Superior Pointers - Fine Bird Dogs - Elhew Pointers


It seems to have become fashionable, in recent years, to force break hunting dogs to retrieve. As incongruous as it may appear to the layman, this practice has been popularized by trainers of breeds allegedly defined by their natural retrieving instincts- primarily Labrador Retrievers and, secondarily, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers. As is often the case with such trends- both positive and negative- it was first embraced by field trialers. The routine practice of force breaking these breeds, and the subsequent failure of many retriever breeders to breed for a natural retrieving instinct, has led to a sharp rise among hunters in the popularity of Labrador Retrievers of exclusively British lineage. These British Labs have a reputation for a stronger natural retrieving instinct, as well as more compliant temperaments, than their American counterparts.

This affinity for force breaking dogs to retrieve has metastasized, and become common among pointing dogs campaigned in shoot to retrieve trials. Some bird hunters have also embraced this practice- sometimes unnecessarily.

Some professional trainers routinely advocate the force breaking of all gun dogs, including natural retrievers. Perhaps not coincidentally, most of these same trainers will also sell you an instructional DVD detailing how to accomplish this task, or do it for you for a fee equivalent to the price of a new autoloader. Almost all pure Elhew Pointers will, with proper encouragement, retrieve naturally. If your dog exhibits this desirable, genetically transmitted characteristic, you are well advised to spare your dog the pain and trauma associated with force breaking - and yourself the unnecessary expense. As Ben Williams wisely advises, "Never over-train a bird dog; good genes are better than complicated training techniques."

Accomplished gun dog trainer and author, Dick Weaver, observes in Training Your Pointing Dog for Hunting and Home, "A well  bred gun dog can become a reliable retriever without force breaking, contrary to modern ideas. A puppy that will pick up, and carry, will retrieve without force breaking." He further observes that "Pointing dogs with the right breeding will retrieve naturally with a little encouragement at the right times in their development." Dick Weaver provides detailed instruction on how to develop a natural retriever in his comprehensive book on pointing dog development.

Proponents of force breaking occasionally observe that some successful professional trainers of all age field trial champions of a half century ago force broke all of their dogs, even though these dogs were never required to retrieve in competition. They note that this was done to improve overall control. While true, it should also be noted that these same field trial competitors were big going, bold, independent, headstrong dogs with a propensity for self-hunting and that required a certain degree of subjugation. The truly great horseback all age performers have always run with reckless abandon, and hunted at the very edge of control. Prior to the advent of the electric collar, force breaking was an accepted strategy for enhancing overall compliance. These defining characteristics of a competitive all age field trial dog are not desirable qualities in a companion gun dog. One is not "better" than another - just different, and suited to different purposes. If your young gun dog prospect exhibits these horseback all age characteristics, you should find him a field trial home and secure a new prospect of companion gun dog breeding. You will both be happier.

If you compete in field trials requiring dogs to retrieve, and if your dog possesses little or no natural retrieving instinct, you have no option other than force breaking. If you are a bird hunter, and your dog does not retrieve naturally, you have two options. You can force break your dog, or you can pick up your own birds. Nash Buckingham once observed that if he had an otherwise excellent bird dog which did not retrieve, he could walk an additional hundred feet to pick up the shot bird – noting that this additional exercise was inconsequential compared to the many miles which he typically covered in a day of hunting. Note, also, that many dogs who don’t reliably retrieve will still “hunt dead”. These same dogs will usually “point dead”, and/or pursue and capture crippled birds, ensuring that downed birds are not lost. Some professional guides train their dogs to "point dead", and not retrieve, in order to preserve their client's trophy for the taxidermist. A dog that naturally "points dead" prefers to point birds rather than to see them fly, or hold them. Such dogs are unlikely to bump, or crowd, birds, and are usually very staunch on birds.

Force breaking a dog to retrieve is a delicate, difficult task best left to an experienced professional trainer, and attempted only when the dog is at least 18 months old. The process applies substantial pressure to the dog, which can permanently alter his world view. Hall of Fame trainer D. Hoyle Eaton once observed that “If you whip a White Knight dog, they lose faith in humanity”. Force breaking to retrieve can have similar results, particularly with dogs of sensitive temperament. Bob Wehle, for a time, force broke some of his Elhew Pointers. He abandoned this practice years ago in favor of developing his dogs' inherent predisposition for natural retrieving, noting that force breaking “took too much out of them”. This is not surprising when one considers that the techniques routinely employed in force breaking would be a clear violation of the Geneva Convention if applied to known terrorists during interrogation.

Some advocates of force breaking euphemistically refer to this practice as the development of a "trained retrieve" or "conditioned retrieve".  Proponents of force breaking also tend to avoid discussion of, and/or downplay, the specific pain inducing tactics employed in this process. The "force" in this unpleasant process is usually a painful nerve hitch on a toe, or an ear pinch. These techniques, or other pain inducing tactics developed by creative practitioners, undeniably constitute consequential "force".

If you feel that you must force break your dog, retain the services of a competent, experienced professional. Expect the process to take at least two months of daily repetition to accomplish. An incomplete, or botched, attempt at force breaking by an inexperienced trainer can be disastrous. It will kill any opportunity to develop a natural retrieve and, if birds are inappropriately employed, can cause blinking.

Most Elhew Pointers are natural retrievers. With a little encouragement, best initiated when young puppies, they will reliably retrieve downed game for their owners. Note that some individuals may perform inconsistently on inanimate objects – sticks, balls, dummies – yet enthusiastically retrieve birds to hand. A properly developed natural retriever will proudly perform this task with high head and merry tail. A force broke dog often fulfills this responsibility with a lack of enthusiasm similar to that of his owner for an annual proctologic examination.

Your pup must first, however, be trained to consistently come when called regardless of distractions, to avoid parading. When he arrives with the bird, control him by the collar with one hand while praising and petting him with the other. Allow him to hold the bird for 30 - 60 seconds, or until he wants to give it up. If he is reluctant to relinquish his prize, place one hand over the top of his muzzle and pinch his upper lips against his teeth while commanding "give", until he releases. If he still won't give up the bird, blow sharply into his nose or ear and quickly take the bird when he opens his mouth. If that doesn't work, pinch the loose skin on his flank, and take the bird when he yelps in surprise. Don't use this technique with any dog that may respond aggressively, or you may get bit. Always praise him liberally when he does release the bird.

If he is mouthing the bird excessively, don't scold or punish him. Any negative feedback from his handler associated with retrieving can create a reluctance to retrieve additional game in the future. He will almost certainly outgrow any inclination to "worry" the bird. A few roughly handled birds by your puppy in his first season are inconsequential to the utility and satisfaction you will gain from an enthusiastic, reliable retriever during a long gun dog career.

Dick Weaver, in the puppy obedience work chapter of his excellent book, wisely cautions "with a pointing dog, never use bird scent, wings, or anything associated with birds during puppy retrieving. That will come only after the dog is staunch, and has had birds killed over him." Similarly, using live, fresh killed, or frozen birds as retrieving objects should be avoided until your pup is well started on game. Allowing a young puppy not yet well started on wild or liberated game to play with, or carry, birds can foster an unhealthy familiarity with game birds, diminishing their natural inclination to point. This practice has no developmental value, and is potentially detrimental to your puppy's progress toward becoming an accomplished companion gun dog.

If your well started pup routinely retrieves inanimate objects, but won't pick up a bird, he is probably uncomfortable with the texture and feel of loose feathers in his mouth. This reluctance to pick up birds can usually be overcome by limited use of a frozen bird as a retrieving object. The feathers of a frozen bird adhere tightly to the carcass, which some inexperienced dogs find more comfortable. After a few repetitions with a frozen bird, most reluctant retrievers of game will quickly transition to fresh killed birds.

Note that many enthusiastic natural retrievers will initially refuse to pick up woodcock. This is likely due to the different scent of these earthworm feeders, as compared to other game birds. Woodcock are Charadiformes (shorebirds) of the Scolopacidae family, while pheasants, grouse, quail, and partridge are Galliformes (chickenlike) birds of the Phasiandae family. With a modest amount of experience and encouragement, most dogs will overcome any initial aversion to this different odor, and retrieve woodcock as readily as any other gamebird. Transferring scent from a harvested bird to a dogs favorite bumper following the hunt, and tossing it for him a few times, will help him overcome any initial reluctance to retrieve this species. As with all gun dog development, patience, encouragement, and positive reinforcement will achieve the best results.

Natural retrievers have a pronounced tendency to pick up and carry sticks, rocks, balls, dummies, and other loose objects. Good bird dogs are passionate about game, possessing what some refer to as a strong "prey drive". When a young dog exhibits these two characteristics, and has been trained to promptly and directly come when called regardless of distractions, you have the essential ingredients required to develop an enthusiastic natural retriever.

Ben O. Williams, celebrated trainer and author of Bird Dog, the Instinctive Training Method, advises selecting gun dog prospects from parents exhibiting strong retrieving instincts. Ben believes that a natural retrieving instinct is an important attribute in a breeding quality gun dog, and that breeding force broken dogs lacking this instinct can only perpetuate a weak retrieve. This is an extremely important point that merits consideration by all breeders of companion gun dogs.

The natural retrieving instinct is genetically transmitted. If, therefore, the prospective gun dog puppy buyer values retrieving, and prefers a dog in which he can personally develop this inclination, rather than one that must be forced into submission by pain inducing tactics, his selection process should be biased in favor of sires and dams exhibiting this characteristic.