How To: Teach Your Dog to Retrieve!

There's a lot of info out on this subject already but each trainer generally has thier own little twists.  The beauty of clicker training is that there is no one set recipee, you just do what works for your dog!  Most of my instructions are a combination of Shirley Chong's Retrieve and Lana Mitchell's Clicked Retriever and then just what I've found works with my dogs and others I've helped.

Play Retrieve:
I'll first start out with how I teach a general play retrieve that I do with puppies or older dogs who show an interest but have just never been taught.

Start by sitting in the hallway with one of your dog’s favorite toys.  Get your dog interested in the toy by snaking it along the ground and teasing him with it.  Remember that prey moves away from dogs, not towards it!  Once your dog is intent on getting the toy, toss it a short distance down the hallway.  Your dog should eagerly race to get the toy and barrel back.  Excitedly praise your little retriever and get ready to intercept your puppy as he tries to run past you.  Don’t reach for the toy right away, instead get his tail to wag as you praise and pet him all over.  After a short time you can then play a fun game of tug with the object, trade the toy for a good treat, or trade the toy for a second toy.  Better yet, keep your dog guessing so he never knows what reward he is going to get.  Vito really likes to tug so I used tugging as his reward most of the time but now his reward is mostly another throw!

Keep your sessions very short and always end before your dog gets bored of the game.  You will want to play this game in a hallway for awhile to channel your dog’s return back to you.  Once your dog is eagerly bringing his toy back to you, start using a variety of household objects for your dog to retrieve.  Don’t make your dog do a formal wait to retrieve yet as you want to create a strong drive to get the object.  Lightly restraining the dog as you throw the toy and getting him verbally revved up can also create a stronger drive to get it.  It may also help to keep a special toy just for this play retrieve work that you keep up on the fridge.  You only bring it down and make a huge deal out of it when you're training.

If your dog runs out to get the toy but doesn’t want to bring it back, try running a few steps backwards as you excitedly call your dog.  Or you could try showing your dog a treat or another toy to entice him back to you.  Just be careful that you don’t try this trick for more then a few times as you want the treat/toy to be a reward for bringing the toy back to you and not a bribe.  Another trick is putting a leash on the toy so you can reel it back in.

Playing tug of war is also a great way to encourage your dog to bring a toy all the way back to your hand.  Tugging gives your dog a reason to thrust the toy into your hand instead of dropping the toy at your feet awaiting the next throw.  Simply play a good game of tug with your dog and then let go of the toy.  As soon as you let go of the toy back away from your dog and call excitedly.  Cup your two hands together and move them out to the side of your body while encouraging your dog to shove the toy into your palms.  At first you will want to really exaggerate the movement of your hands and lean your entire body in the direction you want your dog to go.  The moment the toy hits your hands play another round of tug!  You are teaching your dog that the fun starts when the toy reaches your hand.  Soon you can start throwing your tug toy and get the retrieve!

Formal Retrieve:
Teaching a formal retrieve is a whole other ball game.  Even with a natural retriever I teach it step by step as I am aiming for a really nice hold.  It took me months to get through these steps with Lance the most unnatural retriever ever and Vito went through the steps quickly but we then spent months on getting a nice sit and hold.

Step 1: Interact with this object
Start with a dumbbell or dowel and have your clicker and treats ready.  Hold out the dumbbell and be ready to click the instant your dog moves to investigate it.  In the beginning you will want to put the dumbbell behind your back after each click because the reappearance of it will make it easier for your dog to investigate.  In this first step our goal is to get the dog purposefully touching the dumbbell with his nose.  Make sure to vary the position that you hold the dumbbell so that your dog learns to actively move towards it in order to touch it.

Step 2: Open mouth Only
Now your dog should be touching the dumbbell immediately after each presentation and is moving his body to do so.  We are still going to be holding the dumbbell in our hand but now are only going to click when your dog opens his mouth on the dumbbell.  The goal is to get a solid bite on the dumbbell, but any mouthing or licking will also be clicked at this point.  Don’t worry about your dog holding the dumbbell, just click for an open mouth on it.

Step 3: On the floor
If your dog is consistently opening his mouth on the dumbbell you can now put it on the floor and start over.  Begin with eye glances, nose bumps, and progress until your dog is now mouthing the dumbbell when it is on the floor in front of you.

*Step 4:  Lift off

Put the dumbbell on the floor directly in front of you and start clicking the instant you see one bell come off the ground.  You should not be waiting until the dumbbell completely levitates but should be clicking the start of this lift off.  Your dog should be dropping the dumbbell as soon as you click and that is the start of a good give!  The final goal of this step is for your dog to lift the dumbbell off the floor to about knee height.  You should not be trying to grab the dumbbell at this point, so watch your toes when you click!  If you are having problems at this step, remember that it is better to click early rather then late.  So be ready to click just a tiny hop of the dumbbell instead of waiting for a large leap.  If your dog drops the dumbbell before you click, DON’t try and click late.  If you click as the dumbbell is falling back to the floor you are teaching the dog that the drop is the important part instead of the pick up.

*Step 5: Turn to You

Start with the dog on your side and put the db about 6 inches in front of you.  If the db is placed parallel to you and the dog this will encourage the dog to pickup and already start turning back to you.  Click as soon as the dog turns his head to you with the db in his mouth.  You are not looking for a full retrieve so it doesn’t matter if the db falls to the floor.  Ideally your hand will be outstretched and ready to catch the object on this very tiny turn.  Progress until the dog is willing to travel up to 2 feet to bring the object close to your body.

Note:  Some dogs progress faster by skipping step 5 and working on step 7 where you start the retrieve back to you without the db being on the ground.

Step 6:  Delivery to hand
Once your dog can grab the db and immediately turns back to you without dropping it, you are going to work on the dog shoving it in your hand.  In this stage you can either hand your dog the db (as explained in 6b) or place it on the floor 2-3ft in front of you.  As your dog is turning back towards you while you run backwards a few steps, hold both of your hands together so that they form a little cup to place the db in.  Now move your little cup out to the side of your body while really exaggerating this movement and even leaning your entire body in the direction you want your dog to go.  It can also help to hold your top hand a little bit higher while having a visible treat right above the bottom hand you want your dog to target.

If you are having a hard time with this step try resting your hand on the floor and see if you can shape your dog to pick up or even roll the dumbbell into your hand.  Be patient!  If this is still a difficult process then skip to working on the clean up trick.  Having your dog put an item into a bucket is a much bigger target to aim for compared to your palm.

Step 7: Take from hand
At this point some dogs will be bringing you back an object from the floor but still can not grab an object you hand them without dropping it.  I find it easiest to teach this skill while the dog is already in motion.  For some dogs handing them a db while you are heeling and then continuing to heel for a few more steps can start the process.  For other dogs I work on a grab and turn to me game:

Start with your dog on your left (or right) side and have the dumbbell in your right hand.  You are going to lean forward one step and move your right hand with the dumbbell forward directly in front of you.  Your dog needs to move forward to get that dumbbell and as soon as you feel his teeth touch the dumbbell you are going to let go of it and immediately shuffle back a couple steps.  Click as SOON as your dog turns his head to you with the dumbbell in his mouth.  Don’t worry if the dumbbell falls the floor but give major praise for this first tiny take and turn of the dumbbell!  Since you are still holding the dumbbell at the start your dog should not have to take more then a few steps to be right in front of you again.  As your dog progresses you should work on running backwards a few more steps after your dog grabs it so that your dog is moving towards you with the dumbbell in his mouth.  Make this grab and run to you very fun!  This step I spend quite a bit of time on since I want a nice tight turn back to me immediately after grabbing the dumbbell.

Holding it out in front with dog at side (Lance is in a wait, but only so a picture could be taken.)

Dog moves forward to mouth it
You let go as soon as teeth connect and dog should turn towards you.  Click this tight turn and first mini hold.

Step 8:: Fading your help

Now your hard work is starting to pay off as your dog should be picking up the db off the floor and thrusting it into your hand.  At this point you can start to get rid of all your extra body cues.  Your goal is for the dog to shove the db into your hand whether your hand is held out to the side, in your lap, or even behind you.  The easiest help to get rid of is your backwards movement.  Stand still when the dog grabs the object but still assist by moving your hand backwards or to the side as your dog gets close.  Your hand moving will attract the dog’s attention and serve as a reminder for bringing the item all the way to your hand.  Gradually move your hand less and less until your dog is actively seeking it out on its own. 

Slowly fade the running backwards and start practicing this sequence with you standing still and sitting.  You will also want to break this behavior chain down and click at various spots (speedy run out, tight turn, fast return, etc.  Your dog will drop it when you click but that's ok!

Step 9: Sit and Hold

I hope you have been having fun with your little retriever, but now it’s time to add in some more formal components. The sit and hold is another huge project for some dogs and this step is where I struggled the most. See the separate blog post!

Remember Vito's levitating hold?!

Dexter  – ( December 20, 2009 at 6:27 AM )  

I'll leave that boring retrieving to my idiot brother. Me? Yuh, maybe if you don't throw it more than three feet, but other than that it is just too much effort.

Of course momma read EVERY WORD of your post. She says that PeeWee has trained her for stationary retrieving inside because he knows that she is too lazy to get out of her chair, but outside, he needs to "work" on bringing things back properly.


Achieve1dream  – ( December 20, 2009 at 8:41 AM )  

That's great! I'll have to print this out and use it for our retrieve training. :)

Laura and The Corgi, Toller, & Duck  – ( December 20, 2009 at 9:04 AM )  

well if Dexter already has the concept of a retrieve and you're not looking for a formal one, you might be able to cheat a bit and put a long line one Dexter. Or just sit in a chair outside (perhaps when it's warmer!) and wait him out.

Anonymous  –   – ( December 20, 2009 at 3:03 PM )  

Hi Laura,

You and Vito have been a huge inspiration! We pick up our Toller on Dec. 23. from Kalmegess Reg'd near Toronto, Canada. I have started a blog too. Her name is Cedar.


Kathie R  – ( December 20, 2009 at 4:44 PM )  

Hey Laura, Thanks for posting. This will be a good reference for me as I try using this method to teach Jolee the retrieve.

Dawn  – ( December 21, 2009 at 7:54 AM )  

Thanks for sharing this. Siren has no natural desire to retrieve, so we will try your method. Her mother, Grace, thinks the game is to run and get the toy then take it to our hidy hole, so no other dog can have it. LOL.

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