Training A Great Retrieve (From A “Non-Retriever” Standpoint)

Retrieving doesn’t always come naturally for a dog.

Retrieving is often seen as a behaviour that a dog is born with. While this is true for many dogs, other dogs, even dogs from a retrieving background, don’t care about it. At all. This especially applies to purpose-bred dogs who have a particular job they were bred to do that has nothing to do with retrieving (sled dogs, livestock guardians, scent hounds). Many times I have heard clients unhappily lament that their dog won’t, can’t or  doesn’t fetch, or they can’t play or exercise them easily by throwing a ball or toy for them to bring back.

Our dog Tommy (Australian Shepherd) came to live with us without any drive to retrieve or even any interest in toys at all. In fact, it often seemed like he was afraid of toys and kind of even avoided looking at them. When presented with a toy he would usually turn his head away from it.

Because of this issue, I decided to give training a shaped retrieve a try. Tommy and I trained the retrieve over many months, which extended into two years actually. We started from scratch with competition dumbbells and using the clicker/food rewards shaped his interest in picking up a foreign object (not food) with his teeth.


The tendency when a dog shows no interest in retrieving is to quit trying to teach him. The process seems so daunting, and time consuming that I can completely understand not wanting to even attempt it. This can be especially true when a dog has had a little training by learning to run after a toy, but will not return with the toy to continue. Often a game of keep away will result. And if a dog won’t even hold anything in his teeth or chase a toy, the feeling is often hopelessness.

You CAN learn to teach your dog.

The good news is that it is completely possible to teach a dog such as this to retrieve. It really is. It just takes a little planning and a short training session every few days. I can say that it is possible for the dog because I have done it myself with several dogs who have had no interest in retrieving – including a retriever!

The biggest obstacle is actually the human part of the equation, not the dog. The main thing that gets in the way of a dog learning something, in my opinion, is that humans want instant results. When the training is not going well or seems to be taking too long, quitting is often right around the corner. Retriever training is a gradual process especially at first when all the dog will do is nose touch the dumbbell. The most frustrating part for me is when the dog is just about to hold the dumbbell but is still not sure about it and still tries to get rewarded for nose touches. Progress can be slow.

There are many steps to training a dog to retrieve from scratch and of course each dog will progress at a different rate. But there are a few things that you can do to make things easier on both of you when starting out.

ONE: Use really good rewards.

If your dog is averse to taking a toy in his teeth, give him a good reason to do it. I use freeze dried liver, small pieces of cooked chicken, or whatever your dog really likes. Its up to your dog what you should use. You don’t HAVE to do that, like if your dog is OK with putting a dumbbell in his mouth or f your dog is VERY food motivated and enjoys even kibble for training. Then you can use any food you want.

TWO: Train only for a minute or two, tops.

Introduce your dog to doing this behaviour slowly, in small increments, especially if you are starting from scratch. If you over-do the training, you risk boring or stressing your dog, and yourself. I suggest two to three one-minute sessions a day, four to five days a week.

THREE: Train most days but don’t overdo it. Skip a day now and then.

Sometimes when you skip a day or two or three in between training sessions, your dog have a chance to “process” the lesson. This is essential in the learning process. You will likely notice that your dog will progress faster when you do not train every day. It also gives you a break if you are finding a level difficult or are getting bored working on the same thing. Dogs get bored too. On days off from retrieving training, you could work on tricks or agility, whatever you like. There have been times when I have left working on a behaviour for weeks and then returned to it to find that the dog has made an improvement.

FOUR: Make sure each step is being done well before moving to the next one.

A dog does not have to be doing a behaviour perfect before you move on to the next level. At the start of training a behaviour, I like to aim for correct responses 100% of the time. But that is my own choice. Being correct 80% of the time is an acceptable number for most dogs to accomplish before moving up a step. You will have to use your own judgement for this one, depending on your dog. Pushing for 100% may cause stress to either your dog OR you, so that is something to take into account.

FIVE: Start with the metal item.

Dogs generally dislike putting metal in their mouth. If you are able to teach your dog a good tooth hold on a metal object (it doesn’t have to be a dumbbell, it could be a food utensil or any NON-TOXIC item), then objects made of other materials such as cloth, leather, plastic or wood will so be much easier to teach, since the most difficult one has already been taught. The same process is used to teach long sits or downs to a dog for competition obedience. If you train the dog to stay for longer than he will have to do it in competition (i.e. more difficult), then competition level stays will seem so much easier to accomplish.

If you are not having any luck with the metal item, try a different one. Make it really fun and enjoyable to take, and then try the metal later. Some dogs will be OK with metal and others will not. Be a good judge of your dog.

Six: Ask your dog for progressively more and more interaction with the object. 

At first, all your dog has to do is sniff the object. Once he is doing that well for food after many reps, move on to a nose touch. Following achieving regular nose touches you want an open mouth towards the object or even tooth touches.

During a session, AS SOON AS your dog reaches the level of interaction that you are working on, make sure to MARK that behaviour – use a marker word or even a clicker.  It can be tricky to use a clicker due to having to hold it and the object. Do what works best for you. Make sure that you are marking the exact moment when the dog interacts with the object and not after the fact, such as taking his mouth away from the dumbbell.

Keep progressing towards more and more interaction with the object. You will want your dog to start holding the object between his teeth for at least 3 seconds (without your hands on it) before moving to placing it on the floor or in another position such as to the side or lower down in your hands.

Carefully consider for each session what is the next level of difficulty that your dog can go to. Do quite a few reps at each level and then “test” your dog by making it a bit harder (such as taking your hands off the object). You will then be able to tell what you should work on next, if you can progress or if you need to keep working on something easier.


You are doing all of this WITHOUT giving your dog any verbal cues. Hold the object our and WAIT for your dog to come to you. Never push an item towards your dog’s nose. It has to be his idea and effort. You are creating interest and drive to pick up the object. If your dog is not doing this on his own, you may need to go back to work at an easier level, or stop all together, taking a break from training. As long as you and your dog are enjoying the work, it is likely OK to continue.

When training your dog to do any behaviour, just remember not to pre-determine your dog’s ability to learn by believing he can’t do something. With a little work and consistency, you can learn to teach him and your dog really can learn the behaviour.

Happy Training!

5 thoughts on “Training A Great Retrieve (From A “Non-Retriever” Standpoint)

  1. A good informative Post! I think that in so many dog-related interactions, we (the higher intellect) are usually the weak link in the chain! So many people cannot/will not try and see things from their dog’s perspective. So many want instant results (there is no logic that I know of that will support that thinking as remotely practical). So many want the rewards without putting in any effort. Keep up these educational Posts as they are badly needed. 🙂

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  2. Seeing the changes in Ray, over the 3 years (almost) that he has lived with us, only a fool would conclude that it was done without effort on our part… and without willing cooperation on his part! Comes down to your basic “Team work” 🙂

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    1. My guess was that because retrieving involves humans, that it would be something that dogs would excel at and that wolves who are inherently non-human oriented would not be natural at it. I found some info in the following link that suggests that this is true. Wolves would tend to try to figure out how to get food without using humans to help them but dogs would. Because human contact is involved in retrieving, I would think that wolves and dogs are different in this behaviour. The article isn’t specifically on retrieving but I think it makes a good point on the difference between the two.

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