Retrieving doesn’t always come naturally.
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. 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 has been the subject of several of my blog posts for different things. He came to live with us without any drive to retrieve or even any interest in toys at all.
Recently, Tommy and I have started up again with retrieving training. Our last session was months ago and the session then went well. 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.
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.
THREE: Don’t train every day.
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, 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, then competition level stays will seem so much easier to accomplish.
if your dog cannot retrieve yet, there is hope. Tommy is now bringing me metal objects – from a short distance away, but is still retrieving them nonetheless.
With your own dog, just remember not to predetermine your dog’s ability to learn by believing he can’t do something. With a little work, you can learn to teach him and your dog really can learn.