Retrieving Games, a.k.a. “Fetch!”

A happy dog races after a ball when you throw it, brings it back to you and places it in your hand with a smile in anticipation of another throw – was retrieving one of your dreams when you fell in love with your furry buddy? 

Problems with Retrieving

I sometimes hear people say, “My dog will chase a toy when I throw it, but he won’t bring it back.” Or, “My dog will bring a ball close to me, but he won’t let go of it!”  Some dogs just look at Dad when a ball is thrown, as if to say, “I guess you don’t want that one anymore?”  Start some of these games with your dog to help him become the “fetching” genius you dreamed of. 

Equipment for Retrieving Games

Use a clicker to mark the behavior you want in each game.  It’s most important for the games in which the dog is learning to pick up things – less so for dropping items.  You can use a mouth click – tongue click or the “Tck” sound you may associate with encouraging a horse you’re riding to move forward.  The marker always means the dog gets a treat afterward – it’s a promise!

 What Items Help Dogs Learn to Retrieve?

You can use anything to train retrieving, as long as your dog doesn’t already have a strong set of behaviors associated with the item.  This is the reason it may not be best to start with his favorite toy.  He may already associate that toy with chewing, tugging, or playing in a particular way, which is quite different from retrieving.  On the other hand, you can and should trade him a treat for his toy when he happens to have it, as described in my article, The Trading Protocol.  I suggest just giving the toy right back to him after the treat. This is a great start to the “Let it Go!” game described next.

You’ll want a variety of retrieving items to experiment with.  As always, I am a fan of using stuff you have around the house.  Wooden spoons, scrub brushes, fabric, ropes, a piece of PVC pipe, a rolled-up newspaper; the possibilities are endless.  You’ll see some options in the videos accompanying this post.

“Let it Go!” – Giving an Object to You

The object of this game is simply for the dog to voluntarily release what he has in his mouth.  It is not about “letting you forcibly pull something out of his mouth.”  The dog is to make the choice to let go.  The ultimate goal is for him to place the item into your hand.  You’ve already started this teaching process when you use The Trading Protocol, referenced above.

“Here You Go!” – Taking an Item From Your Hand

The object of this game is for the dog to put his mouth on an object correctly.  That means in the way that will serve him (and you) best, once he’s actually carrying the item to bring it to you.  You will hold the item in a way that ensures he will grab it where he needs to, and put it in the correct place in his mouth.  The dog should hold most objects just behind the canine teeth for security but not back between the molars for chewing! 

“Pick it Up!” – Grabbing Something

In this game, your dog can grab and pick up anything!  When he does, you mark the grab.  It doesn’t matter what happens after that.  If your dog is just starting, he may drop the item on the floor at the sound of the click.  That’s OK!  If he’s a little further along, you can hold your hand out for him to drop the item into.  That’s OK, too.  You can play the “Pick it Up” game during the same period you are playing the “Let it Go” game, in separate training sessions.  Don’t combine these two behaviors until your dog is quickly and happily volunteering to pick things up as well as shoving things into your hand in separate sessions.

Which Teeth to Use for Retrieving?

You can also teach a dog to grab a string to pull a light switch or a dollar bill, coin, or credit card using his incisors.  This requires shaping that grabbing technique.  For now, we’ll focus on larger objects and make sure the dog grabs them with purpose but doesn’t start chewing.

“Grab What You Want!” – Retrieving a Variety of Things

I like to choose a variety of textures for retrieve practice because my ultimate goal is for my dog to pick up whatever I point at.  For both pick-up and delivery training, a variety of objects helps dogs generalize the behavior.  I have a box of retrieving items that Albert and I practice with – a bandana, PVC pipe, various household items, things made of plastic, metal, and wood.  First, explore what your dog is willing to pick up.  Teach him with items he already likes picking up – he’ll work up to those more challenging objects later.

“This Thing is the Best!” – Retrieving a Specific Item

That said, it is also perfectly OK to start with one specific item that you REALLY want your dog to retrieve.  Perhaps a tennis ball, because you want to play fetch – or a Frisbee because you want to teach him to catch.  Perhaps you really want him to pick up your keys or your pen when you drop them.  If you train with this one item, your dog will begin to associate that item with all the best things in his life.  He will build a strong retrieve with that particular thing. 

One caveat is that if you want your dog to retrieve dead game birds, it is best to begin with retrieving dummies because the smell and taste of dead animals is an additional set of stimuli that can trigger innate behaviors for dogs (and cats).  It’s best to teach retrieving with something besides a dead animal and condition your dog to the smells, textures, and tastes of animals separately as you build the behaviors.  This is also the case when you want to teach your dog to retrieve food items! 

Shaping:  When Your Dog Just Doesn’t Put His Mouth on Stuff!

Shaping is the process of reinforcing tiny bits of behavior that are part of the final behavior you want.  If your dog doesn’t readily pick up things, you can shape it.  First, you need to plan your process.

Visualize what you can reinforce to achieve your goal.  Use a marker (CLICK or a word) to let him know he did the right thing and earned a treat.  Follow every marker with a treat.  It’s simple, but not easy (Thank you, Dr. Bob Bailey, for the reminder!)

The individual behaviors you can reinforce include:  reaching toward an item and touching it with his nose at first.  After a lot of reinforced repetitions, your dog will advance the behavior.  At some point, he will start to open his mouth as he reaches toward the item. 

It seems like magic.  But remember that dogs naturally explore the world with their mouths.  If your dog is not doing so regularly, it may be because he was punished for doing so in a previous home or even in yours.  You have to help him “find” that natural behavior again, and putting his face near a novel object often brings it out.  Reinforce it, and he’ll be grabbing the item before long!

At this point, you will need to start shaping the way he is using his mouth to grab the item, as described above.  Shaping is all about the tiniest bits of behavior.  If you get those right, the big behaviors follow.  Of course, you can reach out to The Mannerly Dog to take a class and get coaching on training this behavior in the quickest and most efficient way!

“Walk and Chew Gum at the Same Time!”  Carrying an Item

Walking or running while holding something in their mouth is a separate behavior.  Some dogs pick this up on their own.  Others need more help.  If you’ve been practicing calling your dog to come and he’s been coming at a full run without anything in his mouth, it’s likely coming to you is connected to having his mouth empty.  If your dog picks up an item and you call him, he’s likely to drop the item because the cue to come stimulates the chain of behaviors involved and carrying something is not part of it.  The next game, “Reach for it!” will help you change this chain. 

“Reach For It!”

This is the “Let it Go” game with a little twist.  You can start by having your dog simply stretch his neck toward your hand to drop the item in it first, after carefully building the behavior of delivering the item to your hand.  Place your open hand in front of your dog’s face, ready to receive the item, and then pull it a bit further away (1 inch at a time!) 

It’s a teaching process.  Your dog is learning something completely new.  He has started learning to target your hand with the item in his mouth, and you’ll move your hand a little at a time to make the problem just a little harder to solve.  You’re building the behavior of carrying the item while running to you, or even while walking with you as shown in the above video.

“Walk to My Hand”

When your dog is doing well at stretching his neck toward your hand to give you the object, move your hand just a bit farther so he has to take one step to get to it.  Reward this and build further.  Soon, you’ll be tossing the item farther away – your dog will have to move farther toward it to achieve the goal of bringing it to your hand.

“Get the Bear Out of a Hole!”

This game starts to develop your dog’s retrieving skills toward working a little harder to get the object.  You’ll need to prevent your dog from getting the item before you finish your preparation.  If your dog will stay on a mat or in a down position, use that.  You can put him in a crate or tether him to a doorknob, too.  It would be a good idea to practice separately the type of “stay” behavior you’ll be using, so your dog doesn’t get frustrated.

Simply put the item partially under something, inside a container, or on top of a chair.  Choose a challenge that your dog can accomplish pretty easily at first, and work up to harder placements.  You’ll see some examples in the video of Al retrieving his bear, below.

How does Play Fit With Retrieving?

Playing “fetch” with your dog as he learns to retrieve is just fine, as long as you ensure that the set of retrieving behaviors  you want to develop is coming along as planned.  For most retrieving behaviors, the object is lying still when the dog reaches it and picks it up.  Dogs are triggered by moving objects, however, because they can track them better visually and they have the innate tendency to chase running critters. 

Chasing and picking items up are two separate behaviors.  This is another reason that it’s often best to start training a retrieve by offering an item that is not moving – either in your hand or lying motionless on the floor.  If the dog can retrieve a “dead” object, he’s probably also going to retrieve a moving one – the reverse is not always so. 

All that said, some dogs respond really well to retrieving a thrown object and are easily shaped to bring it back!  What is really important about all these retrieving games is observing how many behaviors are involved.  Pay attention to what your dog already does well and what needs work.  Make sure the training is fun for both of you.  You’ll have a retriever before you can blink twice!

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