How to train your dog to retrieve

My favorite way of teaching retrieve is to shape the behavior. Shaping is achieved when a behavior is broken down into many steps and each step is rewarded until reliable. Once a behavior is reliable, it is rewarded periodically until the dog tries a new behavior to increase the amount of rewards.

At that time, the new behavior is rewarded until reliable. This process is repeated until the entire behavior is complete.

Breaking Down the Steps of Retrieve

These are the behaviors that you should look for when your dog is learning the behavior.

  1. Grab object (either after chasing or finding the object)
  2. Hold object
  3. Carry object (hold and walk)
  4. Carry to you with object
  5. Drop object

Key Strategies to Make Retrieving Easier

  1. Train in really short sessions of 1-3 minutes to start
  2. Hide the object when not practicing this exercise
  3. Only use the object for this exercise
  4. Use amazing treats to motivate your dog to advance to the next level

The most important part of retrieve is to motivate the dog to interact with the object. To do this, make the object really interesting. You might reward only 5-10 times and then put the object away to keep it really novel and interesting.

"Hey, where is the toy, I want to play with it more!!"

Then, next time when you take it out again, your dog will hopefully be so excited to play with it they might run over and grab it.

Good! That is one element of a retrieve described above. 

To get a dog interested in an object I use targeting. Put the object one inch from your dog's nose. When he sniffs it or touches it, say, "Yes!" and give an outstanding treat.

Put it close to his nose again, and repeat the "Yes!" and reward each time he touches it. After it becomes reliable, only reward after 2, 3 or more touches. At that point, with the first few touches say, "Good" but don't give a treat. Your dog has to then touch more times or go to the next level such as biting it to get a "Yes!" and a reward.

Important Tip

Keep in mind that frustration is actually part of the strategy for behaviors like this. You want your dog to say, "Hey! Why aren't I getting a treat? I touched it 4 times already! Ok, now I am really getting frustrated, I am going to bite this stupid Frisbee!" Then, get really excited and say, "YES!" and give a treat. Your dog will learn that biting is the new level and expectation in order to get a treat. HOWEVER, there is a fine line between frustration and motivation. Your dog might just say, "Forget this! I have no idea what you want of me. I thought touching was the right answer. I am going to go lie in the corner and lick my paw."

You want to make sure that your dog is engaged and is periodically getting rewards. If you try for too much at once, he can get too frustrated and his desire can be extinguished and then it might be harder to motivate him to play next time. Ideally you keep him motivated to try new things without getting confused or frustrated so he stops trying.

More Motion and Angles

As your dog gets more advanced, you should simulate the frisbee flying towards him so he gets used to reacting to movement and different positions.

Try holding the object above your dog's head so he has to jump for it. This will get him used to catching the object. Try rolling the object or moving it slowly towards your dog or side-to-side in the air to get him used to movement. Say, "Yes!" and reward each time he mouths it. Then, when that is reliable, put the object down and see if he will pick it up. If he does, say, "Yes!" and give a treat. If not, try moving it around a bit to get him more interested in it.

Recap of Above Steps

  1. Make the object really interesting by only having it visible for really short training sessions and then put it away
  2. Use targeting to motivate your dog to interact with the object, and say, "yes" and treat each time he interacts with it
  3. Increase your expectations for interactions as you do more training. The "yes" and treat will only occur after reaching the new level such as touching, mouthing, holding, carrying, etc.
  4. Use enthusiasm while your dog is doing the behavior and stop the encouragement if he stops doing the behavior
  5. Hold the toy above your dog's head, move it around, roll it on the ground to get him used to seeing it from different angles and speeds

You are well on your way to teaching a retrieve. Keep in mind that for each step, you want to reward every time your dog does a behavior until it reliable and then switch to intermittent rewards to motivate him to try something new. Once you understand what steps you should look for, it becomes easy to reward each new more difficult level. Try using your voice as motivation to help your dog continue working.

Next Steps

  1. Holding the object. Reward instantaneous holds at the beginning and then switch to rewarding longer holds. This is often the most challenging step for even the most seasoned trainer. Don't get frustrated!
  2. Walking towards you while holding the object. Hold your hand out and say, "Good boy, you are doing great. . ." If he drops it, stop giving feedback and wait until he picks it up again and continue the feedback.
  3. Dropping the object in your hand. If you need to, say, "Drop" or "Give" wait a moment and then put a treat under your dog's nose. When he drops it, say, "Yes!" and give him the treat. With enough practice, you won't need to use the treat to help him.

Keep in Mind

  1. Depending on the individual dog, and how much time you train, training a dependable retrieve can take weeks or months
  2. Keep the sessions interesting. If your dog is bored, your sessions are too long.
  3. If your dog seems to give up, go back a few steps and start with touching the object or mouthing it and then continue the session. Your expectations might be too high.
  4. You can use a leash to gently "reel your dog in" while he is holding the object. Always go slow and use only gentle pressure.
  5. Dogs often do well inside and then fall apart outside because of distractions. If this occurs, back up in your training, lower your expectations and continue working.