Why it’s a good idea to teach your dog to retrieve (and play in general with you)
- It helps to build a strong bond between you and your dog (so long as you play nicely and it’s fun for your dog).
- Valued toys and games can be used as a reward so you don’t always have to rely on using food rewards.
- Games are a great way to train your dog – as above, just make sure it is fun for your dog and that the control exercises are just a small part of each play session. Too much control and not enough fun will find your dog heading off to find more exciting friends.
- A dog which has learned to play with you is less likely to feel the need to find his or her own entertainment such as running off to play with other dogs or taking themselves off hunting.
- A well-taught retrieve and leave is then a safe game for other people to play with your dog. However, remember that interactions with children should be supervised.
Genetic Influences of Retrieve
Some breeds of dogs, such as many of the gundog breeds which have been bred to retrieve – there is a clue in some of the breed names (Labrador Retriever, Golden Retriever!) – will be naturals at running after a thrown item. Lots of these dogs will also be natural retrievers and bring the item back but even with these dogs they may not be quite so keen to give them up to you.
Many other breeds of dogs, such as terriers (or the corgi-cross shown above), have not been bred over the centuries to fetch and give up their prized items and so these breeds will need more encouragement and practice.
If you have a dog which has shown any aggression over its toys then you should not try to do this without the help of a trainer and behaviourist. If this is the case, please contact me for some one-to-one help. One of the most common behavioural problems I see is dogs which have become aggressive over their toys or items which they have found or taken. With sensitive and correct handling and training of this problem your dog can learn that it is really worthwhile to ‘share’ his things with you and that aggression is not necessary.
Should you play tug with your dog?
Just a note on playing tug with your dog – this is a great game to play and does not usually cause a dog to show any aggression. However, it does depend on how you play it and is not suitable for all dogs if they become over-excited or if you are perceived to them as being aggressive (ie, if you are shouting at them to leave, or using aggressive body language such as leaning into their face, or other such rude behaviour which owners sometimes engage in…). Again, it is helpful to have a trainer assist you with this if you have any doubts about the safety of playing this game.
SETTING YOURSELF UP TO SUCCEED…
(Always try to do this as it avoids frustration for both you and your dog)
The first step with trying to play any game with your dog is to ensure you find a toy which he is keen to play with. However, too high a value toy and they will definitely not want to give it back so try to find a toy which they like to play with but which they will also be likely to ‘share’ with you.
Then you need to find a quiet area in your home or garden where there are no other distractions (such as other toys, people, smells, other pets, etc). As your dog learns to enjoy play with you be sure to take toys on walks with you and to have several short little play sessions to teach your dog that you are the most fun thing, even on walks.
Have a treat bag around your waist – the magnetic snap-shut type are the best. Have the bag closed and you should not give your dog any treats at all to begin with as we want him to focus on the toy and not be too focused on the treats.
Keep it Fun
Play should be exactly that (ie, fun for your dog) and if you set up the location correctly with no distractions and the right toy then you are on the first step to successful play with your dog.
The next steps
Sit on the floor with your legs in a V-shape so that your dog can play with the toy in between your legs. Now put the toy on the floor and wriggle it around on the ground to get your dog’s attention if you haven’t already got it.
If your dog grabs it before you are ready that is fine – you can give a little tug game (so long as no aggression issues – see above).
To get the toy back from your dog just stop moving it (or even let go of it) and hold a treat right next to his nose and when he lets go say the ‘leave’ word. This is assuming you have not already taught the ‘leave’ command – if you have, well done, you can just use it to ask for the toy back but don’t forget to still give a treat now and then when your dog does a good ‘leave.’
Incidentally, if your dog likes a game of tug with you then he is much more likely to bring it back to you as that is the only way he can get the reward of playing tug with you so the tug game is actually a very good way to help most dogs retrieve.
Now that you have your dog’s attention, throw the toy just a couple of feet away (no farther or you reduce the chances of getting a retrieve) and heap on the praise as your dog goes to pick up the toy.
Now, do not lean forward and try to grab your dog or the toy, but instead just pat your legs and praise and encourage your dog in to you, back into the V-shape between your legs or anywhere close to you.
When he gets to you, tickle and stroke him on the top of his bottom and ruffle his fur (or whatever he enjoys) and see if you can get him to do that happy wiggle thing that dogs do. When he has done this, get up and move away and sit down again and repeat the previous bit of encouraging him in and touching the top of his bottom and verbally praising and then move away again. This should have your dog coming to you with no fear of the toy being taken.
Now you can quickly take out the treat and hold it on his nose (as above) and when he lets go then say the ‘leave’ word to help teach him what this means (when teaching a new command to our dogs we need to say the new word at the same time as the action of the dog so that he can learn what the word means). As above, if your dog already understands the ‘leave’ then you can say the word before he lets go.
Whichever of the two methods above are used, remember to heap on the praise as he lets go.
Then after giving the treat you can throw the toy again a short distance and repeat the above.
Once your dog learns what a fun game this is then you can just give a treat occasionally but your dog’s main reward will be the game itself so no need to keep on with the treats each time once your dog is doing a good retrieve and leave but instead just give the occasional treat to keep him really keen to do a good retrieve and leave.
Adding commands to the retrieve
Also, once your dog becomes more reliable at running out to get the item and bringing it back, then you can add commands to the actions. You can either use a command such as ‘Fetch’ for the action of getting it and bringing it back or you can use separate commands, such as ‘Fetch’ and ‘Bring it Here’.
The normal method is to use just the ‘Fetch’ but if you want to go on to advanced training such as going to pick up an item and then putting it in a basket/box or taking to another person then it’s useful to have the separate commands.
Your dog’s joint health
PLEASE NOTE THAT RETRIEVES SHOULD NOT BE TOO FAR OR TOO FREQUENT FOR YOUNG DOGS AS IT CAN DAMAGE THEIR JOINTS AS THEY BELT OUT TO GET THE ITEM AND SLAM ON THEIR BRAKES. EVEN WITH OLDER DOGS BE CAREFUL NOT TO OVER-DO IT.
ALSO REPEATED LONG CHASES AFTER ITEMS CAN EXCITE SOME DOGS AND IT DOES NOT WEAR THEM OUT BUT CAN ACTUALLY INCREASE ADRENALIN LEVELS AND SO LEAVE YOU WITH AN OVER EXICTED DOG.
WHEN THINGS DON’T GO QUITE AS PLANNED…
Check the following:
- Is the toy exciting enough?
- Is the toy too exciting so your dog won’t bring it or let go?
- Are your treats too exciting so that you dog only wants the treats and not the toy?
- Are your treats not exciting enough so your dog won’t release the toy?
- Are you being a grumpy playmate? Remember it’s meant to be fun for your dog.
- Are you being impatient? Remember not to grab at your dog or the toy but to praise and stroke and move away to encourage your dog to want to come to you.
- Is anyone else playing with your dog in a way which is affecting your success?
- If your dog is moving too far away from you then put him on a lead about a metre long and sit on it or hold it so that he can’t run off. However please do not reel him in like a fish! The line is on simply to prevent him moving too far away so that you stand a better chance of being able to encourage him to you.
- Is your dog simply lying down with the toy and not coming to you? Then you can go to him and make a big fuss of him (start at the top of his bottom and no snatching for the toy) and if he is happy with that then hold a treat on his nose and try to get a leave. Then lots of praise for being such a good dog and start again. Once he learns you don’t snatch his toy and that he gets a fuss and a treat and another game he should start coming in to you and giving the toy.
If all that fails
It shouldn’t fail but if you feel you need some help with this or any other training or behaviour then please get in touch.
You may also be interested in my other articles:
Happy play and training!
© 2018 Sally Bartlett
Co-operative Canine Dog Training