Two Ways to Teach a Retrieve

Many dogs retrieve (fetch) naturally, and begin to do so from puppyhood with no special training and no reward other than their enjoyment of retrieving. However, other dogs either don’t chase a ball at all, don’t return the ball after chasing it, or will only fetch occasionally. If your dog isn’t a retriever by nature, but visions of throwing the tennis ball at the dog park are dancing in your head, don’t despair; any dog healthy enough for vigorous activity can learn to fetch and to enjoy the activity.

Capture the Behavior

One way to teach a dog to retrieve is to begin by capturing and rewarding anything similar to retrieving. Keep a clicker and treats on your person whenever you’re interacting with your dog, and consider the clicker a camera– it can take a “snapshot” of a behavior you want repeated.

Most dogs occasionally drop a toy at your feet or chase a thrown toy. All you have to do to create a retrieve from these behaviors is reward them, connect them, and put them on cue. Any time you see your dog drop a toy near you, click as the toy leaves his mouth and reward him with a treat. Similarly, if you are playing with your dog and toss a toy, click if he runs even a few steps toward it. This will, depending upon how often and how consistently you reinforce these behaviors, increase the frequency of dropping and chasing toys during play.

Next, pair the separate behaviors with cues. Once you can expect that your dog will consistently chase a thrown item, as you toss a toy, say, “Fetch!” Then, click and reward chasing the toy. When you see your dog drop a toy near you, say, “Give!” as you click and reward the give. After the cues have been paired with the behaviors for several repetitions, stop reinforcing chasing and dropping toys when you haven’t given the cue. Click and give a treat only when you’ve cued the behavior using “fetch” or “give.”

Finally, link the behaviors together. There’s no need to add a separate cue to return to you with the toy; if you’ve done your job of reinforcing “give” only when the dog is near you, he’ll understand that he needs to be close to you to receive his click and reward for giving you the toy. Cue “fetch,” click and reward, then immediately cue “give.” After a couple training sessions in which you give the two cues in quick succession, cue “fetch,” and then cue “give” immediately, without first clicking and rewarding fetch. Then, reward the “give” behavior with a click and a jackpot— several treats and big praise. Your dog should now be able and willing to connect “fetch” and “give” into a retrieve, receiving one click and reward at the end.

 Pure Shaping

You can also teach a dog to retrieve through shaping alone. This method takes longer than the other in most cases, but is very educational for the trainer. Shaping is one of the most interesting and essential components of clicker training. If you’ve never trained a complex behavior through shaping alone, that should be on your to-do list as a well-rounded trainer. It will improve your timing and instincts, while offering valuable insight into the mind of the animal you’re training.

Start by dropping a ball (or the object you want the dog to retrieve) on the floor. Click any small movement, even a tiny flick of an ear, toward the ball. If all you get in your first training session is a head turn toward the ball, or a single step in its direction, that’s fine; shaping starts slowly, especially if you haven’t used shaping in the absence of cues and lures before.

Continue to shape by reinforcing movements toward the ball, and tightening your criteria for reinforcement. Once you’re reliably getting a head turn, you can stop rewarding the ear flick. Once you get several sniffs, you can stop rewarding head turns without sniffing. When the dog is touching the ball and understands the ball has a great deal to do with the rewards he or she is receiving, you can start selecting for touches that include mouth movement. Start small, like you did with moving the dog toward the ball– a lick or even a small sigh as your dog touches the ball is worthy of a jackpot the first time you catch it.

Slowly narrow your criteria for reinforcement until you’re only clicking touches that include licking or mouthing the ball. Don’t reward the same type of mouthing multiple times in a row if it’s not likely to lead to picking up the ball. For example, if your dog rolls the ball with his tongue, click that, but if he does it twice more in quick succession, withhold the click until he tries something new, like chewing the ball. When you encourage your dog to experiment and look for what makes you click and reward him, you’ll get the ball in his mouth within a couple of training sessions. When you do, give a jackpot, and start slowly tightening your criteria again until you’re only rewarding your dog for putting the ball in his mouth and lifting it.

Now, what should he do with the ball? Bring it to you, of course, but so as not to confuse the dog, first put going to the ball and lifting it on a cue. Pair a verbal cue or a hand signal with the moment your dog picks the ball up, and, as discussed in the first method, move toward reinforcing picking up the ball only when you have given the cue.

Once the behavior is on cue, you can either use a “come” cue that you’ve already trained, or stick with pure shaping. In either case, you will reward the dog for coming toward you while holding the ball. Some dogs will drop the ball as they come toward you. Don’t cue picking up the ball again; that just ensures you’ll spend future fetching sessions chanting, “Take it! Come! Take it! Fetch! Take it! Bring!” over and over. Wait and let the dog think about why he’s not getting clicks, and he’ll go back to get the ball on his own. If he repeatedly drops the ball and doesn’t pick it back up, move back to the last step and work on holding the ball. Wait to click after picking it up until he’s held it for several seconds, building up to 20-30 seconds before he gets a reward.

Shape the behavior step by step until your dog picks up the ball and comes all the way to you. Then, you’re ready to add the final step– the release of the ball. You can simply wait for your dog to drop it on his own and click, or offer a handful of treats in exchange for the ball. If you choose the latter, make sure that you don’t confuse your dog– phase out the jackpot for dropping the ball quickly by pairing it with a cue like “Give,” and keep your rate of reinforcement for carrying the ball high, so he doesn’t start spitting it out halfway across the room hoping for several treats.

Improving the Retrieve

Now that your dog retrieves, there’s only  one thing left to do: Make it better! Try improving these aspects of the behavior using capturing and shaping. Let me know how it goes!

  • Speed: Train your dog to run to the ball and run with it back to you, as quickly as she can.
  • Generalization: Train in different locations, like the park and a friend’s house.
  • Distractibility: Train with distractions, for example a visitor standing to the side of the area where your dog is working.
  • Fetch Other Items: Teach your dog to fetch several other items. You can even train him to discriminate between a pile of toys by name.
  • Water: Teach your dog to fetch a floating toy from a calm, shallow body of water.
  • Wait: Have your dog wait in a sit by your side as you throw the ball, and wait calmly to retrieve it until cued.
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