Force-Free Training for Retrievers
Bill Hillmann talks about his proven methods of positive reinforcement for field dogs.

Bill Hillmann talks about his proven methods of positive reinforcement for field dogs.

Karen Pryor wrote a book that I've read many times called Don't Shoot the Dog. It is a training manual for dog owners that I encourage everyone to read at least once. Anyone with a love for animals will get something from her advice and story that they may not find elsewhere.

I think of Karen as the "original" Dog Whisperer because she has been writing and speaking about positive conditioning of animals for many decades. Karen is a pioneer in the development of force-free training methods, and one of the leading proponents of operant conditioning.

Operant conditioning was coined by B.F. Skinner. He believed that the best way to "understand behavior is to look at the causes of an action and its consequences."

To shape behavior one must introduce a reinforcer every time the subject does the behavior requested.

The subject about conditioning leads me to my thoughts about training working dogs, which traditionally have revolved around negative conditioning (toe pinches, ear pinches and e-collar pressure) to elicit behaviors like fetching, sitting, or heeling and much more.

After applying negative conditioning methods for many years, I finally decided to look for an alternative to eliciting behaviors in dogs without the use of force.

Fortunately, luck was on my side.

Training a retriever as a "working dog" requires specialized methods of enforcement and conditioning. That's because of the great distances retrievers must run, and the obstacles they must successfully navigate across when completing their task.

I compete with retrievers in AKC Hunt Test programs, and therefore having a fully field trained dog is essential. I wish I could, but I can't apply positive "clicker training" like Pryor recommends to a retriever that is 150 yards away in a field. The dog simply won't hear the clicker to anticipate the reward, which Pryor's method is based on.

That's why retriever owners that compete in AKC events have used other tools like e-collars to make the connection between command and behavior to elicit response in the dog at a given distance.

I won't get into all the technical details about retriever training here, but for the FETCH command, essentially the dog must learn to fetch and return a given object to the handler when the command is given.

Traditionally, the training of fetch in the field starts by a "force" caused by an ear-pinch or electric stimulus from an e-collar until the dog fetches the object and holds it. That's the behavior requested by the command.

Pressure (or force) of the e-collar is applied if the dog refuses to fetch, and it is released once the dog complies. It sounds barbaric, but it really isn't harmful if done in the proper hands. But I agree, it can be painful to watch.

"Force-fetching," conditions the dog to FETCH when the command is given. It has its detractors, legions of them in fact, who are vocally against the use of force to elicit a behavior.

So what's the answer for people that love retrievers and fieldwork, but don't want to suffer through a session of traditional force-fetching?


One man that has been using positive conditioning for many years is Bill Hillmann. Bill has been training and competing with retrievers in AKC Field Trials for decades. He holds numerous records for champion dogs, and now he's at the top of his game when it comes to using positive conditioning during training.

What I have learned from Bill is that you do not need to use negative enforcers to elicit behaviors, even in retrievers. Think of Pavlov's Dogs, which drooled at the sight of the lab technician bringing the food bowl. No force was needed to create the drooling behavior. The dog simply learned to associate the food bowl and technician with dinner time! That's a learned behavior without negative conditioning, and it made Ivan Pavlov famous.

I just happened to stumble on Bill's YouTube videos one day, and afterward, I was hooked by what I saw him do on video. I decided to go to one of his seminars to learn more.

The Chuckit! bumper to learn fetch and hold. Its unique shape works well with positive reinforcement drills to teach fetching.

The Chuckit! bumper to learn fetch and hold. Its unique shape works well with positive reinforcement drills to teach fetching.

I attended a three-day clinic at Raney Ranch Retrievers in Santa Ysabel, CA, where Bill demonstrated his techniques. Bill explained that the e-collar is never used as a negative reinforcer, rather only as a low-level stimulus once the desired behavior is learned by the dog, which is always followed by some kind of positive reward like play or a treat. Again, then like Pavlov's Dogs, the behavior is learned, not forced.

But how do dogs learn to fetch something they may not want to pick up?

There are many ways to get dogs to fetch naturally, and to hold the object for very long periods. It all begins with getting the dog excited with the object you want the dog to fetch, and then rewarding the dog when he or she fetches it. The dog seeks the reward, which is often enough to entice the fetch behavior. That's very simplistic, but you get the idea.

By using an object like the Chuckit! bumper (pictured) it encourages the dog to hold it in his or her mouth naturally due to its unique shape. Retrievers don't spit it out as easily as cylinder shaped bumpers. The Chuckit! then becomes part of the training.

Using Bill Hillmann's method of positive reinforcement and conditioning, once the dog picks up the bumper or a Chuckit!, the dog is then praised and encouraged verbally and physically with the object in its mouth, and then rewarded with play, or which Bill calls "the game."

Essentially, it is a repeated conditioning for a specific response, and punctuated by low-level e-collar nicks timed to the verbal cues of the command to remind the dog that a "reward always follows" the correct behavior. According to Bill, "The Electric Collar is a tool that is used to send an electronic message to your dog."

To underscore Bill's comment, the e-collar is not used as a negative reinforcer, or negative force of conditioning. And Bill's "soft-collar" technique can also be applied to any breed, not just retrievers.

I held out my hand to see if I could feel the e-collar that Bill applied to his dog. I could barely sense it. The e-collar nicks are so low that the dog doesn't even flinch. The e-collar isn't used like in traditional retriever training, rather using Bill's method, the e-collar becomes a positive stimulus that can be done as far as the range of the e-collar unit, followed by the reward once the completes the behavior. 

While I'm a complete novice when it comes to Hillmann's technique, I did see the results of his method, particularly in two whining dogs that were literally out-of-control and pulling the owner's leashes.

That's when Hillmann took the dogs, and in ten minutes, he had the dogs sitting quiet, obedient and focused on him. Essentially, he is making a game of the desired behavior, and the dogs loved it.

What I learned is that dogs need excitement and focus before they even begin training. Once the training command is learned, they get more excitement from the handler.

This positive association between trainer and dog is noteworthy on its own. Dogs need to look at us as the Alpha dog, not as just a member of the pack.

It does take patience and consistency to learn Bill's method of training, and I'm now prepared to give it a try.

So the next time you find yourself frustrated at training, check out Bill's website, and watch some of his training methods. They are unique and force-free with the exception of a low-level stimulus from an e-collar.

Again, the use of e-collars is critical for retrievers that travel great distances from the trainer. I suppose a person could substitute a clicker command if the dog is always within earshot of the trainer.

Bill might not be the first to apply positive conditioning to dogs. However, I believe Bill is the first to apply it specifically to working dogs in the field, and that it is definitely a step in the right direction for everyone.