I am a great believer in encouraging natural retrieving with all dogs from a very early age. What is more fun for dog and owner than to play ‘Fetch’? By teaching a dog not only to retrieve but to also enjoy it, as a reward it can be used in so many instances to create good habits and even modify unwanted behavior. In addition it can lead to and support other fun dog games such as Frisbee, Obedience and Flyball. A knotted handkerchief or rag, old smelly socks (they are particularly popular), a small ball, a rubber ‘toy’, anything which pup will want to pick up can be used at first. Playing with a safe object which is interesting will make the pup realise that this is not only fun but pleases you. It is the start of a rewarding relationship. Some dogs are more interested in carrying than others, but many owners do nothing to encourage their very young pups to carry. If anything they discourage because they are more intent on ensuring that the pup picks up nothing as this could be unsafe or cause damage. I prefer to encourage pups to pick up and carry but always bring the object up to me and give it readily. Anything dangerous can then easily and safely be dealt with, should the need arise. Socks are the most popular object, but why panic when pup has got one, it’s only a sock! Encourage pup up with it, take it slowly and gently and then give it back to him for a few seconds while holding him, before taking it again. Get the pup confident in coming to you with its ‘prizes’.
Initially when you throw a ‘toy’ the pup may not return with it but if it will pick up and parade around carrying the object for even a short time, you can praise and show how clever the pup is in your eyes. Do not chase and create problems where the pup will keep away from you or encourage you to chase it. Even little tugs of war with a small object can encourage the pup to hold and carry, but be careful not to do this too much as the dog may refuse to let go when you need it to. In this case just gently squeeze behind the object with the palm of your hand under the dogs chin using the thumb on one side of the mouth and the index finger on the other, and pushing your finger and thumb very gently on the cheeks between the teeth. Take the object with your free hand giving the command “Drop”. With tug of war I like to start the game but I also like to finish it, never letting the pup run off with the prize. If it does, I encourage it back and then after holding the pup and praising it for coming; I take it from its mouth and put the object away.
To encourage a good retrieve right up to your body I have often found that the best place to get a puppy returning to, especially if it is carrying a ‘prized possession’ is its bed or place of security. With young pups I will often sit in their bed or on their bean bag and play with retrieves there. The pup is much more likely to bring back a retrieve to this place than anywhere else. A hallway or narrow space between say a fence and the house is also good as the pup cannot run past you. At this stage always make the retrieves very short four or five yards and build up distance gradually only as the pup gains confidence in you and its own ability. By playing, encouraging and guiding a young pup to retrieve naturally from a very early age it is surprising how much the pup sees this work as fun and a reward to such an extent that food treats are rarely required. This reward, – retrieving – then forms a focus in the pup’s training, helping to develop obedience, control and wonderful eye contact. Make sure pup becomes confident when it is close to your body and wants to come right up to it. Never grab for the dog or the retrieving ‘toy’. Touch the dog as it goes past; guide it into your lap or your legs as you kneel down. Again don’t take the retrieve object but gently and slowly stroke and pet, under the chest and chin especially, and down the back. When pup is comfortable being close to your body holding the object in its mouth you can then take the retrieve and again praise. There is no need to rush, and no need to take the retrieve ‘toy’ immediately as the dog returns. Stay calm, unhurried, be gentle and quiet.
Where pups are reluctant to retrieve or even just carry, try to look for the opportunities that present themselves whenever they may occur. Just holding a chew stick in your hand and letting the pup chew on it for say ten seconds, then taking it away, then giving it back helps create hand contact and familiarity with objects being taken away and then given back. Sitting in the pup’s bed, throw the chew sticks a short distance and then encourage it back to you for you to hold it once more. Once it is confident doing this, attach a rag to the chew stick and use the stick and rag together for the retrieve. Once the pup will bring chew stick and rag back to you, put the rag on a ball or bumper and soon the progression to carrying anything is well under way. Although this may sound rather crude, I also put my scent on retrieve objects by spitting on them and rubbing the spittle over them.
Most curious pups are keen carriers of sticks and small objects and some of them might not always be pleasant to us. When they do pick up ‘things’ they often run off with them. This is a quite normal reaction, one that is inherited and a result of the pups ‘natural’ instinct to pick up scraps of food and carry them away to eat without the danger of them being stolen by litter mates. So you will often find that even if pup does come to you, it will sometimes roll on the retrieve object, put its head down to guard it or keep turning its head away so that you cannot take it. Providing the pup is holding the object never hurry the ‘delivery’ of this object, but wait for the dog to become confident, unintimidated and want to bring it up to you. When it does, do not take it immediately. Let the pup hold it while you praise it for holding. If you rub behind the pups ears with your hands positioned either side of its face, or rub its chest then the pup will usually begin to adopt a nice delivery position without even realising. You are melding the behavior. Gently guide the retrieve out of the dog’s mouth while giving the command ‘Drop’. After a few seconds, if it is a stick, ball or similar safe object, go ahead and give it back to the pup to carry around. ‘Sharing’ the object builds confidence in the dog and it will be more likely to let you have its possession if it knows it will be returned. With valuable or personal, objects be careful not to let panic take over. Do not chase the pup or snatch an object from its mouth. Just encourage the pup up to you, or walk calmly up to it and gently open the mouth taking the object without making any fuss or punishing. Never punish pup while it is carrying an object in its mouth.
A young pup needs time to develop the right actions, let alone co-ordination so don’t make an issue about retrieves which are not perfect or when you call the pup it may put down what it is carrying before returning to you. If it puts the ‘toy’ down, walk over and bump the toy a little distance with your foot or hand to make it interesting. Encourage the pup to ‘fetch’ the ‘toy’ once more and then slowly back away a short distance, encouraging all the time as the pup picks it and comes to you. Sometimes, getting down on your knees or into a crouching position will also encourage pup up to you. I’ve even laid down flat on my back or on all fours to encourage a pup up to me – if it works do it. Recognize you are only at early play school not university, and pup needs time to learn what is required. Watch for situations where you can manage the actions of the pup, getting it to do exactly what you want and take the opportunity to praise. You will be surprised how quickly your pup can learn from these situations. However lose your cool, put too much ‘perfectionist’ pressure on your dog, and do things which might frighten pup and you will not only be surprised how it learns this reaction from you too, but also remembers it for the rest of it’s life.
Once your pup returns to you willingly and likes being praised and handled, you can give the occasional ‘formal’ training retrieve with a soft bumper/dummy or tennis ball. These training ‘toys’ should not be left around the floor for pup to see and play with freely. They should be your special training ‘toys’ kept purely for retrieving training. Initially, let your young pup run in to the thrown ‘toy’ to instil some enthusiasm. As you throw the ‘toy’ gives the command “Fetch it’. The moment pup reaches the ‘toy’, call and encourages it back to you using your voice and body language to entice pup right up to your body. Sitting on the floor with your legs open and tapping your thighs with your hands to guide pup into your body, helps. If the pup does it well, don’t keep doing it over and over again to see if it will do it well again, but stop on a good piece of work. The pup will know you are pleased by your voice, your hands, your face and your whole behaviour. He doesn’t need another retrieve just because he is asking for one, keep him ‘hungry’ for the training. The amount of praise should match the temperament of the dog. An excitable dog should be praised calmly and an unenthusiastic one praised more actively. If you have an enthusiastic pup that really enjoys retrieving and hunting for the ‘toy’, begin making it wait (steadying) before sending it with the command to ‘fetch’. Hold pup gently in the sit position with the command ‘sit’, throw the ‘toy’. And gradually increase the time before you send the dog with “Fetch”. If you kneel down and hold pup between your legs, or with your arm around it,- one hand on the front of the chest, in very easy stages you can slacken your grip of the pup as it is sitting until it begins to sit steadily and watch the ‘toy’ being thrown without being held. It will then wait for your ‘fetch’ command. A dog that isn’t very enthusiastic should be encouraged and enthused by letting it quickly chase the thrown object until the habit is well instilled, then steadied in easy stages after the enthusiasm becomes part of the retrieve.
When practising the early stages of retrieving remember the pup is only at play school and a perfect delivery is not yet essential. Just getting the pup and retrieve back promptly to you with the pup still holding it in its mouth without any fear of being touched by you anywhere should be your main objective. So often inexperienced trainers try to get their dogs into a perfect sitting delivery immediately and in doing so inadvertently create a number of other problems. Try not to pressurise your pup in these early stages but get it in the habit of going out, searching with eyes and nose, picking up, returning and holding the ‘toy’ until you are ready to take it.
Training and working with the handler should be the dog’s highlight of the day and I have found the best time of day for training is early morning after a good sleep. If you have personal time constraints within your normal daily schedule with work and family you can succeed in training by doing it at other times provided the pup has had a good rest (2 hours) before the training session. Sessions also only need to be five to ten minutes maximum for a young pup and twenty minutes for an older one. If you can do two sessions a day then that is a bonus. Exercise? Training using retrieving is exercise.
Once retrieving is instilled in your dog as a pleasurable activity, in my opinion the dog views this as the role you play in the partnership (albeit senior partner!). Once this happens it can be used to reinforce many other actions including behavioral modification. You reward the dog by throwing the retrieve, sending him, helping him, controlling him and receiving the retrieved object to do another activity with. It is then an easy move from one ‘toy’ such as a ball to another such as a Frisbee, or dumbbell. I sometimes get the impression that the dogs feel they are actually rewarding me by giving me the retrieve. They stand back and say’ There’s a good partner for doing what we enjoy!!’ The reward and pleasure comes and goes both ways, between myself and my dogs, which is what I feel is a true partner/companion relationship.