A few years ago, I published an article on retrieving (in Swedish). It has been much appreciated by all kinds of dog trainers and has helped many to teach a great retrieve for obedience. We still use the same methods, but training evolve over the years and there are some things that I want to update the article with. I have also decided to add video to the article, and to translate it into English.
Since I wrote the first article, we have become even better at the foundation training. Our philpsophy is to make sure that the dog knows the behavior really well before we introduce it in the setting where it will be used at a trial. In that way, we can keep a high rate of reinforcement, without ever rewarding things that we don’t like.
This is maybe most important when it comes to retrieving. We meet a lot of dogs that have a negative association with the dumbbell – even clicker trained dogs. It’s easy to put pressure on the dog without knowing, and thus creating a negative feeling. If you make sure that your dog has the perfect attitude towards grabbing and holding an object before you introduce the dumbbell, such misstakes can be avoided. Different trainers have different goals for their training, but for my part, I want my dog to have a really energetic attitude to dumbbells. The dog should grab the dumbbell as soon as she gets the chance and then hold it with a rock solid grip until I tell her to drop it. And no matter what distractions I throw at her, she should glow with confidene and joy. I am very satisfied with Missy’s retrieves, so when training Squid, this is one of my first goals. Squid has not been as naturally energetic as Missy, but as you can see in the video below, we’re getting there!
A good retrieve is based on a good game of tug, at least if you ask me. If the dog will grab toys immediatly, hold and weight shift, you have a good foundation for the retrieve. I will gladly spend a lot of time playing tug instead of starting with the formal retrieve too early. Like I have said before, I also work on an informal retrieve to hand, where the puppy picks up a toy and nose touches my hand. This is not strongly connected to the formal retrieve, but I think it is good for the puppy to move with something in her mouth, and to learn to always run to me as soon as she picks something up. I usually wait with the dumbbell until the puppy has grown adult teeth, before that we’re working on foundations like tugging and retrieving to hand.
The most important training I do before I introduce the dumbbell, is to shape the dog to pull on any object that I present to her. I start by using soft, easy things (if I’m not dealing with a dog that is crazy about tugging, in wich case I might use something a little less exciting) and progress to other kinds of objects (plastic dowels, teaspoons, pens, gloves, metal chains etc.). This is nog tug-of-war. I am passive and the dog is active. It’s always the dog that seeks out the object, never the handler that pushes the dog to grab it. I let the dog stand in the initial training, but then progress to having the dog offer a sit in order for me to present the object. I want her to sit down while holdig and shifting her weight back. I hold on to the object for a long time in training, until the dog is holding the object calmly but with a great attitude and weight shift. When the dog can do that, I will let go of the object for a short, short time. I might just let go with one hand, or release the pressure a bit. I always end by grabbing the object again, to test the dogs grip, before I click and reward. The goal is to have the dog hold on to the object with the same hard grip no matter if I’m holding it or not. Because of that, I can’t rush this training and I can’t be too predictable. I will also use self control games (like tempting the dog with treats while she’s holding) to give the dog a greater understanding of her job.
When you’ve done this kind of training for a while, chewing on the object should be something that happens very, very rarely. This gives you the opportunity to make a big deal out of it when it happens. You’re close by and can react with perfect timing. Grab the toy (ideally as the dog opens her mouth to chew or change her grip) and express how shocked you are (or do a victory lap with the object on your own). Don’t give your dog a new chance right away, become an actor and let your dog beg to get the object back. This will of course only work if you have built value for the object in your initial training, and should not be used right away.
- Get a strong foundation of tugging and retrieve to hand
- Train in short, energetic sessions with lots of playing
- Always let the dog grab the object, never push it towards the dog
- Let the dog offer a sit before you present the object (after initial training)
- Make sure that the dog is always working for your rewards, and is not just pulling because she likes tugging on the object
- Reward a calm, but heavy grip. You should be able to feel your dog weight shift even when he is sitting down
- Let go of the object for very short moments in the beginning. Grag it again and reward if the dog is still holding it well
- Gradually increase the amount of time where the dog is holding on her own
- Use self control games to increase understanding (can be done at all the steps)
- Do the same thing while the dog is moving
- Use all kinds of objects
- Only reward your dog for letting go on the click or on your verbal drop cue, not on other sounds or cues
- Always evaluate the dog’s attitude. The dog should really want to have that object!
Here is a session where I’m doing this kind of training with Squid. It’s mostly play, but that’s how it should be: