Does your dog have a natural drive to retrieve? Truthfully, some dogs do, and some dogs…well, some maybe not so much. This is especially true for dogs like pointers, who may be too excited and interested in what’s going on around them to focus on a ball, stick, or prey.
Fortunately, you don’t have to adopt a Retriever just to enjoy a game of fetch. Nearly all dogs can learn to retrieve on command with a little bit of help. The key is to pick the process that works best for your dog’s personality and stick with it. You may have to repeat the following step-by-step process over and over again, but eventually, it’ll click.
All you need to get started is yourself, a few toys, and a dog who’s bonded with you or has a natural desire to please. Let’s get started!
Focus on Fun, Bonding Rather Than Retrieval Training
Before you even start training your dog to retrieve, you have to be sure you’re going into the process the right way. If you’re frustrated or feeling rushed (common if you’re trying to train a hunting dog to retrieve), your dog will feel your frustration. That can lead to confusion and difficulties along the way.
Although canine training requires dedication and patience, it should always be about having fun with your dog and bonding. If needed, take a few moments to center yourself or take a break along the way. Either of you getting stressed out or frustrated won’t help the process.
Use high-quality fun toys and treats (never sticks; they’re dangerous) and go into training in high spirits. It’ll pay off tenfold.
Fun First, Ball-Chasing Second
You’ve made an attempt to throw a ball for your new puppy. He’s now sitting at you with his head cocked to the side. Is he wondering whether you’ve lost your mind? Or is he trying to figure out the game? Perhaps it’s a little of column A, a little of column B.
Despite your dog’s confusion, this is the correct approach to take. Encouraging him to chase – either you or a ball – is the best way to start training him to fetch. If standard balls and rope knots aren’t tempting him, encourage him to run after you around the yard or park. Or, try a Kong stuffed with peanut butter and treats. Reduce the amount of filling slowly over time until he’ll chase after the ball itself.
Add Extra Motivation (Like Toys or Treats!)
You managed to get your dog to the point where he’s chasing down what you throw. Excellent progress! Unfortunately, he’s now getting to the ball and then wandering off bored. Or perhaps it’s worse; your pup takes the object and boogies off in the other direction in a fast game of keep away.
For hunting dogs and fetch players alike, that’s counter-intuitive, so you’ll need to work on correcting it.
Try calling your dog back enthusiastically from the moment he reaches his favorite toy. If that fails, have a second toy on deck and in your hands. The second he grabs the first toy, call him and make a big spectacle out of the toy you still have in your hands. If he runs back, praise him – whether he’s brought the original toy with him or not.
Repeat this process over and over until he has the idea of running out and then coming right back down pat. It’s okay if he’s still not bringing the original toy with him just yet.
String Your Dog Along (Loosely)
He’s chasing the toy. He’s grabbing it. But…he’s still not quite grasping that he’s supposed to bring it back to you. This is actually far more common than you might think.
Dogs interpret our enthusiasm when calling them back in different ways; for one dog, it means “bring the toy,” while for another, it means “drop everything and barrel down on your owner like he’s about to disappear.”
Something that works well for dogs like the latter is tying a small vinyl rope to the toy before you toss it. When he grabs it, slowly reel it in. If he doesn’t grab it, start to reel it in and then stop repeatedly. Chances are he’ll get curious and chase it back. Some dogs even get excited at this “game” in the same way a cat would, pouncing and bouncing all over the toy as it moves.
Give Praise for Successful Retrievals
Once your dog successfully retrieves an object, shower him with praise (even if it’s only a “sort of” success). This is an excellent time to break out a special treat. Be sure to praise immediately after he brings it to you, not a few minutes later. He needs to make the connection then and there to really “get” it.
Continue with this for a few weeks until he’s successfully bringing the ball back. If he brings it back but then takes off with it again, or only brings it back partway, move to the last step.
Practice Progress, Not Perfection
Just as with everything else in dog training, practice makes perfect. If your dog stops short of the goal or takes off, redirect him and bring him back to you with the toy over and over again. It can help sometimes to have a visual marker of some sort in front of you; a baseball base or even just a frisbee works well. When he stops short, reach over, encourage him to pick the toy up again, and tap the marker while saying, “drop it here.”
If he (as many dogs do) rolls it a few inches only to drop it again, stick with the process. Keep tapping until he’s dropped it on the marker and then praise him heartily.
For dogs who develop a desire to take off with toys late in the game, revert back to the string step. Or, use treats to lure him back to the marker. Tell him to “drop it” as you present the treat. After a few rounds, most dogs will pick up on the process.
Dogs that don’t have a natural desire to retrieve aren’t rare; in fact, it’s much more common for most breeds to lack this trait than to have it in the first place. But retrieving is such a valuable skill to teach your pup; not only does it help you bond, but it also ensures that he’ll bring you an object and/or drop it if he ever accidentally grabs something dangerous like a baby porcupine or the household cat.Tags: Retrieving Games