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"Teaching your dog to retrieve by Wensy Beasley
Although such an important part of trials and the basis for all search work, I am amazed how many people teach the retrieve by ad hoc methods. Most are blessed with a dog that likes to chase, and if this is coupled with a willingness to pick up they feel they are half way there. All that remains is to persuade the dog to bring it back and it’s job done! However, although this may work for them it is more likely to go wrong, and the dog can let you down big time if it is distracted by something more exciting or just plain bored with the exercise.
The other aspect of this is that basically the dog is doing the job for fun and so there is no urgency or need for accuracy, as its only aim is for the handler to throw it again. So although it may come rushing back it will often stand off or just drop the dumbbell to enable it to be re-thrown, and this method rarely produces an accurate or reliable retrieve.
Step by step
Unfortunately the taught retrieve is frowned upon by many handlers, and it is often referred to as the forced retrieve, which gives totally the wrong impression. When I set out to teach the retrieve it is not a matter of force but a simple step by step learning process with a clear objective, lots of guidance, plenty of praise but no alternatives. The thinking behind this is that the dog must learn that when I say ‘hold it’ I want it to pick up whatever is indicated and give it to me, and whether the item is at my feet or has been thrown several yards away makes no difference as the requirement is the same. This simple command will prove invaluable later on when the dog finds something in the square which causes it to hesitate or possibly ignore, and a simple ‘hold it’ command will remind it to bring it in.
However hard we try and however much play we do with our puppies there will always be things that they prefer to pick up and those that they would choose to leave alone. Most handlers will tell you that metal is what the dog is most likely to reject, but I have found that some dogs don’t like material or cloth while others avoid picking up pieces of sponge or hard plastic. Whatever the dog likes and dislikes we must have a fail safe command which means bring it to me, and if this is done with enough praise and confidence building, the dog will soon bring in anything it finds, happily and confidently, without worrying about what it is.
So how do we reach this blissful state you may ask, and once again I must stress that it all starts with the taught retrieve, so let’s take a look at this and see what we are trying to achieve. The first and probably the most important thing to say here is that when I start teaching the retrieve it is always with a dumbbell and it is never thrown! It seems to me that if you start by throwing the dumbbell you are starting at the end of the exercise without ever teaching the beginning, so the first thing I teach the pup is to hold.
Although this lesson can be done with quite a young pup it is important to ensure that teething has finished and the pup’s mouth is not sore. When working with a pup it is probably best to kneel down rather than lean over, so I get down on my knees and encourage the pup to sit beside me as it would at the start of a retrieve. The dumbbell is produced with some interesting encouragement such as ‘look or ‘what’s this?’ so the pup’s attention is focussed on what is in your hand but it is important that this does not turn into excited grabbing or snatching as this makes it a tug toy rather than a calm hold.
To begin with it will be necessary to put the dumbbell in the pup’s mouth with the command ‘hold it’ but just for a couple of seconds at a time. You can do this by gently opening the pup’s mouth and placing the bar of the dumbbell behind the incisors, by keeping the head tilted upwards with a hand under the chin you can prevent the pup dropping it and at the same time lavish praise upon it and tell it how clever it is. Only ask for literally two seconds and then with the command ‘give’ take the dumbbell back and praise again.
Repeat this two or three times at the first lesson, and then release the pup with lots of praise and put the dumbbell away. If the pup resists or fights at this stage it is important not to get cross but to maintain a calm insistence, and go through with what you set out to do without anger or impatience. Think of it as administering medicine which the pup does not like but must have, and you will be close to the right attitude to teach the retrieve.
The most important part of teaching the retrieve from start to finish is not to allow an alternative. In other words once you have asked the pup to hold he must hold, but the praise and reward is well worth the effort. I mention reward here as I know some people would like to use food as a reward for this exercise and I have no objection to this, I just don’t do it myself preferring my dog to work for my praise. However, I realise that this does not work for all breeds or all dogs, so the reward must suit the pupil. Once the dog has had two or three of the lessons on hold you will see him start to open his mouth in anticipation, and taking the dumbbell without assistance is the first major breakthrough.
Facing the dog
Once the dog will take and hold the dumbbell by your side the next step is to teach him to bring it to you, which at this stage is just a matter of turning to face you, but is the basis for the final exercise, when as soon as he has the dumbbell in his mouth his first thought will be to return to you. From here it is just a step by step process of holding the dumbbell lower and lower until it is on the ground at your feet (or knees in the case of a pup) still with your hand on it and asking the dog to hold it. Once it will pick it up off the floor at your feet and turn to present it, you are halfway there and it is then just a case of placing it further and further away, and sending the dog but still moving forward yourself to assist the pick up and encourage the return.
Whatever you are using for reward be it food or praise it must be consistent and lavish, so that the dog is left in no doubt that it is doing the right thing, but by the same token the control remains to ensure that the dog is given no other alternative but to comply with the request and earn his reward.
Once you are able to place the dumbbell two or three strides away and the dog will pick it up and bring it back the time has come for your first little throw. Put in a wait before you send the dog even if you have to keep hold of him as this builds anticipation and makes it fun, and before long your dog will be doing a good reliable retrieve and will pick up whatever you ask him to.
There are no shortcuts to this lesson and it does take a little while, but as long as progress is being made and the dog understands what is required it will work and be worth the time spent. Without doubt there will be occasions during the lesson when the dog will say ‘no’, and you as a handler will need to apply the same calm insistence that you employed at the beginning of the lessons. You must remain positive, encouraging, and ready with the praise and reward so that the dog finds it easy to understand and comply with what is required.
So finally it is important to say that this is not a forced retrieve it is a taught retrieve and once they understand the lesson all the dogs that I have taught have absolutely loved it."