn and use a style of training I didn't believe in, didn't feel comfortable with and didn't think would get the most out of the dogs I was working with.
The alternative style that seems to be so prevalent in the retriever world was and is one that requires a significant amount of force. In fact, the word "forced" is a commonly used adjective with several drills and activities. So, in thinking about and writing this article, I became interested in the meaning behind the words themselves. I looked up the definition of the word force.
Force used as a noun:coercion or compulsion, especially with the use or threat of violence. Synonyms:strained, unnatural, affected, coercion, compulsion, constraint, duress, oppression, harassment, intimidation.
Force used as a verb:make (someone) do something against their will. Synonyms:compel, coerce, make, constrain, oblige, impel, drive, pressurize, pressure, press, push, bully, dragon, bludgeon.
After reading those definitions, I'm again reminded why I just don't feel comfortable training that way. It both looks and sounds like something I'm not interested in doing or being a part of. In recent years I know there has been some conversation and debate about whether or not the use of such force is truly necessary in order to get the results we may be looking for as handlers. I have started hearing some folks call what used to be referred to as "force fetching" or "forced fetch" now call it a "trained retrieve." The shock collar is now the E-collar, almost making it sound like some kind of tech product. I think the reason for these changes is that it just sounds better, and to be honest, does it really sound a lot better? The companies that make them are huge and have large marketing budgets with heavy influence, spending a lot of marketing dollars. The problem is what or how you say something doesn't matter nearly as much as what or how you do it. Kind of like the old saying "actions speak a lot louder than words".
It wasn't that long ago that I was pretty careful about what I talked or wrote about in seminars and articles. When it came to things like shock collars and force fetch and the question came up whether or not I used them, I would always let the group know that I did not, but then moved on pretty quickly from there. Several years back, I gave a seminar that turned into almost an hour-long grilling from two guys in the back row that were clearly "traditional" gun dog trainers. They badgered me pretty steady, questioning how I could possibly train a good gun dog without the use of a collar. After having an answer to everything they could throw at me, the rest of the crowd seemed to enjoy and support the idea of me standing my ground with reasoning why I just didn't think a shock collar was a necessary tool, and that it would likely create more problems for me than it could fix. I mean, it really did end up becoming a pretty heated conversation. When I packed up afterwards, I thought there might be a good chance those fellas were going to be waiting on me in the parking lot.
That day marked the beginning for me to take a different approach to addressing some of these things. It was the point where I decided I was confident enough in what I was doing to have answers for those that did it other ways. It was also the point that I realized that when I asked someone why they thought they needed to use that style of training, I simply did not like their answers. The answer I almost always got was "because that's the way we've always done it." To me, that just wasn't a good reason. This was also the point where I realized that although there are a lot of trainers using what I felt was unnecessary force because, "that's the way they always did it," there were maybe even more out there that would prefer not to, but just didn't know it was possible to do it any other way
I believe that dogs possess inherent traits, one of which is biddability or a willingness to please. This is something that has long been developed and bred into domesticated dogs, in addition to a lot of other natural tendencies. Biddability or that wiliness to please is one of the biggest reasons I believe the use of force is not necessary. A "retrieving breed" in my opinion should by no means need to be trained to retrieve by "force" or if you use the formal definition: "with the use or threat of violence" or "to make (someone) do something against their will." It just doesn't make any sense to me. Why would I want to connect something that I believe the dog already has inside of them and in the end is something I want them to like, with a negative? My style of training, speaking and writing is not to tell you what not to do, but instead I try to focus on what I have used and know has worked well for me for many years. But I also have realized that I need to be clear and let others know that "because that's the way they always did it" isn't necessarily a good answer or the only way.
I find that those who believe they need to use heavy force are often times concerned with speeding things up. We're a push button society and we like to get things the quickest, easiest way. Having a bunch of professional trainers endorse the use of a push button fix is marketing genius. But my answer to that is we need to stop worrying about the finish line and instead start enjoying the process equal to, and even more so. The process itself is where these things are gained and that takes time. Unfortunately, there is no way to "speed train" a retriever. When we push young dogs further and faster than what they are ready for, that's what brings things to a halt as far as progress is concerned. I think that unnecessary, heavy pressure does one of two things:
It will shut a dog down or at best, get the bare minimum out of them. By breaking a dog's spirit and having them work out of fear, you will not maximize their potential. That kind of avoidance training is just not the philosophy I believe in. It will create a hard minded, independent thinker.
This is the slippery slope. As the dog gets harder, so does the trainer. And quite frankly, it's the lack of patience that most trainers suffer from that makes things get ugly. Pinched ears and toes with burn marks from collars are the results of a trainer's lack of patience and understanding of what makes these dogs tick.
Instead, try slowing down and determine how to bring out what they likely already have inside them. The amount of trust you will gain in your dog as well as your dog's trust in you over the long run will far outweigh any amount of time you might save by accelerating your training in the short term. Trust me, when things get tough out there in the field and distractions or other outside influences become part of the equation, a dog that trusts you completely will likely be the one to figure things out. A dog that lacks confidence and is working out of fear? Those are the ones that are likely to shut down and fail.
I wrote this article knowing that there will likely be some that read it and completely disagree. I'll certainly upset many of the traditionalists and most definitely the shock collar companies. They will defend their style of training no different than those before them. And that's fine, my hopes are certainly not to convince someone that is set in their ways. Instead, I hope to offer the idea to those who are interested in not using methods of excessive force in order to turn out a nice dog. Just because that's the way others have always done it, doesn't mean you have to as well.
As I continue to write these Dog's Eye View articles you will see more and more ways of applying this training style. Hopefully then you will have another option and technique to decide whether or not is a good fit for you and your dog.