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Training Force-Free Fetching For Dogs with no Ear Pinches

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.


What is Dog Force-Fetching?

The term force-fetching, also known as force breaking, is still quite common in the field of training dogs to pick up and deliver a fetched item to their handler. As the term implies, it's not a very pleasant method for the dog; actually, to the contrary, it is overall very aversive.

The dog is basically taught through coercive-based methods to pick up a designated object with his mouth. I have watched today a few force-fetching sessions taught through ear pinches on You Tube--I won't post them for ethical reasons (will bother many viewers)-- and I must say I was really revolted of how the dogs were handled, not only the painful methodology per se', but also how the dogs were tied up to a table like helpless salami (which eliminates the dogs' flight or fight option) and with no other option than having bumpers shoved in their mouth in total disrespect.

To be more precise, the force-fetch is a method based on negative reinforcement. In negative reinforcement, something perceived as aversive by the dog is removed the moment engages is the desired behavior. Negative reinforcement strengthens behaviors because the dog wants to avoid them as much as possible.

B. F Skinner Skinner applied negative reinforcement by placing a rat in his Skinner box and subjecting it to an unpleasant electrical current. However, the moment the rat accidentally lowered a lever placed in the box, he would stop the flow of the electrical current. Soon enough, the rat's lever-lowering behavior started to repeat and increase in frequency.

The forced- fetch works in a similar fashion. Basically, the dog's ear is pinched, and the moment the dog opens his mouth to yelp in protest, a training dummy is shoved in his mouth and the painful ear pinch is stopped. Soon, rep after rep, the dog learns that in order to stop the ear pinch, he must quickly pick the object with his mouth. Basically, the dog acknowledges that if he doesn't pick the object fast enough, he'll be hurt and if he doesn't pick it up fast enough, he will be hurt for longer.

As effective as this method may seem (many trainers have used it with success in the past and so feel compelled to continue to use it), as with other aversive methods it comes with risks and damaging effects.

The dog soon learns to associate the handler's hands with pain. Imagine how a dog taught through an ear pinch will dread having his ears touched in the future! On top of that, the dog may also start dreading training as it's associated with painful experiences, and the presence of the handler may be associated with negative experiences. What a shame that dogs who were selectively bred to retrieve are forced doing what they were born to do best through aversive methods!

How would you feel if you had a teacher who would pull your hair and keep pulling until you gave the correct answer to a math problem? Sooner than later, you would start hating that teacher and dreading math and also going to school. Despite what was believed in the past, dogs feel pain just as we do and they share common emotions such as fear, anxiety, joy, enthusiasm and happiness..


Other Aversive Methods Used to Train a Force-Fetch

The ear pinch isn't the only method used for force-fetching, other trainers replace the ear pinch with a painful pressure on the toes by using strategically placed cords tied around the toes.

Some others would train the dog to pick up items using a shock collar. In a negative reinforcement method, similar to what Skinner's rats had to endure, the shock would continue to flow until the dog picks up the item to retrieve.

The problem with this is that the dog may learn to associate the shock with something as innocent as a tree, being outdoors or the handler's presence, it may cause a dog to bite harder, and most of all, it's coercive, and from a performance standpoint, the dog's behavior may become less reliable once the shock collar is removed. Maintenance sessions will need to be

Blanche Saunders, a popular obedience trainer of decades ago explains other harsh methods used to train a forced retrieve in "The Complete Book of Dog Obedience." The author advises: “Every time your dog drops the article, hold him tight while you cuff him across the nose. Say ‘Phooey!’ in a displeased tone of voice . . . Each time he drops it, the correction becomes more severe.”

Yikes! So is force-fetching the only way to train a dog to reliably retrieve? Fortunately not! We will discuss this in the next paragraph

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Force-Free Fetching methods: Click don't Pinch!

So is a painful ear pinch or a toe pinch, the only reliable method to train a good retrieve? The good news is that there are actually many more positive methods to train a good retrieve.

One method is explained in the book " The Clicked Retriever" by Lana Mitchell. The dog is basically trained to pick up a dummy with the use of a clicker and then effectively retrieves with the use of positive, force-free fetching methods. The best part is that this method can be even successfully used in dogs who don't have a natural retrieving instinct!

Another method for training a dog to fetch with enthusiasm is "backchaining." a method where each chain piece reinforces the previously reinforced behavior. This method instills great enthusiasm as the final behavior is the most reinforcing

All these methods use positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement strengthens behavior and increases drive and motivation. Back to Skinner, his hungry rats also soon learned that if they pressed a lever food would be delivered, and therefore, they soon started pressing the lever more and more.

With positive reinforcement, a dog retrieves with more enthusiasm, versus a dog who was trained through aversive techniques tends to do the bare minimum, just to get out of a sticky situation and avoid the associated pain and discomfort.

Sincerely, I have watched several videos of dogs trained through ear pinches/toe hitches and have seen dramatic signs of subdued body language and signs of stress. And no, a dog that is yawning when enduring force fetching is not tired and ready for a nap, but stressed!

An important question to ask is therefore: Is pain and intimidation justifiable just because training a retrieve is of such a great importance to some people? And most of all, is it really worth it to cause pain/intimidation in man's best friend when there are better methods that were proven to be as effective?

Sadly, it looks training dogs to retrieve and general gun dog training are still entrenched in traditional, punishment-based philosophies. Let's hope these barbaric training methods are soon put to an end. A good place to start is awareness of better ways. --See video below of positive gun dog trainer.


Choose reward-based methods to train your dog!

Positive Gun Dog Training - Delivery to Hand

For further reading

  • What's Dog Dominance Theory?
    You may have heard about dog dominance by reading about it or in a dog-related television show, but what is it ? What do the experts in the field say about it? Learn all about dog dominance theory.
  • How to Correctly Use an Electronic Shock Collar on Y...
    Wondering how to use a dog shock collar correctly? Learn what a dog shock collar is and its effects, and follow the trainer's video on its correct use.
  • The ABC's of Dog Training
    What are the ABC's of dog training and how can they help you? Learn what's behind the process of training a dog and how you can use it to your advantage. An insider look into learning theory.
  • The Four Quadrants of Dog Training
    Training a dog can be easy, but understanding the whole dynamics behind it is a whole different story. Understanding learning theory will make you a better trainer and your dog a better trained dog.

© 2014 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 04, 2015:

Sadly, there are still people who feel this is the way to train a retrieve. Luckily, there are better ways and more and more people are learning about them.

Pixie on September 02, 2015:

I had never heard of this! My boxer mix Ellie started playing fetch as soon as she realized i would throw it again. I can't believe that this sort of abusive treatment is still prevalent. How awful!

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