by Rachel Moseley
The Retrieve. It’s the foundation for probably a dozen tasks, from medicine retrievals to dropped item retrieval and even diabetic response.
There are two categories of dogs when it comes to training a retrieve: those with a natural drive to retrieve and those that are lacking that drive. Natural retrievers are the dogs that will chase a ball if you throw it, even if they don’t necessarily bring it back. Non-retrievers won’t even go get the ball and might even look at you like you’re crazy for expecting them to. This article will cover how to train retrieval to dogs that already have a retrieval instinct. (Don’t have a natural retriever? Check out Method #2)
Before You BeginThis method utilizes clicker training as I find it’s the best way to communicate exactly what you want with your dog. Clicker training is using a marker of sorts (either a word, typically “yes”, or a click) to mark the exact moment your dog does the desired behavior. For example, if you’re training a sit you would mark the second your dog’s butt hits the ground and then reward them. You’ll need to load your marker, so if you’re using a clicker click and immediately follow it with a treat and repeat until your dog begins to look for the treat when you click (change click to whatever marker word you’re using if you’re not using a clicker).
So, your dog has a natural drive to retrieve! That’s great news! Half of the job is already done for you.
Note: In the early stages you’ll need to know whether your dog is motivated enough by another throw of the ball or if you’ll need to incorporate treats. Most natural retrievers will be perfectly happy to get to chase the ball again but if not just keep food stashed somewhere and use it as a reward instead.
You’ll want to start adding in a “get” cue (or “pick it up” or whatever cue you want to use) from the beginning. Throw the toy, wait until the dog is about to pick it up, and then cue the “get”.
Step 1 – Move towards you with the toy
The first step is just getting them to start bringing it back to your general vicinity. Start in a room or somewhere relatively small so they can’t just take off across the yard with their toy. I find that using a lot of enthusiasm and calling them right after they get it normally works well for this. Clap, dance, praise, run backwards, do whatever gets your dog excited to come towards you and celebrate with them if they come even a few steps closer than they normally do. Repeat this step until your dog is consistently bringing the toy close to you.
Step 2 – Put the toy in your hand
Now that they’re bringing the toy close to you want to get them to start putting it in your hand. I’ve found the best way to start this is by intercepting them when they come back, grabbing the toy, asking them to “give it” and rewarding heavily when they let go. You’ll need to use your marker (click/yes) the second they drop the toy into your hand. I normally mark and immediately throw the toy again since every dog I’ve worked with has been toy motivated but you can give them a handful of treats if they’re not as toy motivated. This step can take longer with some dogs.
After a while they’ll start bringing it back to your hand more often than not. At this point you should incorporate a “bring” cue and start weaning off the rewards when they don’t return the toy to your hand. You want your dog to learn that the only way to get what they want is by putting the toy back in your hands. Hey, look at that! You’ve got a retrieval going!
Step 3 – Retrieving other items and stationary items
Now you just need your dog to start retrieving what you need and learn to retrieve items that haven’t been thrown. To start the transition, I normally work with something that I’ll need them retrieving that is still relatively similar to their toys; keys with a paracord tab or a fabric bag (for med retrievals) work well. Treat it like a toy, get your dog’s interest and toss it across the room like you did with the toys earlier on. Your dog should happily run after it and get it (and hopefully bring it right back!). If they go get it but they don’t bring it back then repeat Steps 1 and 2 with the new item.
Step 4 – Shorten the distance
Once they’re consistently bringing your med bag/keys/etc back, start tossing it shorter and shorter distances until you’re dropping it right beside you and they’re picking it up and handing it to you. If you just need dropped item retrieval you’ve made it! All you need to do at this point is work with different items and add distractions until your dog has learned to generalize the behavior.
Step 5 – Impulse control
If you need your dog to retrieve stationery items you’ll need to put a bit more work in. I find it works well to start having your dog wait, drop the item, and then a few seconds later release them to pick it up. It may take some work to develop the impulse control so they don’t immediately get it for you. You’ll want to increase the time gradually between the time the object hits the floor and you ask them to get it until you think it’s solid enough to move to the next step.
Step 6 – The finished product
The last step is being able to set an item down and then come back to it later and have the dog pick it up and hand it to you. It may take a lot of encouragement and reminders in the beginning but once they’ve gone through all the stages to get here it shouldn’t take long for them to understand what you want.
BonusAt this point you can also start sending them away from you to get things. Start just a step or two away from what you want them to retrieve and gradually increase the distance they’re going away from you.
Congratulations! From here you can do pretty much anything you need involving retrievals. You can teach item names and send them to find specific things, teach them to retrieve your meds when you need them, teach them to bring you juice or other food for diabetic response, etc.