Teaching your dog to retrieve objects is a really great exercise, with many possibilities for your imagination. It will strengthen the bond between you as your dog learns to enjoy the tasks you give him, it is a game that is under your control so helps to confirm your leadership over him, it offers him valuable exercise and it could even become a handy way to find your car keys when you’ve mislaid them!
There are many different ways to approach training your dog to retrieve. You may find that he is keen by nature and that you merely have to formalise the way he gives you back the object you throw. On the other hand your dog may be a very reluctant retriever or one who wants to run away and keep his find. All dogs have a chasing instinct within them and with patience and understanding can be taught to bring back objects. Once you and he have mastered this skill you can expand the game to finding hidden or specific objects if you’d like to really keep his mind busy.
The following are some ways I have found helpful in teaching the retrieve and are by no means the only methods used.
For all this training start in a quiet room with no distractions until you are sure your dog knows what you expect of him. After this take him outside and repeat the exercise in places where there are distractions.
Young puppies are relatively easy to teach the retrieve to as they love to play and want to be close to their owners. Roll a toy along the floor only a few feet and give the command ‘Fetch’ as soon as your puppy starts to follow the toy. When he has picked it up encourage him to return to you and make a fuss of him. Don’t take the toy away or touch him anywhere on his head as he may learn to avoid you so he doesn’t have to give up the toy. Wait until he drops the toy or lays down to chew it. Hold onto the toy and wait until he releases it but without pulling on it. At the point of release say ‘Give’ or ‘Drop it’. Praise him and throw the toy again for him to play with. As time goes by you can take away the toy sooner and sooner.
- Teaching a reluctant chaser
Get your dog excited about a toy that he likes by waving it around and teasing him with it. When he goes to bite at it praise him warmly and let him keep it. When he finally drops it do the same thing again. You can then progress to throwing the toy a few feet from you and carrying out in the instructions in 1. above. Take care not to offer treats until you are sure he is happy to pick up and bring the toy to you otherwise you will be encouraging him to drop the toy as soon as he picks it up.
3.Identical toy method for dogs who chase but don’t return the object
Acquire two identical toys so that the only difference in value is the fact that you have possession of one of them. Throw one toy and then kneeling down, immediately produce the identical one and visibly play with it yourself. The dog will show interest and approach you, probably dropping the first toy. If he does this, reward him straight away by throwing the second toy for him to chase.
Pick up the first toy, turn your back and start playing with it. Your dog will learn that if he drops the toy he has in his mouth you will reward him by throwing another.
Keep practising this until you can show the dog what you are holding as he approaches you.
Introduce the ‘Drop’ command as he drops the toy. Keep doing this until he reliably drops the toy he is holding when he sees the one you have.
Then keep this toy in your pocket until the dog gets closer and closer to you, before producing it and telling him to drop it. Eventually you can dispense with the second toy as he will be dropping the ball close enough to you for you to pick it up.
- Coercive training for dogs who chase but do not return with the object.
Attach a 3 – 4 metre line to your dog’s collar. Throw the toy only a few feet away. As he picks up the toy call him to you and gently put pressure on the line to encourage him to come towards you.
Bend low and encourage him to approach you. As soon as he starts moving towards you stop pulling and only apply pressure if he stops or tries to move away. Do this silently and congratulate him when he has come to you, gently holding the toy and asking him to release it until he lets go. Congratulate him and throw the toy again.
You could use a treat to encourage him to drop the toy but if he is very food motivated you may find he won’t leave you to chase the toy when you next throw it!
Keep practicing this and introduce the word ‘Fetch’ as you throw when you are sure he will return to you and ‘Drop’ as he releases the toy.
You could combine the above methods for dogs that are reluctant to come back to you with the toy.
- As 4. But without the lead, for dogs who don’t run away with the object.
Gently toss a favourite toy only a few inches, to remain within your reach. When your dog picks up the toy, reach out and hold it too and wait for your dog to release it. Hold a treat in your other hand, praise and reward him as soon as he drops the toy. Don’t ever pull a toy from your dog’s mouth; he needs to recognise that he is giving it up to you.
Continue to do this until he willingly releases the toy in favour of the treat.
Continue with this exercise but give a command when he has the toy in his mouth, like ‘Give’ or ‘Drop’.
Reward him when he obeys you. He will eventually associate the words you use with the release of the toy.
Slowly increase the distance you throw the toy. If your dog doesn’t bring it to you, don’t shout or go and fetch it, just wait patiently until he brings it to you, then give him the command and a treat and make a fuss of him. If he doesn’t come back to you, try the game later.
As your dog learns what you require of him, increase the distance you are throwing the toy and start to introduce a ‘Fetch’ command.
Slowly introduce the exercise outside where there are more distractions and eventually phase out the treat reward.
These training methods are all about being patient with your dog and taking things one step at a time. If at any time your dog really doesn’t get it, go back a stage and reinforce that before moving on. Always stop if your dog shows signs of becoming bored.
- Most of the above methods will result in your dog dropping the toy when he comes to you. If you would like him to put the toy in your hand, or ‘Give’ it instead, you will need to perfect the ‘Come’ command so that the dog will come to you and sit in front of you on command.
With your dog sitting facing you, offer him a toy to hold. If he’s reluctant, increase the value of it by making it smell good. When he has it in his mouth congratulate him, hold the toy until he releases it, give the command ‘Give’ and praise him.
Over time you can increase the length of time you expect him to hold the toy before asking him to give it to you until he holds it until you command him to give it to you.
Then toss the toy just a foot or so away and encourage him to ‘Fetch’.
When he picks up the toy, if necessary give the ‘Come’ command and he should return to you with the toy.
Give the ‘Give’ command whilst holding out your hand. Praise your dog when he obeys you.
Slowly increase the distance you throw the object. Always praise and reward your dog when he performs well. A reward could be food, a play with the toy or whatever you know that he enjoys.
Now you have trained your dog to retrieve you will need to reinforce the training from time to time if he’s not a natural retriever. For some dogs the pleasure of retrieving is reinforcing enough but for others the occasional reward helps to focus their attention.
Once your dog retrieves reliably you can extend the game to ‘Hide and Seek’ and eventually to finding specific objects.
With your dog in a ‘Sit’, show him a toy which you have rubbed well with your fingers to make it smell of you and let him sniff it.
Walk a few feet away, placing it on the floor perhaps behind a piece of furniture but where you know he has seen you place it.
Return to him and give the command ‘Find’ and he should go and retrieve the toy.
Reward and congratulate him when he returns to you with the toy. If he doesn’t follow it put it closer to him in a more obvious place.
If he will not sit quietly, ask a friend to hold him until you release him or put him in another room until you are ready.
Don’t hide the object anywhere too obscure, particularly to begin with, and remember that your dog uses his nose more than his eyes to search so bear this in mind when choosing your spot.
Most dogs find this game really exciting and are very keen to find the toy.
Try walking around the room and pretending to hide the toy in several places, choosing one spot as you go, to give him a greater challenge. Most dogs will head to the last place they found the toy or the last place they saw you stop but will continue to search if they are unsuccessful.
Once your dog understands what you want him to do you could put him out of the room if you are alone, whilst you hide the toy and let him in when you are ready, with the command ‘Find’.
Once your dog reliably finds objects the possibilities are endless for what you can hide and through reinforcement and patience you can associate the name of an object with it when you ask your dog to find it so that ultimately he will search for what you want him to find.
If you would like to do this, try throwing two objects, ask your dog to find or fetch one and reinforce the name of the object you want. Reward him for bringing that object and ignore him if he picks up the wrong one.
The result is a happy dog and no more lost car keys!