Training Your Pet with the Electric Collar – “The Soft Collar Method”

A new DVD by Bill Hillmann, reviewed by Dennis Voigt

This brand new DVD is a guide to training your pet on three basic commands – Sit, Here and No – using the electric collar as a reinforcement tool. So what are we doing here in Retrievers ONLINE reviewing a DVD on how to train a pet? The answer is that the author is Bill Hillmann is a successful field trial retriever trainer who is worth studying for his methodology. Studying this video not only gives you insight into how Bill approaches training in general but also insight into his techniques and philosophy. On the principle that you can learn something from everything, I carefully watched this video. Here’s my synopsis.

This DVD shows “real-time” footage over a period of weeks of Bill training a small mixed-breed dog. The dog is like a long-legged Jack Russell, obviously has some terrier, is energetic and yet sensitive. She’s the kind of dog that if you could teach calmness, patience and obedience, the average retriever should be a piece of cake. Bill introduces how he uses food, reinforcement and aversives to teach what he feels are the three essential commands all dogs should know – sit, here and no. He reviews equipment which is two different types of rope leads (a 6’ and a 20’), a pinch collar and the e-collar (for which he makes no specific brand recommendation).

He proceeds to discuss how to start every teaching session, which is basically having the dog in a good, excited frame of mind with good attitude but paying attention to you. He then thoroughly illustrates how he teaches “sit,” how he rewards “sit” and how he reinforces “sit.” He then does the same for the “here” command and the “no” command. Remember that his approach was developed while training retrievers, not developed for pets and applied to retrievers!

Bill then emphases the importance of Practice – not just for repetition but repetition in a variety of distracting environments. He reveals that all commands are developed in a four stage process of Teach, Reward (both verbally and with treats), Reinforce (with e-collar) and then Practice. Bill’s earlier DVD on Training a Retriever Puppy illustrated similar techniques. The most fundamental thing that I got out of the Puppy DVD was the importance of and procedure for developing steadiness and PATIENCE at an early stage. The technique involved a balance of control and excitement or freedom that was controlled by the handler. Again, in this DVD, the biggest impression for me was the development of patience and calmness. Bill does lots of walking around the dog while in a sit position. The dog learns to sit and be patient – everything is calm and relaxed and then contrasted with the excitement of happy bumpers. He talks about having your dog sit there for well over two minutes and eventually much longer. This would benefit many retrievers.

The simplicity of the Hillmann approach is its strength. We see some real life examples of distraction training thanks to a “in your face” cat, an example of distractions in the local town and examples of disobedience by the dog. Bill puts a lot of power in the word “NO” while emphasizing this could save your dog’s life. He uses “No” to stop behaviours, which is technically termed punishment training as opposed to reinforcement training, but he is quick to add positive reinforcement with a treat or “good dog” and he also uses negative reinforcement with the e-collar.

He ends by emphasizing again that Practice is the Key and that Repetition is the Mother of all skills.

This video is well produced and filmed. Mary Hillmann did all the filming and editing and graphics and did a great job. It is not an amateurish production. There is appealing background guitar music throughout, as well as outtakes of the local musicians. I had two critiques of Bill’s earlier DVD: I wanted to hear more of Bill’s voice while interacting with the dog and I wanted to have a more complete manual with the DVD. Both of these occur with the new DVD. Bill still has his voice-over commentary which is valuable. Overall, I give this video a high rating for instructional and entertainment value. There are probably lots of “pet” owners who won’t be able to deliver and get Bill’s results but that’s true of any method and instruction. In this case, it’s not because of a short-coming in the video!

Bill Hillmann: Retrievers ONLINE is invaluable to anyone that’s interested in becoming a better trainer. It doesn’t matter if it’s a hunting dogs or if you are training a dog at highest level of competition. To learn more or subscribe:


With a Review of the New Bill Hillmann Fetch Command DVD

by Dennis R. Voigt

Working retrievers must fetch without question when commanded. A failure to fetch is a failure to retrieve to hand. Many decades ago trainers developed ways of ensuring that dogs complied. They called this force fetch or force breaking with good reason because “force” was the operative word. Most trainers used an ear pinch to reinforce the fetch behaviour. Some Pointer trainers used a toe hitch, which a few later retriever trainers also adopted. Finally, some used the e-collar either at the end of force fetching or in some cases exclusively.

Another group of trainers has primarily used praise and positive reinforcement only. Virtually all British trainers do not use an ear pinch or force procedure nor do most Europeans. A group of American trainers that pursue “British” methods (such as Milner and Stewart) also avoid ear pinching or e-collars for fetching

In the past, I have used a variety of methods including ear pinch, toe hitch and e-collar. I have done it on a table both restrained and unrestrained (for a complete and thorough description see Milner’s Retriever Training for the Duck Hunter book), while on the ground and sitting on steps. I have always thoroughly taught “hold” first, unlike some who skip that step. After hold is established, I emphasize fetch and teach the dog to grab bumpers on command. The dog would then be taught to avoid or escape the ear pinch which would start with the command and end with the behaviour (fetch). This is classic negative reinforcement in which the aversive is removed during a behavior. This increases the likelihood that the behaviour will be increased (reinforced) in the future. The sequence was followed by praise, which is positive reinforcement in which something pleasant is added to increase (reinforce) the behaviour. The timing of the aversive and the praise helped the reinforcement but unfortunately some dogs get the wrong idea and the likelihood of desired behaviour often decreased. This is, in fact, punishment training – adding an aversive, which decreases a behavior. Thus, some people got dogs clamming up and weeks and weeks of stress for the dog (and the trainer!)

I am well aware that many trainers not only hate doing force fetch but that many dogs do also. For many dogs it is a chamber of horrors as some take weeks and weeks to finish the ordeal. In contrast, I always enjoyed working with my pup and learning about him and his response to pressure and how quickly he caught onto the ideas I was trying to teach. Sure, I would often have 2-3 challenging days when progress seemed minimal but I could usually finish force fetch in 10-15 days by having 2-3 short sessions per day. The key as hinted above was to not let the dog get the wrong idea and clam up or resist. That required reading the dog and praising when appropriate to make it clear what I wanted and for them to feel good. It was important to be persistent and consistent with both praise and pressure.

E-collar Fetch

In the past, like most trainers, I started formal basics training when the pup was 5-7 months old. This is when they were believed to be mature enough and also approximately when they had their permanent teeth. The puppy was force fetched using conventional methods. When basic obedience and e-collar conditioning was complete, I also reinforced fetch with the e-collar. Most often I used a method I modified from the teachings of Jim Dobbs of California. Basically, I got the dog real excited and in prey drive mode. I would excitedly throw a bumper on the ground only a few feet away and get the dog to break and dive for it. As he dove for it, I would say fetch and give a nick. And then praise. My nicks were of short duration and medium intensity but I would escalate the intensity until the dog clearly was affected by the e-collar but still drove through it to fetch. Although some do, I did not hold the transmitter button on until the dog had the bumper in his mouth. I have done this method with all my dogs since I started using the e-collar for training in the mid-1980’s.

Problems with the Ear pinch and Force fetch

Over the years, I merrily did my force fetching, all the while hearing about problems by others. Some of the stories sounded exaggerated but gradually I concluded that it was true that some dogs and some trainers had serious problems while force fetching. With the proliferation of Internet training forums and many more discussions with others, I realized that for the many retrievers and for many trainers, the force fetch process is, indeed, traumatic. This continues today. As I write this in August 2011, the forums are chock full of force fetch posts describing all sorts of problems and suggested solutions. Some advice is good and some is frighteningly misguided in my opinion.

I have written about force fetch before and many others more experienced than I have also. Some have produced DVD’s. But it seems people still can’t get the timing or the teaching right or have to resort to escalating pressure way beyond what I believe should be necessary to get a reliable fetcher. I think the biggest problem that people have is that they use the ear pinch to get the dog to fetch rather than teach the fetch and use the ear pinch to reinforce the fetch.

About 5 years ago, I suddenly realized how little I used the ear pinch with my dogs once they had finished formal force fetch. Perhaps, I used it a total of 2-3 times for not picking up a bumper or avoiding a fetch when moving on to Pile work and to T-work. Even my walking fetch work didn’t require a lot of ear pinch. It turned out that with all my Transition and more Advanced dogs that I used fetch and the e-collar whenever reinforcement was needed. Examples of need might include a dropped bird, a failure to fetch up, or a mouth or hold issue. I began to realize that the e-collar was all I used if pressure was necessary other than the occasional swat with a heeling stick. It occurred to me that I was putting the pup through all that stress with the ear pinch to teach him to respond to pressure but began to wonder why that was necessary. I realized that all of my other commands such as sit, and here, actually were also reinforced with pressure (using the heeling stick and the e-collar) and thus I began to question why ear pinch was necessary. Perhaps the ear pinch was not necessary including the lessons that went with it. These thoughts continued until I got a DVD, which convinced me to try force fetching a dog without the ear pinch.

No More Ear Pinch!

Bill Hillmann’s DVD, Training a Retriever Puppy, came out in time for my 2nd last puppy obtained in the spring of 2009. As many of you know, I have become a firm advocate of Hillmann’s approach to training puppies including the early schedule. For me, some of the most valuable features are the emphasis on ‘sit, steadiness and developing patience. Bill does this by balancing excitement and discipline. Puppies are started at a very tender age of 10 weeks or so and respond beautifully to the proper balance of exciting retrieves and lessons in “do as I say – when I say.” They do not get fireworks, gunners and birds until many fundamentals are sound and yet, they get tons of retrieves, albeit short. They are never restrained on line but taught to wait until commanded. No jumping around and breaking without permission. For me it fit perfectly with my often mentioned advice to emphasize the ABC’s of Attitude, Balance and Control.

I was also attracted to this approach because I seek and all too often, perhaps, get very high-powered dogs, some of which I struggled with to control at times. I currently have one dog that was trained conventionally and I struggle with his line manners and control all of the time. He would have been a great candidate for the Hillmann approach. My 2009 pup, Ghillie, is turning out to be a top notch competitor even in all-age field trials at 28 months but I am convinced he would have “eaten my hat” with wild line manners and noise without his pre 6 month training.

In Hillmann’s puppy DVD, he introduces the puppy to sit and later heel and here. He conditions/reinforces these with the e-collar after the commands have been taught. Nicks are used at low intensity. He also emphasizs “hold” and then eventually teaches “fetch” and later finally adds a nick with the e-collar to reinforce the fetch. In his puppy DVD he stops around the 6 month mark. I didn’t know what he did next but I assumed I would then follow my conventional Basics steps as I would work with any 6 month old pup. This would be similar to the Lardy Basics program for those of you familiar with that. I was amazed to discover that my pup was thoroughly collar-conditioned and force fetched to simply carry on. I think I might have tried to ear pinch him literally two times before I realized how strong his fetch command was with and without pressure. I now know that Hillmann must have similar experience because he talks about the next step being go to force to pile after the fetch command is sound.

Bill Hillmann’s New “Fetch Command” DVD

Bill has now released a sequel DVD that deals exclusively with the fetch command. It provides: 1. Greater detail on the requirements before starting the fetch command; 2. How to teach fetch before reinforcing, and; 3. How to reinforce fetch with the e-collar. In some ways it illustrates an even simpler and more dog-friendly version than in his first puppy DVD.

In the DVD, Bill illustrates the process with a 5-6 month old Golden female. No chamber of horrors, no clamming, no days of shut down, no abuse. But there is a lot of fun for the dog who seems to learn a whole series of skills in a seamless happy way. I don’t say this is all praise and positive reinforcement because it isn’t. But the reinforcing is “soft” as Bill calls it. It is well-timed nicks with a command. There is Feel, Timing and Balance — a set of teaching concepts that are espoused by some of the greatest horsemen in the world. I doubt Bill knows those horse trainers but it is noteworthy to see the convergence. The training is done with “Feel for the dogs, the Timing is strongly linked to the desired behaviour and throughout the emphasis is on Balance. I again was greatly reminded of my ABC mantra – Attitude, Balance and Control. I might also add that I have often seen dogs that were fun fetched but not force fetched. I the end, I believe Hillmann’s technique although it is more fun for the dog does achieve force fetching. It is much more than pure fun fetching when done properly.

This DVD is well-produced. It moves along smoothly and has very good voice-over narration by Bill, which interprets exactly what is happening as it happens. You see complete sessions so you see much of what the pup does both good, bad and indifferent. You’ll see distractions like cats and ducks. Bill will tell you when the pup doesn’t do perfectly what he thinks and it is usually, “I am not worried in the least about that!”

For those of you that watch and listen carefully, you will find this production loaded with Bill’s philosophy, insight and approach to training. For me, this new production was way more than a puppy or fetch DVD but rather a description of an approach to training dogs in general.

Mary Hillmann has once again done the filming and editing and has continued to improve greatly. There are lots of nice clear dog shots, good colour and focus, slow motion segments when appropriate with the e-collar and very good audio. Mary has also added considerable special effects and some artistic content along with educational subtitles.

I’ve watched and studied the entire DVD at least 5-6 times already and still see little things each time. I can’t say whether Bill’s fetch process is confirmation mostly of where I was headed anyway or where I was mostly headed was spearheaded by his earlier DVD, but I suspect both were happening at once.

If you are thinking about a new pup, I strongly recommend both of Bill’s DVDs, I do think any novice should be able to follow them and put into practice the methods .As always, there will need to be study, effort and at least an average field bred retriever. I suspect most dyed-in-the-wool trainers and even young-dog training professionals will simply stick to what they have always been doing; too bad in some ways. All I can say is that after 40 years of doing things a certain way, I have been pleased to incorporate new ideas and seek a better way for the dog.

Bill Hillmann: Retrievers ONLINE is invaluable to anyone that’s interested in becoming a better trainer. It doesn’t matter if it’s a hunting dog or if you are training a dog at the highest level of competition.

To learn more or subscribe:

Balance is the Key

In retriever puppy training the key is to get the retrieving going first. You have to have a wild puppy before you start to do obedience. First thing is to get them wild to retrieve. If they aren’t wild to retrieve, you don’t want to start making them sit and walk on a lead. First they get wild, then you balance that with the leash and the sit command.

The same balance should be carried throughout the dog’s life. A dog that is wild to retrieve should have more obedience lessons than retrieving lessons. A dog more obedient and less wild to retrieve should have more retrieves than obedience.

Every dog is different and the training program must match and balance their unique personalities. All dogs need balance, and a dog trained with the correct balance is eager to retrieve, obedient on the line and in the field, and extremely HAPPY!

“They can all do it, you just have to bring it out in them.”

Better Marking with the 80-20 Rule

HOW TO TRAIN A RETRIEVER TO BE A BETTER MARKER – The 80/20 Rule Some time ago I was conducting a seminar in which the subject was, ‘How to train a retriever to be a better marker’. It was to be a two day event – everybody had notebooks and the mindset on learning how to get their dog to nail 350 yard marks. I began by spending quite a lot of time on the importance of the ’sit’ command, and gave demonstrations on how to teach the command and then reinforce it with the remote training collar. This went well, and several people had questions, such as “Would the technique that I was demonstrating work with an older dog?” (who was in the habit of NOT sitting very well, ie: a creeper.) I explained that it took at least 30 repetitions to teach a new command to a dog and at least 90 repetitions to overcome a bad habit.

There were many questions asked and answered. I continued to explain all of the elements that, when linked together, made it possible to be a good marker. At one point I asked the class to remember the three main ingredients of marking – the three things that must be present to be a good mark – three things NEVER to be forgotten, because all training on marks include these three elements:

  1. Watch the bird
  2. Go for the bird sent for
  3. Don’t cheat

That’s it! The essence of marking. I continued to demonstrate different drills to achieve better focus, to be more honest in the water, to study each fall as though it would be the only fall they would ever get in their entire life. We also worked on other drills and situations that continued to make a dog a better marker.

At lunch break on the second day the President of the club pulled me aside and said that some of the participants loved the things they were learning but were wondering when we would get into the subject of marking. I told him, “Get everybody in the tent.” I began a new speech which explained marking in a different way. I said, “Who is the worst shot in the room?” There were a few blank faces and finally a nice lady from the back of the group put her hand up and volunteered that she had never shot before.

I said, “Perfect.” She came forward, and we put up a target the size of a garbage can cover. I had her stand 4 feet from the target with a BB gun. She couldn’t miss. I said, “When you get home, shoot 500 rounds at 4 feet, then 500 rounds at 5 feet, then 500 at 6 feet, then 7 feet, etc. You’ll never miss – even when you get back to 50 feet – it’s the way the Army teaches its sharpshooters to hit aspirin tablets when thrown in the air.

Then I looked at the group and said, “OK, who’s the best shot?” That was easy for everyone. A slightly stout man with a hat adorned with a number of shooting pins was cheered forward by everyone………. He looked like a great shot to me. I handed him the BB gun and said, “OK….go out in the middle of that field over there and try to hit this target.” Everyone gasped. “That’s impossible”, they cried.

And I said, “Well, that’s what a lot of you do with your puppies!” You barely get them retrieving and all of a sudden the bird boy is out throwing marks they can barely see….. The poor pups are out hunting aimlessly wondering what’s going on. You’re hollering at the bird boy (or your wife) to throw it better, “Higher arch!!” “Help him! Help him!” But none of that’s any good. You must throw the bird so that the pup can’t miss……. whatever that distance is….. 20-30 yards? If he misses the throw, it was too far or too hard.

It’s the 80 / 20 Rule. The pup must nail the mark 80% of the time. This will develop his confidence.

Eventually, it won’t matter where you throw the bird – he won’t miss because he has never missed. Develop confidence. Create a habit of pouncing on every bird – never missing – never failing. Once in a while – never more than 20% of the time – it is OK to throw a mark into heavy cover – a slightly more challenging situation to develop the pup’s ability to hunt and use his nose. But, there’s plenty of time for that.

Now you know the secret of how to make a great marker – the 80/20 Rule!

In summary:

  1. Watch the bird
  2. Get the bird you’re sent for
  3. Don’t cheat

Plus! STICK TO THE 80/20 RULE! Throw the birds where they can’t miss!