Teaching the Retrieve

You will need a clicker and a large pile of small treats (break them up to the size of small peas).  These need to be yummy, too.  Don't get cheap on me and try to pass off some boring dry dog biscuit to teach your dog to fetch.  You will also need an object to get your dog to learn on.  I usually use a wooden obedience dumbbell.

I teach the retrieve by shaping!   Once your dog learns the shaping game you can teach almost anything.  We use a marker as a bridge between the behavior we want and the reward. I prefer a clicker because it is more precise than a verbal marker.  It also carries no emotion.  The handler’s emotions/feelings can be a problem.  If you become worried or stressed about your dogs performance it comes thru in your voice and influences the dog.  None of this happens with a clicker.

Here are the steps to a perfect retrieve:

1.     Dog looks at the handler -   (It is a wonderful thing when the dog acknowledges that I exist and that he finds me to be a valuable resource.)

2.     Dog touches handlers’ hand.

3.     Dog touches dumbbell in hand.

4.     Dog mouths dumbbell in hand.

5.     Dog grabs dumbbell in hand, with full grip.

6.     Dog grabs and holds dumbbell while the handler continues to hold the dumb bell.

7.     Dog grabs and holds dumbbell, handler lets go for a second, and then handler takes dumb bell back into his hand.

8.     Dog grabs and holds dumbbell, handler lets go for a second, and pets the top of the dogs head, then handler takes dumbbell back into his hand.

9.     Handler offers dumbbell closer to the floor, dog grabs and lifts dumbbell up, handler pets top of head and takes dumbbell.

10. Handler touches dumbbell to floor, dog grabs and lifts dumbbell up, handler pets top of head and takes dumbbell.

11.  Handler places dumbbell on floor and removes hand, dog grabs and lifts dumbbell up, handler pets top of head and takes dumbbell.

12.  Handler drops dumbbell on floor, dog grabs and lifts dumbbell up, handler pets top of head and takes dumbbell.

Now for the bad news.  “There can be a million variations to how I get the above 12 steps done.”  The first thing we must acknowledge is this: “The dog determines what is reinforcing.”  The second thing to acknowledge is that the dog determines what he finds aversive.  We must try to remove all aversive barriers to retrieving, and at the same time apply the most reinforcing  rewards.  Think about it this way, if you are standing up, some dogs may find that a more intimidating posture, an aversive!  Remove it, sit down and see if your dog is more eager to play the game.  If the leash gets in the way and the dog perceives it as an aversive, remove it and work in a quiet enclosed room at first. If he is bothered by the collar or gentle leader, remove it.

All of these things can be reintroduced once the dogs retrieve is strong.  But at first remove as many aversive influences as you can.

Reinforcements are determined by the dog!   For some dogs, not many, a piece of kibble is reinforcing.  For some petting is reinforcing.  Hot dogs and chicken can be great.  For our more advanced dogs the chance to retrieve again can it self be the reward. One puppy I know would hold a dumbbell for a kiss on the nose.

Ok, let’s begin.

You have removed the aversive influences, you know what your dog finds rewarding, in this case let’s assume he likes hot dogs.  Get your clicker, your dog and some hot dogs.  I always try to have easily accessible pockets, and I put a bunch if treats in my pockets.  As we are standing around, if the dog looks at me I click and treat.  I don’t lure! I don’t speak!  Just when the dog happens to glance my way I click and treat.  After 2 or 3 treats the dog is staring at me and in the game.  You have taken the first step toward the perfect retrieve.

Now for the second step.  This exercise requires 4 treats!  But before we start, I must discuss luring.  Luring is, using a treat in your hand to guide the dog into a physical movement.  I try to lure no more than 3 times, ever, in teaching any behavior.  When your dog is following a lure he is most often thinking only of the food, not truly using his mind and learning.  I prefer to lure only a couple of times and then get the dog to target.  Targeting is what the second step is all about.  We are going to teach the dog to target your hand.

Begin by clicking and treating your dog for looking at you.  When you do this most often the dog ends up in front of you. Great!  Now with your clicker on your right wrist, and the clicker in your hand, put 4 treat in your right hand as well.  We are ready.   Hold both your right and left hands in front of your chest clasp your left hand over your right hand and transfer on treat to your left hand. Open your left hand so it is flat, palm facing out, pin the treat to your palm with your thumb.  Bring your left hand down past your dog’s nose and slightly out to your left side.  The dog should follow it and bump his nose into your hand as he eats the treat, click as his nose hits your hand.  Repeat with a second treat.

After 2 treats, your start with your hands in the same position but do not put a treat in your left hand,  rather extend your left hand out, past your dogs nose to the same position slightly out to your left side that you used when it held a treat.  Your dog should follow it and bump it with his nose, click and treat with your right hand.   Repeat with your 4th treat.  Now we have a dog that is targeting your left hand.

Reverse the above directions, and use 4 treats to get your dog to target your right hand.

Once your dog is targeting your hand you can move on to step 3.  Here we get the dog to touch the dumbbell.  Get the dog in the game by going thru steps 1 and 2.  Click and treat a couple of times for looking at you and once or twice for touching/targeting your hand.  Now, you are standing with the dog in front of you, clicker in your right hand, treats in your pocket.  Hold and dumbbell in your left hand and keep both your right and left hands up near your chest, as this is our neutral starting position.  With your dog staring at you bring the dumbbell down and slightly left just as you did with your empty hand when your dog touched it.   As your dog follows the dumbbell there is a tremendous possibility that he will sniff and touch it, Click and treat the touch. If he doesn’t touch it, simply move both hands back to our neutral starting position up near your chest, and wait 3 seconds.  Try again, this time he is almost sure to touch the dumbbell.  When he does click and treat.


At this point I must remind you that I have not used my voice at all.  I am completely silent! I never add the cue word until a behavior is completely shaped.   In other words, I don’t tell a dog to retrieve until he is already doing it perfectly, and then I name the perfect behavior.


I am not going to give you step by step directions for steps 4 thru 12, because each step is slightly different for each dog.  You gradually shape behavior, in small steps, until you have a complete retrieve.  Your must read your dog; break things down into steps small enough for him.  Use reinforcement that he finds rewarding, remove things he finds aversive.


Once you have shaped a retrieve with a dumbbell, shape your retrieve in the same fashion, with every possible item you could ever imagine him retrieving.  Dogs love this game.