Reliable Retrieval Skills

Set your dog up for success!

A solid retrieve is a really useful behaviour in any handlers toolkit. It allows us to expand into so many other areas with our dogs. There are the more formal tasks such as competition retrieve work, flyball or any gundog work but there are also the fun things you can do with it around the house. You can teach your dog to pick up their toys by combining a toy retrive with a drop into their toy box. Similarly you can teach your friend to help you out around the house by collecting laundry scattered about a room. For the bigger and stronger dogs that really enjoy retrieval work you can also teach them to help carry in the shopping.

The key to all these fun things to do is to get the basics to work well for you from the get go. The step-by-step guide below does not assume that your dog cares about retrieval at all. In fact, Riley, the dog in the videos, does not care about toys or chasing things at all. He prefers to figure out puzzles and how to get rewards for doing things. For those dogs that do love a ball or to chase and pick up things (but that then run off with those things), this approach helps to slow things down and regain control over the situation.

We use a prey dummy for this. You can just as easily use a tennis ball with a slit cut in the side of it. We place treats in a plastic bag inside these retrieve items. The reason for this is so that you are the only one who can get the treat out for your dog so they are more likely to bring it back to you but also so that they cannot smell it too well and are enticed to run off and try get it out solo. If your dog loves a tennis ball stick with the prey dummy (soft kids pencil case works too) so as not to excite them too much.

Once you have a solid retrieve with the prey dummy start from scratch and teach another item to retrieve. The key to generalising the behaviour is always to start from scratch with any new version of it until your dog learns that 'fetch' means fetch no matter what the situation.


Step 1 - Setup

We always want to set our dogs up for success so we start by making sure we have everything ready to teach this behaviour. Start with a prey dummy, old pencil case, or tennis ball with a slit in the side. Hide a bag of treats inside. We will reward your dog from this stash.

Start work in a nice quite area where you have very few other distractions as you work. Riley and I are working in our old sitting room here.

Step 2 - Build Interest

Once you have your tools ready for the session we build up your dog's interest in the retrieve toy. To do this we show them the item, get nice and excited about it and then take a treat out from inside.

Once your dog is nicely engaged in what you are up to, then we want to start getting your dog to do some work. That is, hold out the dummy and wait for your dog to look at it. As soon as they do, praise them and reward from the pouch.

Repeat until your dog is looking at the pouch every time you bring it out from behind your back. (Do at least 10 reps before moving on).
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Step 3 - Build Interaction

Once your dog is looking at the pouch well now we want to 'increase criteria'. That is, make the task a little harder so your dog needs to do more work for the same reward. This allows us to gradually make the behaviour more difficult while still setting your dog up for success.

This time, when you present the pouch hold it still until your dog boops their nose off it. You may need to wait a few minutes. Any time your dog looks away from the pouch put it behind your back and try again. Once your dog boops it praise and treat from inside the pouch.

Step 4 - Remove From Your Hand

Up until now we have been getting your dog to interact with something that you present in your hand. Now we want to interact with that same item while it is out of your hand. Remember, we are not adding distance yet, just getting your dog to do the same as in Step 3 but with the pouch now on the ground.

Drop the pouch on the ground in front of your dog. They will initially look at it and at you. Wait. As soon as they nuzzle it, praise and treat from the pouch. If your dog does not boop the pouch on the ground after dropping it 3 - 4 times then for 10 reps just reward them for looking at it when dropped on the ground. After these 10 reps go back to waiting for a nose boop.

Again, remember that we always set your dog up for success, let them get it right a lot more than they get it wrong and you will build a very reliable behaviour.

Step 5 - Encourage Mouthing

Now your dog should be booping and poiking the pouch on the ground with ease. Now we increase criteria again by waiting for your dog to mouth the pouch. You may h ave noticed a little of this in Step 4. Now we are really going to reinforce it and make sure your dog knows that this is exactly what we are looking for.

They don't have to pick it up yet or carry it anywhere, just mouth. However, if your dog does end up picking up, capture it and reward it but don't expect it yet.

Step 6 - Pick Up

Again, we raise criteria by now expecting your dog to pick up the pouch rather than just chew it a bit. The fact that we have always rewarded from the pouch up until now helps to teach them not to run away with the pouch but to always bring it to you. The key is that there is always a reward for the behaviour (we can phase this out down the road but we must get the behaviour reliable first!)

Do not reward until your dog has mouthed then picked up the prey dummy. As soon as it is safely up off the ground, praise and reward from the dummy.

Step 7 - Retrieve to Hand

Again, this step will blend a little with the previous one. If you have been consistent enough your dog should be already bringing the pouch towards you when they pick it up. If they are not, go back a few steps and make sure they are reliable before coming back to this step.

The faster the retrieve the better the reward but there must always be a reward. Give one treat from the pouch for any retrive at all, two treats for a speedy retrieve even if a little messy, and give three treats for a very fast and very tidy retrieve. Be sure to give each treat separately and one at a time so your dog gets the impact of the differential rewards.

Step 8 - Phase out Food Lure

At this stage your dog has the idea of the full exercise. Now we proof it. That means making it work in lots of different situations. So start to add some distance to the throw (keep increments small, so increase by 1 step at a time rather than 1m at a time). Add your verbal cue before you throw the item.

Also at this point, phase out giving food from the pouch. Instead give food from your pocket or behind your back for correct behaviours. As over stated as it is already, always set your dog up for success, make sure they get it right rather than get it wrong.