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!