Tuesday, January 20, 2009

26. Teaching the Retrieve-Another Foundation Skill

The retrieve is a very useful foundation skill for dogs. The formal retrieve is teachable to almost any dog using the clicker, even if she is not a natural retriever because it is taught with small steps using shaping.

The retrieve is used when the dog goes and gets objects that you point out, or picking up objects you drop. Or when she brings back a piece of clothing she has helped you to take off or takes a message to another person. She is also using retrieving skills when she fetches your medical kit or wheelchair. The retrieve is used in a 2 way sound alert where your dog brings you to the source of the sound or to go get human assistance for you. It can also be part of a whole sequence of behaviors such as opening a cupboard door, taking a container from the cupboard, closing the door and bringing the container to you, then placing it on your lap. Or perhaps taking a credit card from you, rearing up and placing it on the counter for the cashier, then retrieving it and the receipt back to you. Practically any behavior where the dog moves away, interacts with an object with his mouth and returns to you with or without it is a retrieve-based behavior.

The service dog retrieve is a much more controlled retrieve and usually is more directed than a play retrieve. The dog is calm and focused (almost dutiful), not bouncy and out of control. Your dog must understand what you are asking and to deliver the object into your hand and hold it here until you give the release cue. This level 0f control keeps your dog safe from being injured by the object (for example swallowing a coin), and the object is safe from tooth punctures.

A basic retrieve is a complicated chain of simpler behaviors that involves the dog knowing:
1. how to take an object into her mouth
2 how to hold it there
3. and move with it there
4. sometimes having to search out the object first
5. often needing to know the name of an object
6. carrying the object back in a controlled way (without mouthing it along the way)
7. placing it in your hand or other specific location you indicate.

Just taking a strange object (the way it feels, smells, sounds etc) into her mouth can be a huge barrier for some dogs. Perhaps the size of it might be challenging or it has an awkward shape for movement.

It often takes a long time to teach a good retrieve so it is important that you take it slow and break it into pieces that are small enough that your dog can succeed and stay motivated. Once your dog understands the basic retrieve, take it slow and do much practice in generalizing it to new items, locations, and distraction levels.

If you get frustrated, take a break from it for a few weeks and start again fresh. Sometimes decreasing, not increasing, the number of repetitions per training session helps as it leaves the dog wanting to do more.

Start with an object that fits comfortable in your dog’s mouth but that she has no previous association of play with and something you don’t mind getting bite marks on.


Some suggestions: a short length of wood doweling, garden hose, short section of hula hoop, the hard plastic inside of a fax roll, a ¾ inch PCV pipe, wooden stir spoon you never want to use again (3 for $1 at the dollar store), tightly rolled few page section of newspaper taped or elastic.

When starting to teach other objects, you may need to transition from a familiar surface to a foreign one by covering the new surface with several layers of vet warp, strips of old T-shirt material wrapped around it or masking tape etc. that is more comfortable on your dog’s teeth and mouth. Many dogs have challenges with metal. Use a spoon with a piece of tape on it. A piece of fleece attached to a key rings makes it easy for dog to pick and for you to see when you drop it.

See our
Muffin Tin Scent Game video for helping your food-motivated dog learn to pick up objects he doesn’t want to.

Remember to only add the retrieve cue when the behavior is complete. That is, your dog readily goes out to and takes and brings back an object that you or someone else has placed and is successful at least 8/10 times. (Check out the
‘training cues’ blog topic for more detail).

Each time you go to a new training location stop using the cue until your dog is being successful again.


Barbara Handleman has described step by step how to train a hand-delivered retrieve from the beginning. See www.dogtrainingathome.com/targetandretrieve.pdf

She has some
video clips to support them.

Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels also describes a similar way to train the retrieve. She describes it slightly differently so you may get other ideas for porblem solving. She starts with a dumbbell only because some of her readers train for obedience competitions.



Here is our very own Jessie relearning the retrieve, this time, using a hot dog to increase the challenge.

The process training a solid retrieve to hand from scratch is exactly the same process as seen in the following three videos. Instead, use a stiff plastic rod such as a 3/5 inch PVC pipe about 12 inches long. You may need to smear the rod with a little peanut butter or Cheeze Whiz to get your dog to start taking it in her mouth, then fade it's use.

Teaching the Hot Dog Retrieve
Part 1


Part 2


Part 3



If you have questions or need help in problem solving, please feel free to ask here for ideas from others who have trained their dog through the process.