Teach Your Dog to Retrieve - Method #2 - Shaping

Tutorial: Retrieve – Method #2 (Shaping)

by Rachel Moseley

This tutorial is for training a retrieve to dogs that don’t have a natural retrieval drive. Dogs without that drive won’t chase toys you throw like dogs with a natural retrieve will (if you have a natural retriever you can read Method #1 to teach a retrieve through play). Never fear though, dogs that don’t naturally retrieve can be taught to do it just as well as natural retrievers do!


Before You Begin
This 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).

The Basics of Shaping Behaviors:

To train a non-retriever to retrieve you’ll need to understand how to shape your dog’s behavior.  The basic idea here is to reward any progress the dog makes towards the desired behavior in tiny baby steps. The most important thing for you as the handler/trainer is to be patient and don’t try to rush your dog at any point. You’ll need to be able to raise and lower criteria depending on your dog’s performance. If they’re not doing what you’re wanting but they’ll do the previous step, you may need to find a middle ground to work on and then try upping the criteria again.

“Always keep training sessions short and positive, and end on a success every time.”

Timing your marker is crucial, if you time it incorrectly you’ll have a confused dog and you may set yourself back a bit. Always keep training sessions short and positive, and end on a success every time. Some dogs can get frustrated with shaping and you don’t want that to happen. If at any point you hit a wall and your dog is just not progressing for a few sessions then I recommend taking a few days off and then starting again with lower criteria.


Step 1 – Touching the Item

The first step in shaping a retrieve is just getting the dog to consistently nose an item. To do this, hold the item (generally a dumbbell like this one, but even just one of their toys will work) in front of your dog and wait to see what they offer. If they move their nose towards it at all you want to mark and reward. Continue to offer them the item until they start nosing it and mark and reward every time their nose touches the item. Be careful timing your marker because clicking/saying it too late when they’re pulling away will cause the dog to think you want them moving away from the item.

Step 2 – Taking the Item

Once your dog is consistently nosing the item, you want to work them up to taking it in their mouth. Hold the item out in front of them again and wait. They should immediately nose it if you completed Step 1. This time don’t mark and reward them nosing it, wait and see what they offer. At some point your dog will likely open his mouth a bit. Immediately mark and reward heavily, even if he isn’t touching the item in the beginning. Continue ignoring nose bumps and only reward for opening his mouth (and reward heavily if he even comes close to the dumbbell or touches it at all). As your dog starts consistently opening his mouth, slowly raise the criteria to where he has to take the item in his mouth for a split second (drop criteria back down a bit if at any point he starts failing more often than not and then slowly try building it up again).

Step 3 – Holding the item

Dog holding dumbbellNow that your dog is mouthing items you need to build up the duration he’s willing to keep them in his mouth. Ask them to take it again. If they immediately spit it back out don’t reward them just pick it up and offer it again. If they hold it a split second longer than before, mark the behavior, ask them to give it back, and reward heavily. Gradually build up second by second until they can hold it for at least 30 seconds. If they struggle at any point, say 15 seconds, then go back to 14 seconds for a few rounds and then try 15 again.

Some dogs will struggle at this stage so there’s a few tricks you can try if your dog just will not hold anything. One that seems to work for most dogs is smearing peanut butter on the item. If that doesn’t work you can gently hold your hand under their jaw when they take it so they can’t immediately spit it out and then reward heavily (from there you would build up some duration and then gradually fade your hand out to where they’re doing it on their own).

Once your dog is holding the item consistently start adding in your cues for “take” “hold” and “give”.

Step 4 – Picking the Item Up Off the Floor

Once you have your dog consistently holding the item, the next step is to get them picking things up off of the ground. To do this you’ll gradually work down from the height you’ve been holding the item at. Offer the item an inch or so closer to the ground than you were in the beginning and cue your dog to “take” it. If your take cue is solid your dog should have no issue grabbing it (if you struggle go back to a normal “take” for a while and then lower it by approximately half an inch until they can do that). When your dog starts taking it every time then you should move it another inch or two lower and get them taking it consistently. Repeat until you’re holding the item with your hand laying on the floor and your dog is consistently taking and holding it.

At this point I change the “take” cue to a “get” and work until they understand the new cue. To change the cue you’ll say the new cue right before the old cue and gradually fade the old cue out as they begin to understand the new cue. So in this case it would be “take-get”. Now start laying the item on the floor and putting your hand beside it and asking your dog to “get” it. Once they are grabbing it off the floor with your hand beside it start gradually moving your hand farther away from the ground and asking them to get it. Continue slowly until you’re standing normally and they’re picking the item up and handing it to you.

(In the video, Ember is retrieving a Clix brand dumbbell with hotdog pieces as his reward)

HEY! Look at what you’ve accomplished! From here just practice with other items and slowly add distractions and voilà! You have yourself a solid dropped item retrieval.

Step 5 – Carrying the Item

Now that your dog is able to hold items, you want to work on him being able to carry them. Start by having him hold the item and ask for a simple position change (sit to stand or stand to sit is a good starting point). If your dog is struggling gently put your hand under their chin to encourage them to hold it while they switch positions and reward heavily when they do it. Gradually fade your hand out until they’re doing it on their own. Once they can do that without issue move on to having them bring it to you. Have them take the item, move a step back, and call them to you and reward heavily when you get the item from them. Gradually build up the distance until they can bring it to you from anywhere in the house.

Step 6 – Combining the Get and Bring

At this point you can put the item down and take a step back away from it before asking your dog to get it and bring it to you. From there you can build up distance (one step at a time) until your dog is going across the house to get what you want and bringing it back to you.

Step 7 – Generalizing and Proofing

You have a solid retrieve! Now all you need to do is practice with different items to generalize the behavior and add in distractions to make sure they’ll do it in different environments. If you have trouble with any environment or item go through these steps again (it shouldn’t take nearly as long as the first time).

Congratulations! From here you can do pretty much anything you need involving retrievals! You should be proud of yourself and your dog. As you know by now retrieves take a long time to fully train but you and your dog made it through. Take a minute to celebrate what you’ve accomplished.

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