How to: Teach your dog to hold

I hate teaching the holding part of the retrieve.  I save it for last as I think both the dog and I have more fun when we're moving around.  (Click here for my retrieve training).  However getting a solid hold on an object without mouthing is important in the obedience ring and a necessity for the service dogs.  No one wants a punctured juice box brought to them!

Luckily the majority of dogs won't mouth if they are moving fast enough so for most service dogs you can get by with just focusing on a solid retrieve to hand or lap as long as the dog is really working at pushing the item into the persons hand.  Without formal hold training the dogs can also usually heel with an item in their mouth and also do a quick rise up to a desk and drop/bring an item without mouthing as neither task requires the dog to be standing still.  However I still would love for all the dogs to have the ability to sit or stand and hold an object without crunching it to death or rolling it around in their mouth so I try and teach a nice hold if I have time.  And with my dogs it is a very fun trick and great for pictures!

I find it very time consuming and have yet to find one easy force free method that will work for the majority of dogs.  I use a lot of experimentation and am continuously looking for new ways to explain to the dogs what I want.  Here is the list of ideas I have successfully tried, please comment on other methods that work for you! Also note that some of these methods won't work unless your dog already has a retrieve.

*db= dumbbell, but start out using whatever item the dog enjoys retrieving.
*with any method the click ends the behavior so I could care less if it falls to the ground when I click.
*Remember to click when your dog still has the db in its mouth.  If anything try and click early as being late with your timing will just reward the dog for dropping it.

1. Pure shaping- While either holding the db and presenting it to the dog or by having the dog pick it off the floor, gradually delay your click so the dog is holding it for longer and longer.  Remember that a dog who starts out with a 1/4sec hold and jumps to a 1/2sec hold has just doubled their time!  You can also try clicking when the dog offers a little bit of a tug back on the db while you’re holding it.  If the dog is trying to tug then they have a tight grip!  As with any metIhod, if the dog mouths at all, even if they don't drop it,  I immediately remove the db from their mouth and try again.  The goal isn't just to get duration, but to get duration without mouthing!

2. Two Grabs- Require the dog to mouth the db twice before you click.  In theory the time between grabs will gradually shorten until the dog gets lazy and offers one tiny bit longer hold instead. 

It will first look like grab……grab click.  Then grab..grab click.   Grab.Grab click.  And finally grraaabbb jackpot!

3. Distraction Held Out-  (my favorite method!) First your dog has to know to maintain eye contact with you if you hold food out.  This should be a strong automatic reflex where the dog really works hard to find your eyes and ignore whatever distraction you are holding out.

Now give your dog the db and immediately hold some treats out to the side or drop them to the floor.  Your dog might hold it without realizing it since his brain is so focused on trying to avoid looking at the treats.  Click any baby hold your dog just offered.

If you can get a tiny hold this way then start setting the food on a table that is within arms reach.  Now when you give the dog the db start reaching towards the food, if your dog drops or mouths the db then return your arms to your side.  The goal is to grab a piece of food off of the table before clicking.  Then grab the piece of food and bring it towards the dog before clicking, etc.

Edit: Apparently a variation of this method has the name reverse luring.  I've since had good success with the open/closed fist in teaching the hold.

4. Position changes- Since it is easier for the dog to hold the db when moving, see if you can get the dog to do tricks while he has the db in his mouth.  Cue a down/beg/heel/spin/whatever while the dog is walking towards you with the db in his mouth or after you give the dog the db.  The dog will likely drop it at first but eventually will start multi tasking and then you can ask for two tricks in a row.  If you get up to to two tricks in succession you can start delaying the time between the tricks until you have a baby hold while the dog is standing still.

5. Visit- Assuming your dog knows a chin rest behavior, ask the dog to do so to your lap or your palm with the db in his mouth.  You might first have to place the db already on your lap/palm and click the dog grabbing it.  Work up to the dog grabbing the db and then moving into position and holding it.  The db should be resting on your body so all the dog has to do is keep his mouth on the db.

6. Tugging- Using a tug rope or favorite soft toy play a game of tug of war with your dog.  When you let go see if your dog will remain holding the rope while you do a short little tug on the rope hanging out the side of his mouth.  You want the dog to tighten his grip so that you can’t tug the toy out of his mouth.  Play another rousing round of tug of war and then attempt the hold again.  The dog should be anticipating the game of tug to start up any minute so should keep a firm grip on the toy.

If your dog has a fabulous tug to open doors you can also try getting him to continually hold the rope so that a heavy door remains open.  The dog would have to tighten his grip against the pressure of the door trying to close.

Please add to this list if you have another method for teaching a dog to hold an object.  I am certainly not an expert in this area and want new ideas!  

Mango  – ( March 26, 2011 at 5:57 AM )  

Sounds like an exercise that works best with three hands. We'll give it another shot as this is something that I have not had much luck with in the past.

Mango Momma

Amy Carlson  – ( March 26, 2011 at 10:15 AM )  

Ask for other behaviors while the dog is holding the db. I think you address that here, but one that worked just OK for my MinPins was to target my hand with the db in their mouths. And I also taught them that I could tap on the db to get a stronger hold. I started with a soft finger tap, then worked up to firmer palm tap. Neither of them like holding it, but they will.

Silvia's new tricks video has the dogs rolling over while holding something. They start with a small bit of fabric, but eventually something more solid. That's kind of a neat trick! Might work for the db hold!

Tegan  – ( March 26, 2011 at 5:18 PM )  

Thank-you for all the tips in teaching a hold. I have had success in just pure shaping with my current dog (she knows this is different behaviour to her 'fun retrieve', and so holds onto it gently waiting for a release). But it's good to have options for future dogs!

Kathie R  – ( March 26, 2011 at 8:28 PM )  

Thanks for posting! Now that Jolee is picking the article and dumbbell up, my challenge is getting her to hold them. These tips will be helpful.

Kristine  – ( March 27, 2011 at 8:33 AM )  

This is not my favourite thing to teach at all, either. My dog finds it really boring. The key is to keep sessions as short as possible. If we work on holding for even just thirty seconds a day that is probably progress.

Thanks for the great tips!

Muttsandaklutz  – ( March 27, 2011 at 9:41 PM )  

Oooo thanks for these tips -- this is something I've been wanting to try to teach my guys. Totally useful for photo ops among other uses of course!

Ninso  – ( March 28, 2011 at 9:33 AM )  

With Lok, after months of trying everything I could think of, I actually had to physically hold the db in his mouth to get that first couple seconds. I think I held the db with one hand and lightly held his mouth with the other. He hates holding things to this day. Jun was easy. Just started working on Elo's db. Easy, again, as everything is with him! He's got a retrieve to hand in two days and a few seconds hold.

Honey the Great Dane  – ( March 28, 2011 at 7:21 PM )  

Great post!! And great list of ideas. I did it with Honey using pure shaping - but from the floor rather than from my hands. ie. first I C&T for any interest in the object on the floor - then for nosing it - then for mouthing it - then for picking it up - then for picking it up & holding it (even for a split second!) - and then gradually extending the hold for longer and longer before she gets the click. When she was holding it reliably (and she usually gives me eye contact as she is waiting for the click), I start clicking only AFTER the release command (whether it's "Drop it" onto the floor or "Give" into my hands - I differentiate between them) - and when she is doing that well, I finally ask her to Sit while still holding it and then release it into my hand - before she gets the click. I don't know if this could be considered chaining since it is a series of behaviours but I didn't teach them all separately (other than the Sit, of course) - I just started with the first behaviour and added on from there.

I did use a stuffie to teach this, since she prefered to hold that (I thought, why make life difficult for myself when teaching! ;-) ) - Honey likes to hold soft things rather than hard in her mouth.

I wouldn't say her Hold is very good yet - she can do it well when in a whole sequence with a dumbbell but I haven't spent a lot of time generalising to other objects yet (diff textures) so she'll often drop those. Also (I think because of the way I taught it) - she's better at holding when picking an item off the floor than when taking it from my hand.

I tried to teach HOld originally the "traditional" way as advised by my Obedience club back in Auckland which was shoving the dumbbell in their mouth and forcefuly holding it there. Horrible. Honey HATED it. Whereas when I decided to swap to using clicker & shaping, she learnt the whole sequence in a week - can you believe it?! :-)

Now I just need to get her to hold objects she DOESN'T like the feel of (eg, metal) as well as the ones she likes! :-)


Cynthia  – ( April 4, 2011 at 2:43 PM )  

I love training the hold! All my dogs have a great hold and love their dumbbells. I clicker trained it too, building duration as we went. Started with putting peanut butter on the dumbbell for the collies, they are not natural retreivers. :)

Very good points you wrote about!

elizabeth  – ( April 7, 2011 at 3:12 PM )  

Training Hold has always been difficult for me. I have nevr actually had a satisfactory approach. But you have given me a few more great ideas to try. Thanks!

Clicker Training Fan  – ( April 9, 2011 at 9:35 AM )  

Hi Laura for the interesting and helpful steps on teaching a dog to hold. But shall I suggest you something, it would be a lot easier to understand the entire training process if you could make a video along with the steps. Just a suggestion. All in all a great post ! Have subscribed to your blog !

Laura, Lance, and Vito  – ( April 9, 2011 at 3:48 PM )  

Thank you! I completely agree that video is much easier to explain the complicated training then trying to put it in words! Since my dogs already know how to hold I didn't think it would be much useful trying to demonstrate some of the methods with them. Perhaps I will make it my project while at work and video tape the dogs there as I go through this process.

Mara  – ( August 29, 2011 at 2:45 PM )  

Thanks for all the tips and ideas!!

I started with my dog by touching/holding manipulating first (with a mark/reward for everything) before adding in the objects since she wanted to play, was pretty bouncy and would get confused quickly.

After she was great with me doing all sorts of things to her mouth, it was easy to add in add in a dowel for her to touch, then mouth, then when we got to the hold point, she was super comfortable with me just holding her muzzle closed for a couple seconds.

We're working on duration and switching up positions while holding now.

Rose  – ( March 4, 2015 at 10:06 PM )  

Ah we found this one tricky!

I have Betsy holding for long-ish periods of time, walking around, sitting, and doing a down while keeping something in her mouth. A roll-over while holding would be fun, but we're not there yet! We're also working on differentiating between objects by name and cleaning up her retrieve, as it's a bit sloppy (she'll go get it and then sometimes wander off and lie down with it somewhere instead of bringing it to me).

We haven't used a clicker at all for training so I just use a marker word... And shaping. (Rewarding her for poking the item with her nose, then mouthing it, then holding it for even the teensiet second...)

The hardest thing for me was timing: For a long time she thought she was being rewarded for the drop, not for the hold. I eventually managed to time it right though and now she gets it. I think having a generalized concept of a release word for other commands and using it with holding an object helped her get the idea. I started saying "ok" and if she dropped before I said "ok" we tried again.

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