Retrieve Training with Your Dog

Retrieve is used in competitive sports and in daily life. It is a dog training command as well as a fun and interactive game for you and your dog.

It is also important for our dog’s physical and psychological well-being. Not only is your dog physically involved in the activity but his natural instincts like his prey-drive, are also being fulfilled.

This is all a part of your dog’s life and is necessary for him to maintain a healthy balance. There are many aspects of your dog’s life, walking your dog is one structured activity, playing with your dog is another one, obedience training or other types of training are also others.

However, there are two true aspects that are more natural to your dog than any others. These are playing and socializing with other dogs and chasing or hunting.

Below, you will find two different training options for training the retrieve command. I have also included some explanations a little further down about dogs that don’t really enjoy this game or dogs that have problems holding the items to be retrieved.

Remember, just like any new activity that we are training our dog, start in a familiar place with minimal distractions. Later you can add distractions and distance.

Retrieve training approaches:

There are basically two approaches in how to train your dog to retrieve.

  • One approach is the more basic dog training approach, and can be described in three simple steps:
    1. The dog is introduced to the object and his attention and instinctual drive build up for him
    2. The object is thrown, which immediately triggers the dog to go chase after it
    3. The object is returned back to the owner

  • There is also the Dog Sport Training approach, which can be a little more complicated.
This is used in most dog sports in which the dog’s perfection of performance is always being tested.

If you are looking to train your dog the retrieve command for competition purposes, I would suggest that you first become familiar with marker or clicker training.

Using this type of training will help you reward your dog in perfect timing, and in such a manner that your dog will better understand it.

After that, you can proceed to the dog competitive – retrieve page as there are simply too many steps involved with that specialized training approach, to be explained here.

Although the retrieve command may look easy on paper, in reality, many dog owners realize that either their dog doesn’t have any interest in the object or game itself, or there is no way to convince their dog to bring the object back to them.

Let’s start first with the different options of how we can successfully train our dog this interactive and beneficial game. Later, we can go deeper into possible reasons for why some dogs have so much trouble grasping the idea behind it.

Step One: Warm Up Your Dog

The base of the retrieve command is your dog’s level of involvement. Not every dog grasps or reacts the same to this game. Some dogs are easy to motivate and they are just “crazy” about the game, you can throw anything and they will fly to get it.

But there are other dogs that need more motivation to build the necessary drive level for them to participate fully in the game. It is an easy and basic equation, if you have a high drive dog; you don’t need much to get him going. On the other hand, if your dog is not interested than you need to be more active.

  • Start playing with your dog, tease him with the object, make it “hard to get”. In most cases this will build the drive in your dog and then you can try tossing the object away.
  • TIP: If you have a dog with a lower level of stimulation, try figuring out if there are certain toys that he prefers more than others. You can hide this particular toy and take it out to play with it only on those special occasions in which you are training your dog the retrieve command.

  • The second rule is that you don’t throw the object far away.
  • If the object is thrown too far away, your dog may lose interest or may head toward the object but may then get distracted or decide to leave the retrieve game altogether before completing the action.

    Start gradually it is easy to increase the distance with your dog’s progress.

Choosing the Retrieve/Play Item

There are so many toys or other objects that you can use to play retrieve with your dog. However, we can generally sort them into different groups;

First, we can classify them as active or inactive and secondly, we can select the best type of material, whether they are soft or hard toys.

In the active category we have any type of toy that will continue moving after it hits the ground, a ball for example. A ball will continue bouncing/moving on the ground and this will increase your dog’s prey drive.

An inactive example would be something like a branch, which will stay put after it is tossed and may become boring, faster, to your dog.

The second thing to consider is the material. If the item is too soft, it will probably encourage your dog to stop and chew on it, rather than return it to you.

Retrieve Option One: The Toy Exchange

This is a very popular scenario that many dog owners use and is quite simple.

One of the first things that you will notice with your dog is that he likes to be in possession of the toys during a game. Basically, he wants what you have. This is a natural behavior, in nature; possession and the whole game around the possession of items is a very important social interaction among dogs.

The base of this method is to throw the ball (or other object) to your dog, and once he is on his way back to you, wait until he is rather close, then introduce another ball.

This will encourage your dog to return to you and ‘exchange’ the item. Again, this goes hand in hand with natural dog behavior. He will see what you have and want that instead.

In a perfect scenario, your dog will get to you; and you can then introduce the “drop” command and exchange the toys with him.

Although this seems to be a very popular training method, I personally don’t like it because of various different side effects that can occur.

For example, the dog will drop his item way too soon, making you have to go pick it up, destroying the purpose of the ‘retrieve’.

This will also eventually lead to him developing the anticipation which may even lead him to dropping the item right away when he reaches it, or even worse, he may turn back half way out towards the first object, simply because he knows that there is another item waiting in your hands.

Many dogs will also lose interest fast, this way, because it is a game without much interaction from you, the handler.

Retrieve Option Two: Reeling a Dog Back

This method can be very productive and effective, especially with a puppy.

With this method, you start out by putting your puppy on a long leash.

The purpose of the leash is to keep him from wondering away and also to help him return by ‘reeling’ him back in.

Here’s how it goes:

  • Use a lightweight leash of about 6-9 feet long. Sit down so that you are close to your puppy.
  • Introduce the toy and prepare your puppy by building his drive. This can be done by teasing him and playing with him and the toy. Do not drag this step out for too long.
  • Throw the toy in front of you (within 6 feet) and as soon as your puppy gets the toy encourage him to return to you by praising him verbally.
  • If your puppy starts to wander away, you can use the leash just to keep him on track. Do not correct your dog at this time, just guide him. And remember that as soon as your puppy turns towards you, drop the leash or release the pressure immediately.

    TIP: This leash pressure has to be extremely light for a puppy, we are just using the leash to guide him back to the right track, nothing else. Again, this is NOT a correction.

  • As soon as the puppy is back, hold the leash with one hand just so that you can reach the item in your puppy’s mouth and start playing a light game of tug. By gently holding the leash you will not allow your puppy to escape with the item, which will be his natural reaction.
  • Then offer a treat to your puppy in exchange for the toy.
  • As soon as your puppy is done eating, encourage him to play the game again and repeat the procedure.

TIP: Make sure that you present the treat after you engage in a short game of tug. If you offer it too soon, your puppy may start dropping the toy before he reaches you.

By offering the treat after a short game, it creates a secondary purpose and another positive reinforcement. The first being the short tug game and the second being the tasty treat.

The reason that we play a tug game is to show your dog that a game is more rewarding than the toy itself. If your puppy decides to keep the toy, he will miss out on the rewards.

Soon, he will understand that the purpose of the retrieve game is to bring the toy back and enjoy the interaction with you. At that time the toy is just an object and the game he receives after retrieving it, is the true reward.

As well do not forget to repeat the retrieve game a few times in a row; this will reassure your puppy that you aren’t trying to steal the object away from him to keep for yourself.

That having been said, also do not overdo the game of retrieve, especially with young dogs, as they get tired fast.

What if your dog can’t hold the item in his mouth, or doesn’t know how to carry it?

A common obstacle that you may face is how to demonstrate to your dog just how to hold the item in his mouth and keep it there while bringing it all the way back to you.

Some dogs have a natural drive and a great relationship with you already, so they quickly figure out the purpose of the game, but there are others that have the drive, and have great potential, but have a problem with grasping the concept of carrying the item.

If your dog has a problem carrying the item back, try lighter items, and really short distances.

If your dog simply does not seem to want to hold onto the object, it is not so difficult to teach your dog this step.

You simply need to break the retrieve process into smaller steps and reverse them. So, the first thing will be to train your dog to hold the item.

You can include a pre-step in your process, in which you will first play with your dog, while he is in front of you, encouraging him and rewarding him for any time that he holds the item in his mouth, gradually increasing the time, until you think that he is ready to carry the item.

Then move on to the next step of throwing the object off a little ways.

What about a dog who doesn’t want to play?

There are many dogs out there that are simply unable or unwilling to perform a retrieve command. This can be due to various reasons.

Some dogs don’t have much prey-drive, some dogs don’t enjoy playing this game at all, and for some of them the level of distraction is too high. There are even specific breeds that simply don’t care much for this game and that is a part of their genetic inheritance.

If you are really unable to motivate your dog to play the retrieve game there is not much that you can do other than using compulsion training methods.

I would not suggest this method for the retrieve command, nor do I recommend it. Retrieving is supposed to be a fun game and if your dog doesn’t find it so, then it is cruel and unfair of you to force him to do it.

Try some other games or interactions that will be more fun for you and for your dog instead. If you persist in trying to play retrieve with an unmotivated dog, it will just end up frustrating both you and your dog.

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