My dog has been doing well with beginning retrieveing as you recommended. We started with holding a soft object until given the release command (I use "give" for the release). Then we went to holding and carrying it until given the release command. Now we have done lots of holding and carrying of different objects of all sizes, shapes, and textures, while running, walking, jumping, and swimming. Recently, I've been incorporating distractions with the help of friends, neighbors, and my NAVHDA training group. I haven't done much with forced fetching using the ear pinch lately, but he is fetching his toys and loves whenever a bumper comes out. In the past, I did some ear pinch and was able to get him to take a step to take the bumper and sometimes I would put it a little lower to the ground. It's going to take more work before I can get the bumper closer to the ground or on the ground. My problem is that I'm really not comfortable doing the ear pinch. I'm not in a hurry, but the progression was extremely slow, and I seem to get more out of him with treats and praise.. After 5-10 minutes training, I always reward him with a few fun tosses in the house or yard. I think he likes to train for that reward. He seems so happy bringing things back. As you instructed, I never use the "fetch" command when doing these fun tosses and do it just a couple times so he doesn't lose interest and fail to retrieve it. Do I have to ear pinch, or is there another way?
You are well on your way with him! I don’t think you’re going to need an ear pinch and I wouldn’t use it, if you don’t need to. A dog who is readily picking things up and bringing them to you is obviously motivated to retrieve and it can completely change a dog’s attitude when you switch from using positive reinforcement methods to negative reinforcement. In the retriever world, they use little, if any, negative reinforcement in retrieve training and they have great success. Granted, they are working with dogs who are naturally compelled to retrieve, but if you have a versatile dog who is exhibiting much of the same behavior, I see no reason why you need to start applying negative pressure.
Like we have discussed, if he is happy to pick things up and bring them to you, you are more than half-way through the retrieve training process. All that’s left is the “manner” of retrieve, which you have already been working on. Teaching him that when you give the “fetch” command he is not allowed to drop whatever is in his mouth until he gets the release command, is the most important part of the Manner. You’ve obviously done an excellent job at that, and he still thoroughly enjoys chasing and retrieving whatever you throw. Kudos!
You should begin "marking” your dog's desired behavior so he associates the mark with a reward. Think of the mark like an IOU for a reward (treat). The premise behind Operant Conditioning, is that it is just as important for a dog to know when he is doing something correctly, as it is for him to know when he's making a mistake. Once he understands the mark, you can use it throughout all your training. Some people use the audible tone button on their dog’s e-collar or a low-tone whistle to mark. Others use a clicker. Using a clicker is preferable, but if you just can't see yourself using one, you can use your voice (usually with the word Nice! or Yes!). I prefer Nice!, because I almost never say the word in casual conversation. Keep in mind, if you choose to use a word instead of a tone/whistle/click, it will sound different to the dog when said by another person and sometimes even by you (depending upon mood, etc). So you will be the only one able to do the training. Timing is everything when it comes to marking desired behavior, so you cannot have a delay between the behavior and the mark. Therefore, you must choose something you can use almost instantly to make the marking sound.
Start with Sit. Command Sit, as he starts to sit, say Nice! then reward (usually a tasty treat). Slowly progress to marking only when his butt hits the floor and later to only when he has been sitting for a certain length of time. You must break the behavior of Sitting into small steps, marking each correct step for the dog and rewarding him. Sometimes you might not have a treat handy, so then you can reward with praise/petting, but it must be different than the word Nice! That word is solely used for marking. For instance, say “good boy” and pet him. Initially, you cannot use more than one marking method. Down the road, if you've been using a clicker/whistle/tone to mark (your primary marker), you will be able to combine it with a verbal mark (known as a secondary marker) which you will eventually use in place of the primary marker. In other words, you wean off the clicker and replace with a verbal marker.
Next, use marking with Kennel. Then, use with Come. Command (Dog's Name) Come! Initially mark when he looks at you. Then when he takes a step toward you, then as he comes to you. When he gets to you, treat. The objective is to get him to associate Nice! with doing the right thing (what you want) and that a reward will follow. He will come to depend on your “nices” for indication that you are happy with what he’s doing, and that a reward will follow. Dogs trained with Operant Conditioning treats will start to salivate when they hear the marker.
Once he understands the mark, follow the Manner of Retrieve using Placeholders instructions. By so doing, you are making the retrieve less play and more “work,” while at the same time keeping it enjoyable for him. Even though he’s no longer playing when he retrieves, there’s no reason he needs to dislike it. On the contrary, the best, most reliable retrievers are the ones who enjoy it.
At the same time, during your fetch play, begin incorporating the Fetch command in the following way. Start out by marking his pickup of the bumper, and marking his return to you with it, then say Fetch when he is nearly back to you. Pause momentarily before taking it from him with the release command. At the pause, while it’s still in his mouth and before you reach for it, mark the the moment. Then give the release command, mark, and reward. Keep doing this, but over time give the Fetch command closer and closer to the moment he is picking up the object, until you are saying it simultaneously. Then start giving the Fetch command just before he picks it up, and continue to give the Fetch command sooner and sooner, until you are saying fetch when you throw the bumper. You are taking something he is already doing and working it backwards so he learns that Fetch means the entire process.
The next step in retrieve training using Operant Conditioning begins once he is doing the placeholders and the retrieve play well. You will stop throwing the bumpers and begin taking them out and placing them (where he sees you do it), then send him for the retrieve. Break it down into steps and mark all desired behavior. The final step is taking bumpers and placing them where he cannot see you do it. This is a blind retrieve. For long blind retrieves, we often drag the object to be retrieved so it gives the dog a big scent highway to make it easy for him to locate the object. I can give you more detailed instructions on these last steps once you get to that point.