Training Your Dog To Retrieve

Retrieving is one of the most important games you can play with your dog. It helps with your relationship, because you control a rewarding game; it teaches a dog to leave when you ask; it can help with dogs that chase livestock; it can help relieve anxiety through interactive play

Retrieving is one of the most important games you can play with your dog. It helps with your relationship, because you control a rewarding game; it teaches a dog to leave when you ask; it can help with dogs that chase livestock; it can help relieve anxiety through interactive play. It can also be useful when you can’t be bothered to get up to find the TV remote control.

There are probably as many ways to train a dog to retrieve as there are dogs, including some quite unpleasant methods, but I am going to concentrate on a few that I have used successfully in the past. Each works best for different types of dog, so try to find the one that suits yours.

Like all dog training, the start of the process is best done in a place with no distractions, before trying to compete for your dog’s attention with other things. The ideal would be an empty room, but we don’t live in an ideal world, so draw the curtains, switch on the lights, turn off the TV, take the phone off the hook, lock the doors, put the kids in bed and teach. Just you and your dog. What if you have more than one dog? Separate them until they are really good at it, then you can bring them back together again.

Let’s start with the easiest and work our way upwards.

The “Lazy Bones“, for dogs that really want to retrieve:

Throw the toy and then wait until your dog brings it back. Act like you are not interested. When your dog nudges you with the toy, take it like it is the best gift ever and immediately throw it again. Repeat.

The “Grass is Always Greener“, for dogs that like to be chased more than return with it:
Throw the toy and as your dog picks it up, immediately turn your back and play with a second, identical toy. Ignore your dog. The toy has to be identical because the only difference in value is the fact that they don’t actually have this one. Kneel down and play gently with the second toy by yourself, bouncing or rolling it back and forth between your hands.

Your dog will not be able to resist coming to see and will probably drop the first toy when they get close. Immediately reward the dropping of the first toy with a throw of the second. Pick up the first, turn your back and repeat. You are teaching your dog that if they drop one toy, you will throw another for them. Build up to the point where you can show your dog the toy as they are on their way to you, say, “Leave” and as they drop the first, throw the second. Next, keep the second in your pocket, say “Leave”, then produce and throw it as your dog drops the first. Eventually you will be able to say “Leave” and pick up the dropped toy before throwing it again as a reward, doing away with the need for two.

The “Gentle Touch“, for dogs that are really reluctant to give it back:

Tie a length of curtain cord to your dog’s collar, about eight or ten feet should be enough indoors. Throw the toy and wait until your dog picks it up. Call once then gently but silently reel them in, hand over hand with the cord. This is not a competition, just an inevitable outcome. When they arrive, gently take the toy and immediately throw it again. Repeat. As they become keener to return, leave the cord on, but change the game to the Grass is Always Greener method.

The “Combined Effort“, works for dogs that want to keep it:

Combine the last two by using the cord to get them in close, then showing that the second toy is more attractive. Never fight your dog for the toy in their mouth. Take hold of it firmly and play with the second toy until they let go of the first.

In all of these examples you can immediately reward giving the toy up with another throw, either with the fetched toy or another identical one, until your “finished” command signals the end of the game and all toys go back in your pocket. If your dog is particularly food orientated, you could exchange the toy for a treat (make it something really tasty, not just ordinary dog food). When should you finish? Not surprisingly, this is dictated by your dog’s preferences. Some will go for hours and others will get fed up after three throws. Try to judge when your dog is losing interest and pack up just before they have had enough. Always keep all toys at the end of the game to prevent your dog controlling the game.

When your dog is proficient indoors, take the game outside, but don’t go somewhere with too many distractions, like scents to investigate or birds to chase. Build in the distractions slowly, so your dog is always keen to play with you. You can take little breaks in your walks and play a short game, move on, then play another. It helps to keep your dog focused on you and willing to come when called if they think there is the possibility of a game on offer.

All of these methods presuppose that your dog wants to chase a toy, but what if you’ve adopted a dog that hasn’t played before? Some dogs don’t know that it is permissible, or even how to play. Well, you need to start even further back and examine what your dog finds attractive.

Making Toys Attractive

Try a Kong, a ragger, a Frisbee, a shuttlecock, a football, a dog biscuit, a gravy-soaked tennis ball, a sock on a string, or a squeaky toy. Lob it high, whiz it across their field of vision, roll it between their legs, bounce it between two people, drag it through leaves, make it jerky and unpredictable… think, “How can I make a toy that my dog will want to chase?”

If your dog likes food, pick a time when they are hungry, show them a biscuit and roll it across the floor. Progress to showing a biscuit inside a Kong (or any other food-toy) and roll that across the floor. Soak a tennis ball in gravy, dry it out and roll that (exchange for an even tastier treat).

For less food orientated dogs, make it move like prey. If your dog loses interest because the toy ‘dies’ when it lands, pick one that will keep moving, or roll it across their line of sight rather than away from them. Or tie a toy to a piece of string and pull it along the ground, or reel it in on a fishing rod, through leaves in the garden. Get your dog’s attention by using a squeaky toy, or throw a ragger that flops about as they ‘kill’ it on the way back. Be inventive!


Sometimes you can put too many obstacles in your dog’s way for them to succeed, and breaking the training down into little chunks can help.

In retrieving, the best way is to split the training into what David Appleby calls the “three Ds”: Distance, Duration and Difficulty. Only ever increase one at a time, never all at once.

By breaking the training into compartments you can monitor how you change the task for your dog, and keep it fun, rather than daunting!

Distance: throw the toy further, so your dog has to ‘work’ harder through travelling – “It went down this hole!”

Duration: more throws are also more tiring; build up the number slowly. It is better to finish whilst your dog thinks it is a fantastic game, rather than when they become bored – Practising with big stuff is tiring too!

Difficulty: can be either in terms of where the toy lands, so you introduce an element of searching, perhaps in longer grass (try to throw it into the wind so your dog can use their nose), or in terms of the object you throw. We have already seen how the type of toy can affect your dog’s enthusiasm; try similar toys to their favourite and eventually widen their scope to anything that isn’t harmful to pick up – Carefully retrieving a lost mobile phone

But only progress one ‘D’ at a time.

It would be silly to jump from rolling a tennis ball across the living room carpet straight to throwing your keys into a hedgerow, but there’s no reason why a thoughtful series of in-between steps won’t get you there one day. Throw farther today, shorten and throw two more tomorrow; the day after, shorten, throw three less, but in longer grass. Pick ‘n’ mix, but never make it too hard for your dog to bother.

Keep it interesting and fun, and you may never have to get up to look for the TV remote again!

12 replies on “Training Your Dog To Retrieve”

Thank you so much for publishing this! I have had no success with teaching my dog to retrieve, I adopted her when she was one year old with numerous problems. Six months ago I adopted another dog, since she had made so much progress. Unfortunately, the new dog has taught her to chase rabbits! Strangely, he will come back very well during this but my first dog won’t – in fact she’s showing signs of being addicted to the ‘high’ she’s getting from chasing rabbits. Am going to follow this advice and really hope this time to get her into retrieving. With grateful thanks!

I am loving your instructions,works very well. I am teaching my dog not to chase with your method and i am now at the retrieving part. Using the “grass is greener” instructions. When I play with the 2nd toy, my back to the dog, he comes then, but leaves the first one and dont take it to me. What can i do? What does it mean in the dogshead?

Hi Balu,
Thanks for your enquiry. When you are teaching your dog to retrieve by tempting him with another ball it is all about comparative value. The one you have should have more value than the one he has, but only a little. If you are too tempting he will drop the ball he has. If he is dropping it too soon (before he has come to you), you should not tempt him too much. Maybe not turn your back or even show him the ball you have, or just show him it in your hand. You could also put your ball back in your pocket if he drops his too soon and run to the one he has dropped to encourage him to pick it up again, before running backwards away from him when he has it in his mouth. You could also try shortening the distance between you so he doesn’t have to carry it so far.
Good luck,

Hi David,

I have a lurcher that disappears after squirrels and I’m finding your books and articles very helpful. I wondered if you use a recall or other command during the retrieve? My dog will chase, pick up but only bring back with some encouragement – she’s happy to stand or lie down and mouth her tennis ball – but once back drops the ball immediately. Is the idea she learns to come back with the toy through her own choice? I also have a bit of a problem in that when I use two absolutely identical toys (tennis ball is her thing, she’s half collie) she will chase both but rejects the second with a dismissive sniff and will only chase whichever she has decided is ‘the one’. I can usually get her to chase the less desirable one but with little enthusiasm, so I’m not sure how to have toys of ‘equal value’
Grateful for any advice

Thanks Ros

Hi Ros,
You seem to be at an early stage with the retrieve, so making sure you get the start right is important. Start in a small area so there is nothing of interest except you and the two balls. The living room is a good place. Yes, the balls should be identical to give them the same value, but the idea is to increase the value of the one you have over the one she has. When she has picked up one ball increase the value of the one in your hand by making it more attractive to her. Usually you can do this by tossing it from hand to hand or bouncing it on the floor (easier if you are on the floor too, which generally makes you more attractive to come back to). When she drops the first ball roll the one in your hand away for her and pick up the one she left. Now the one she has is boring again and the one you have is exciting and animated. If you are really struggling you can encourage her with play noises (high pitched speech) or by concealing and squeezing a squeaky from an old toy in your palm. That way it appears that the ball you have squeaks but ‘hers’ doesn’t (always keep the squeaky in your palm so you have it for the next ball too.) The effort you put into increasing the value of the one you have will determine how attractive she finds it. Tease her with it; let yourself go; be crazy; be exciting.
You can place a word on it if you like, but it isn’t necessary for her to learn the game. Eventually, if you are preventing her from chasing, you will be teaching her a predictive command anyway, so any ‘fetch’ word will be superfluous in time.
Good luck,

I have read all the suggestions but my dog is having none of it. At home he will fetch a toy and bring it back to me every time. My problem is that in his dog class he will not fetch anything, and I’ve tried all his toys in turn. He will not even look at them. My instructors have tried everything, but he just sits there.

Hi Gillian,
Dog class is an awfully ambitious place to ask a dog to concentrate when so much is going on. There could be a few things there preventing your dog from wanting to retrieve, so it is a big jump from ‘home’ to ‘dog class’. If he will retrieve at home then you have your start point and it is a matter of making small incremental changes towards your final goal; so outside in the garden, then quiet places on walks and so on, increasing the other aspects (whether it be people, dogs, distractions, stress, or whatever the issue is in his head) a little at a time. Age, breed/type and natural instincts will also play a part (or not), so I would suggest take it slowly and steadily until you will eventually get there.
Good luck,

hi David,
I have an 8.5 yr old standard poodle, Rafiki, who loves to run (even with nothing to chase; just for the fun of it) and also loves to chase squirrels, cats and the occasional ball. But he is terrible at retrieve. I’ll throw him a ball and he’ll chase it, look at it for a bit and then come back to me and bark because he wants another ball to chase.
This has got worse since I tried ‘switch and bait’ – using two rope toys, I’d play with one, throw it, and when he brought it back I’d play with the other, throw it and repeat. I did this in my house, just throwing the rope one or two metres. He quickly stopped chasing the rope and would just turn his head to watch it land, then look back to me for the other rope. I’ve also tried using a long rope with a toy tied to the end, dragging it along the floor and playing with it to make it move. He is far more interested in the rope than the toy, because he just wants to grab hold of the rope and chew it. He is on a raw-food diet with frozen food and raw bones to chew, so is getting opportunity to use his chewing instinct.
I have tried throwing a ball one-two metres in my house, going after it myself, making it exciting with a squeaker, throwing it again. Sometimes he’ll pick it up and bring it back and then stand mouthing it; sometimes he’ll go after it but not pick it up; sometimes he’ll just watch me playing by myself!
Unfortunately I have a chronic physical illness and I can’t keep chasing my own balls, even a couple of metres. It’s making me really ill and causing a lot of pain.
It wouldn’t matter but my sister has two cats and if I go to her house with my dog, he spends the whole time on high alert, desperate for a cat to appear for him to chase. I can’t leave him alone at home because I am out too long, but nor can I afford a dogsitter every time. I was hoping if I could improve Rafiki’s retrieve, I could go on to ‘how do I stop my dog chasing’ and eventually would be able to visit my sister and take Rafiki with me without having to spend the whole time keeping him on a short lead and watching for a cat to appear.
Please can you help?

Hi Stef,
You seem to have tried an awful lot of things, but you don’t say in what timescale. If you’ve thrown a lot of alternatives at him he may be confused as to what the game actually is. The other aspect that stands out for me is that he is making almost all the decisions. If you have the book you will know that an early stage to controlling chase behaviour is to establish a relationship in which you are in control. He seems to be in control at the moment and that is why he can decide to pick and choose his games. When you balance your relationship he should be looking to please you because you are the source of all good things. You can either consult a qualified behaviourist to give you the means to do that, or you can read the same advice in my book Guide and Control. Once you have a balanced relationship the training becomes much easier.
Good luck,

Hi, useful techniques that have worked !
However my dog picks up dead game & roadkill and will not give it up,he growls, darts around and clamps on,impossible to release. He then eats it and is sick everywhere. He is an 18 month labrador who has been with us nearly a year as a rescue from kennels.He had 2 homes before that by 8 months ! so obviously a challenge from the outset. He is very clever, biddable and has learnt pretty well apart from this issue (and stealing things continually, seemingly for attention).

Ps. we have tried all sorts of super meaty treats, cooked chicken liver fish the lot plus toys which has worked on recall, but just not interested with giving up his prize.

Hi Will,
This, as you might have guessed, is a tough one that needs a holistic approach rather than simply trying to address the issue. You need quite a complicated programme of overall control, perhaps some preventative (wearing a muzzle on walks) and a dedicated training programme of learning to leave on request.
Your dog has learned that dead game and roadkill is good to eat, and he’s a Labrador so food-orientated already. He found it, he owns it, why should he give it up? To him it makes no sense not to eat it. Interesting he’s also ‘stealing’ for attention. So, whilst there is probably a genetic predisposition to guard food, there’s clearly a learned aspect too.
‘Leave’ training, especially for food, is a long haul and it won’t work as a stand-alone in a case this severe. I would strongly recommend that you seek out a local qualified behaviourist to prepare a full programme and help you through it (Animal Behaviour and Training Council registered), but to give you an idea the ‘leave’ starts with throwing a low value treat a long way and immediately offering a higher value one from the hand. You then balance the distance and value of the treats until ‘leave’ signals ‘I have something better on offer’. Only when you are rock solid indoors can you introduce outdoor distractions. As I say, although this is the backbone of the programme, there will be other aspects applicable to only you that a professional can help you with.
Good luck,

Thanks this was very helpful for me and my dog max he is a year and 3months and he is my service dog and i dont have good mobility so he helps me.

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