This essay is intended to describe a training method that the author has had wonderful success with. It is in no way intended to be a substitute for professional dog training or behavioral consultation. The author in no way guarantees or claims responsibility for any specific results by the use of the following methods.
I know in my heart that there are some great working B&T Coonhound's out there waiting to be discovered. In my experience, one of the most difficult behaviors to teach a B&T Coonhound is a reliable, flashy retrieve. Through trial and error, I have had the pleasure of teaching 5 B&T Coonhounds how to retrieve and they all now do so with enthusiasm and speed. Although the temperaments of all these dogs are quite different, I have basically used the same foundation training for the principle part of this exercise on all of them.
I believe that a forced retrieve is essential for the competition dog. I do not, however, believe that for many dogs the forced retrieve must necessarily be synonymous with stress and pain. The beauty of this method is that if you have a dog that might need a stronger, negative reinforcement in the future that it has already been conditioned for use.
The amount of time that it takes to achieve this process highly depends on the amount of time you're willing to commit, your consistency and the individual dog itself. Most importantly, be kind and patient while your dog is learning this.
- Step 1: Conditioning the ear squeeze.
There are several great ways to achieve this, but the way that I favor is to first place your dog in a sit position. Kneel beside the dog on its right and with your left hand place your fingers under the buckle collar. Gently lift the collar so that you can reach the upper part of the dogs ear and sandwich the dogs left ear between the collar and the soft flesh of your thumb. In your right hand, hold a cookie/treat a few inches in front of the dogs nose ( Do Not allow the dog to grab at the food before you have given him permission to take it). Tell the dog to "fetch" or "get it" and as soon as he has taken the food from your hand IMMEDIATELY release your thumb off of his ear. Repeat this until you are comfortable and quick with your release.
- Step 2: Introducing the dumbbell.
Now that you've positively conditioned your ear squeeze and release it's time to introduce the dumbbell. First of all, make sure that the dumbbell fits the dog properly. (If you are not sure, ask an experienced person to help you with this because all of your wonderful work will be fruitless if the dumbbell is in any way physically difficult for the dog to pick up.) Next, take the dumbbell and smear a THIN dab of peanut butter or squeeze cheese on one side of the center dowel. (Yes, you will eventually have to get a new dumbbell for competition so don't use an expensive one for this) Sit your dog and resume the same position as in step 1 with the exception of holding the dumbbell in your right hand. Hold the dumbbell in front of the dogs nose with the food facing AWAY from the dog. Give the dog your retrieve command and let the dog try to lick the food. As soon as the dogs tongue rolls under the center dowel to lick the food, quickly roll the dumbbell 1/2 turn toward the dog into its mouth. At this time, instantly release the dogs ear from under your thumb and praise/treat. Repeat this step until you have a dog reaching and grabbing for the dumbbell without food on it.
- Step 3: The hold.
For this step, you will sit facing your dog with your left hand under the collar and your thumb over the dog's right ear. (Your dog should be reliably grabbing for the dumbbell whether it is held to either side of the front of his body or close to the ground at this point.)Place the right end bell of the dumbbell between your right forefinger and thumb with the lower remaining portion of your hand loosely cupped below it. Give your retrieve command. When the dog grabs the dumbbell, instantly release the ear AND collar and simultaneously support the bottom of the dog's jaw with the fingers of your right hand so that he cannot drop the dumbbell. GENTLY place the 1st two fingers of your left hand over his muzzle to prevent mouthing and say "hold". At first, release right away with your release command ("give" or "out") and praise/reward. Gradually extend the length of time that the dog must hold the dumbbell. Repeat this until the dog can take and hold the dumbbell on his own. A Halti collar also works good for this and is easier to coordinate by holding the loop below the jaw. I have found though, that as soon as the head harness is removed, I end up following through with the above steps anyway so I only recommend that you use one if you are having a lot of trouble getting the dog to hold the dumbbell.
- Step 4: The basic retrieve
You have now positively conditioned your retrieve and release commands, the hold, and a helpful correction. Your dog, at this point should be reliably picking the dumbbell up off of the ground and holding it until you release him. All you need to introduce now is distance and the quick return. Place your dog at your left side with a flexi lead attached to the buckle collar. Check the flexi every time you set up to make sure that it will release properly. Toss the dumbbell out, only a couple of feet at first and give the dog your retrieve command. When he picks it up tell him to "come" and give a gentle pop towards you on the flexi lead. When he returns to you with the dumbbell give him your release command and praise/reward him. A sit in front is unimportant at this point because we are rewarding the fast return and delivery of the dumbbell to you. If he does not pick the dumbbell up OR if he drops it, put your left hand under the collar and take the dog to the dumbbell. When you are within the dog's reach of the dumbbell, press his ear with your left thumb and give your retrieve command. You have now corrected your dog in a way that he already understands and therefore are not likely to have to use any more force than merely pressing on his ear. The dog also has enough learned information so that the correction is fair and helpful in showing him the correct response.
This method will not work successfully for every dog out there, but it is certainly a kind and fair option to approach. I have had extremely good luck with this method and have been happy to share it with you. Happy retrieving!