In This Chapter

  • Discovering retrieving basics
  • Retrieving with your help
  • Retrieving on his own
  • Retrieving with distractions

Most of you aren’t too thrilled about having Buddy lug your possessions about. You’d prefer he limited his retrieving instincts to his own things.

Many dogs like to retrieve, or at least chase, a variety of objects. For them, it’s a self-rewarding activity. They do it because they enjoy it. Some of them actually bring back the ball, Frisbee, or stick just so you can throw it again. They continue so long as it’s fun. When it’s no longer fun, they stop. They also retrieve only articles they like. For example, your dog may happily retrieve a ball, but turn up his nose when you want him to pick up a glove.
The well-trained dog has been taught to retrieve and has learned to do it for you and not just himself. Of course, he can have fun in the process, so long as he understands that it’s not a matter of choice.
In this chapter we take you through the necessary steps to make a reliable retriever out of Buddy. Most dogs, of course, already know many of the different component behaviors of retrieving, but few know them all. Even though Buddy may know how to retrieve, you still need to go through the progressions of teaching him this exercise, just to make sure he knows all of its parts.

Taking the Steps to Successful Retrieving

As a part of mastering how to retrieve on command, your dog learns to take, as well as to give, an equally important lesson. If it hasn’t happened to you already, it will. Buddy has picked up something he thinks is edible, but which you don’t think is a suitable dietary supplement. Having taught him to retrieve, you’ll be able to convince him to give it up.
There is another practical side to teaching your dog to retrieve. One of our students wanted her Golden Retriever, Sunny, to bring in the morning paper, preferably in readable condition. So we first had her teach Sunny the formal retrieve. We then told her go out with Sunny, have him pick up the paper, bring it in the house, and reward him with a dog biscuit.
It only took Sunny two repetitions until he figured it out and from then on, every morning he dutifully brought in the paper. After several days we got a frantic phone call. It seems that Sunny was somewhat of an entrepreneur. In an effort to garner more biscuits he started retrieving the neighbors’ papers as well. Fortunately, that problem was easily fixed — a biscuit only for the first paper. When he realized that, he stopped bringing home other papers.
The Retrieve sounds simple, but it consists of many separate behaviors, some or all of which the dog has to learn:
  • Going to the object
  • Picking it up
  • Holding it
  • Walking with and carrying the object
  • Bringing it back
  • Giving it up


For the dog that already retrieves on his own, teaching him to do it on command is a cinch. For those dogs who don’t, you need to have a little more patience. Your dog’s ability to learn to retrieve depends on what your dog was bred to do and how many prey drive behaviors he has (see Chapter Understanding Your Dog’s Mind).

The object we use for the Formal Retrieve is a wooden dumbbell. You can buy one at your local pet store or through catalogs. You need to get one that is commensurate to the size of your dog and the shape of his mouth. You want the bells to be big enough so your dog can pick it up off the ground without scraping his chin, and the diameter of the bar thick enough so he can comfortably carry it. The bar’s length should be such that the bells just touch the sides of his face.
You can also purchase plastic dumbbells; they last a lot longer than wooden ones. In the teaching process, however, we have found that dogs take more readily to wooden dumbbells than to plastic ones.
To get started, you need the following equipment:
  • Enthusiastic handler
  • Hungry dog
  • Small can of cat food
  • Metal spoon
  • Wooden dumbbell
  • Chair


For some reason dogs can’t resist cat food; it works well as a reward. Because many dogs aren’t fond of retrieving metal objects, use a metal spoon to get them used to the feel of metal. We also let Buddy lick out and play with the empty can.

Retrieving on command

Although many dogs retrieve a variety of objects on their own, they don’t necessarily do so on command. To teach them to retrieve on command we begin by creating an association with the command and what we want the dog to do — take an object in his mouth. The one object few dogs can resist is food, so that is how we start.


The ideal time to start teaching Buddy to retrieve is when he is hungry, before you feed him.

1. Place the food, spoon, and dumbbell on a chair.
2. With Buddy sitting at your left side, face the chair.
3. Put a small portion of food on the spoon and offer it to him with the command “Take it!”
4. Give the command in an excited and enthusiastic tone of voice to elicit prey drive behavior.

(Check out Chapter Understanding Your Dog’s Mind for information on the basic drive behaviors.)

5. Repeat this exercise ten times or until Buddy readily opens his mouth to get the food.

Few dogs can resist this treat.

Introducing the object of retrieve

As soon as Buddy has an inkling of what the command “Take it” means, you’re ready to introduce him to his dumbbell. But going from food to a dumbbell is quite a transition, so you need to be patient with him.


When you’re teaching Buddy any of the behaviors associated with retrieving, your body posture is important. You want to be at his right side without hovering or leaning over him because that posture would put him into defense drive when you want him in prey drive.

You now also need bite-sized treats, such as TOTs (Training Opportunity Treats made by Kong []), Bribery Bits (, or liver treats. You may have to experiment with different treats until you find one Buddy really likes. Put a dozen treats on the chair, and you’re ready to start.
1. With Buddy sitting at your left side, again facing the chair, put your left palm lightly on top of his muzzle and place your left index finger behind his left canine tooth. (See Figure 15-1.)
Figure 15-1: Gently opening your dog’s mouth.
2. Gently open his mouth and with your right hand place the dumbbell in his mouth with the command “Take it.”
3. Rest the thumb of your right hand on top of his muzzle, fingers under his chin, and cup his mouth shut. (See Figure 15-2).
4. Praise enthusiastically, immediately say, “Give,” and take the dumbbell out of his mouth.


Hold the dumbbell by the bell so you can easily put the bar in his mouth. After one second, take it out with “Give.”

Figure 15-2: Putting the dumbbell in your dog’s mouth.
The goal of this progression is for your dog to accept the dumbbell in his mouth voluntarily. It’s only an introduction and you don’t want to close his mouth over the dumbbell for longer than one second. When Buddy readily accepts the dumbbell consistently, you can go on to the next sequence.
5. Reward with food.
6. Repeat this process ten times each for five sessions.
When we teach one of our dogs to retrieve, we practice this exercise once a day on consecutive days. If you’re the ambitious type, you can practice more frequently, as long as your dog remains interested and will actively work for the treat. What’s not a good idea is to practice sporadically because your dog will forget what he has learned during the last session and you basically have to start all over.

Helping your dog retrieve

After Buddy has become accustomed to having the dumbbell in his mouth, you’re ready to tackle the next step. The goal is for Buddy to take the dumbbell voluntarily in his mouth when you give the command.
1. Have Buddy sit at your left side, have the chair with treats in place, and put two fingers of your left hand through his collar, back to front, palm facing you, at the side of his neck.
2. With your right hand, place the bar of the dumbbell directly in front of his mouth, touching the small whiskers.
3. Say, “Take it,” and when he takes it, briefly cup his mouth shut and tell him how clever he is.
4. Say, “Give,” take out the dumbbell, and reward with food.

At this point in the training, your dog may not yet take the dumbbell but will open his mouth. In that case, just put the dumbbell in, cup his mouth shut, and so on.

If he sits there like a bump on a log, watch for signs of intention behavior. Intention behaviors are those actions that tell you what the dog is thinking (see Chapter Recognizing Why Dog Training Is Important). They range from the subtle, such as bringing the whiskers forward, to the overt, such as sniffing the dowel, licking his lips, or intently staring at the dumbbell. Buddy is thinking about taking the dumbbell but isn’t quite sure he can.
When you see intention behavior, take your hand out of the collar, open his mouth, put the dumbbell in, and briefly cup his mouth shut. Praise, remove the dumbbell from his mouth, and reward with food. Repeat until Buddy readily opens his mouth and accepts the dumbbell. Praising him while he has the dumbbell in his mouth is important.


Be patient. Sometimes it can take several minutes before the dog makes a move. If absolutely nothing happens and the little wheels have come to a grinding halt, review the preceding step five times and then try again. Some dogs appear to be particularly dense about taking the dumbbell voluntarily on command, but with enough repetitions, they’ll get it.

Learning to hold on

Before you proceed with the retrieve part of this exercise, you need to teach Buddy what you want him to do with the dumbbell after he has it in his mouth. You want him to hold the dumbbell in his mouth and not spit it out before you give the “Give” command. You may think this concept is obvious, but it’s not to Buddy until you teach it to him.
Your goal is to have Buddy firmly hold the dumbbell until you say “Give.”
1. Start in the usual position, with Buddy at your left side and the treats on the chair.

2. Put the dumbbell into his mouth and say, “Hold it.”

Keep the upper part of your body straight so you don’t hover or lean over him.

3. Make a fist with your right hand and hold it under his chin. (See Figure 15-3.)
If you hold the palm of your hand under his chin, Buddy may construe it as an invitation to spit out the dumbbell.
Figure 15-3: Holding your hand under the dog’s chin.
4. Smile and count to five.
5. Praise, remove the dumbbell, and reward him with food.
6. Repeat 20 times, increasing gradually the time you have him hold the dumbbell in 5-second increments up to 30 seconds.
If Buddy starts rolling the dumbbell around in his mouth or looks as though he will open his mouth to spit out the dumbbell, give him a gentle tap under the chin with “Hold it.” Then remove the dumbbell with “Give,” praise, and reward.

Learning to reach for the retrieve

As soon as Buddy understands that he has to hold the dumbbell, the next sequence is to teach him to reach for it.
1. With two fingers of your left hand through his collar at the side of his neck, back to front, palm facing you, hold his dumbbell two inches in front of his mouth.
2. Say, “Take it.”
3. If he does, cup his mouth shut with “Hold it,” count to five, praise, remove dumbbell with “Give,” and reward with food.
4. If he doesn’t take the dumbbell, lightly twist his collar by rotating your left hand a quarter of a turn toward you, which will bring his head forward and toward the dumbbell, until he reaches for and takes it.
5. Cup his mouth shut with “Hold it,” count to five, praise, remove the dumbbell with “Give,” and reward with food.

Don’t twist his collar for more than 30 seconds or try to increase pressure more than a quarter of a turn.

6. Put the dumbbell in his mouth, cup shut with “Hold it,” praise, remove, and reward.
7. Repeat until your dog voluntarily reaches for and takes the dumbbell.

Increase the distance Buddy has to reach for the dumbbell in two-inch increments to arm’s length.

If your dog shows signs of noticeable stress during this sequence, the following will happen:

– If he is a negative stresser, he’ll clamp his mouth shut and turn inward when you apply pressure on the collar. Pressure on the collar won’t make him open his mouth. Stop, put the dumbbell in his mouth, praise, reward, and try again.

– If he stresses positively, he’ll try different behaviors, one of which will be to grab the dumbbell, at which point you praise and reward.

Walking after retrieving

The next step in the retrieve progressions is teaching Buddy to hold onto the dumbbell while walking with it in his mouth. Okay, you’re probably saying to yourself, “For Pete’s sake, is all this really necessary?” The answer? It depends on the dog. At this point in the training, the majority of dogs understand the concept and are perfectly able to hold the dumbbell in their mouths and walk at the same time. (Hey, even some people have difficulty walking and chewing gum at the same time, so give your dog a break.) If your dog does it, you can skip this step. Still, we’ve seen dogs, including some of our own, that couldn’t make this transition and had to be taught. So when we devised this approach to teaching retrieving, we included the walking-while-holding sequence just to make sure that all eventualities are covered.
1. With Buddy sitting at your left side, facing the chair with the treats on it from about six feet away, put the dumbbell in his mouth with “Take it,” followed by “Hold it.”

Encourage him to walk toward the chair.

2. To give Buddy confidence, put your right hand under his chin when he starts to move.
3. When he gets to the chair, praise, remove the dumbbell, and reward him.
4. Repeat until Buddy walks with the dumbbell without you holding your hand under his chin.

Then gradually increase the distance to 20 steps in 5-step increments.

Teaching the pick-up

You and Buddy have arrived at the final progression of teaching him to retrieve — the pick-up. Resist the temptation to just throw the dumbbell and expect Buddy to pick it up and bring it back. He may actually do it, but he also may not. He may just chase it and then stand over it, not knowing what to do next. In the long run, make sure that he knows what you expect by teaching him.
1. Have Buddy sit at your left side and place the chair with the treats on it behind you.
2. With your fingers in his collar, hold the dumbbell about two inches from Buddy’s mouth and say “Take it.”
3. When he does, praise enthusiastically, say “Give,” remove the dumbbell from his mouth, and reward him with a treat.

Your goal is to lower the dumbbell in two-inch increments toward the ground and have Buddy retrieve it from your hand.

4. When you get to the ground, place the bell of the dumbbell on the ground and hold it at a 45-degree angle.
5. Say, “Take it,” and when Buddy takes the dumbbell, take your hand out of the collar, say, “Hold it,” and back up two steps.

He’ll quickly come to you to get his reward.

6. Praise, remove, and reward.
7. Repeat until he is comfortable picking up the dumbbell with you holding it at that angle.
8. Place the dumbbell on the ground but keep your hand on it.
9. Have Buddy retrieve the dumbbell several times while you have your hand on it.
10. Hold your hand first 2 inches, and then 6 inches, and then 12 inches away from the dumbbell until you can place it on the ground and stand up straight.
11. Each time he retrieves the dumbbell, back up several steps, praise, remove, and reward.
12. If your dog doesn’t pick up the dumbbell from the ground, lightly twist the collar until he picks it up.

If this sequence becomes an issue and your dog continues to refuse to take the dumbbell, review the prior progressions. Make sure that you followed them religiously and that your dog has mastered each progression before you went on to the next.

13. Say, “Stay,” and place the dumbbell one foot in front of your dog.
14. Say, “Take it,” and when he brings it back, praise, remove, and reward.
15. Repeat by first placing it three feet and then six feet in front of your dog.
Your dog will tell you how many times in a row you can ask him to retrieve. If he has many prey drive behaviors, you can get in quite a few repetitions. If not, he’ll quickly lose enthusiasm. You’re better off stopping after five repetitions and picking the game up again at the next session.


For the dog, picking up a dumbbell that you placed on the ground isn’t terribly exciting, and if it weren’t for the reward, it would be an absolute bore. Still, this sequence is necessary because you want your dog to learn he has to do it for you and not for himself.

Chasing to retrieve

Now comes the fun part, where you get to throw the dumbbell and Buddy gets to chase it. Throw the dumbbell a few feet and at the same time send your dog with “Take it.” As soon as he picks up, tell him how terrific he is. When he gets back to you, take the dumbbell with “Give” and reward him with a treat.

Sometimes dogs get carried away by the fun of it all and don’t come right back with the dumbbell. They might make a detour, or just run around for the joy of it. If that happens, say, “Come,” as soon as he picks up the dumbbell, and praise and reward him when he gets back to you.
Gradually increase the distance the dumbbell is thrown. As he gains confidence, introduce the Sit in front with “Hold it.” When he gets back to you say, “Sit” and “Hold it.” Because he hasn’t done this task before, you may have to hold your hand under his chin to prevent him from dropping the dumbbell. Praise, remove, and reward. From now on make him sit and hold the dumbbell every time he gets back to you.

Testing your dog’s patience

Buddy also has to learn to stay while you throw the dumbbell and until he is permitted to get it. Making him wait gets him all the more excited about getting to his dumbbell. Trying to teach your dog patience is almost like teaching your two-year-old child patience, but you can do it. Just follow these steps:

1. Start with Buddy at your left side.
2. Put two fingers of your left hand through his collar, say, “Stay,” and throw the dumbbell about 15 feet.
3. Very, very gingerly let go of his collar, count to five and say, “Take it.”
4. When he returns, praise, remove, and reward.
5. Repeat until your dog holds the Stay without having to hold him by the collar.


Remember to give the command in an excited and enthusiastic tone of voice to put the dog into prey drive. Never use a harsh or threatening tone of voice because your tone of voice may put the dog in the wrong drive and make it more difficult for him to learn. If at anytime your dog needs motivation, throw the dumbbell at the same time as you say, “Take it,” letting him chase after it.

Congratulations. You now have a dog that retrieves on command — at least a dumbbell. To play the game of fetch, however, most people probably use a Frisbee, a ball, or a stick. Few dogs have any difficulty making the transition from the dumbbell to one of these objects. Usually, it’s the other way around. The dog will happily retrieve a ball but will turn his nose up at the dumbbell.

You can also use the “Retrieve” command to have Buddy bring in the newspaper, carry his leash, and — size permitting — carry your handbag. We taught one of our dogs to open the refrigerator door and retrieve a can of pop. Unfortunately, we were unable to teach the dog to close the fridge door and had to abandon that trick.

Retrieving with Distractions

After Buddy knows how to retrieve, he’s ready for distraction training.
Introduce your dog to distractions as follows:
1. The distracter stands about two feet from the dumbbell.

He assumes a friendly posture, not threatening to the dog.

2. Send Buddy and as soon as he picks up the dumbbell, enthusiastically praise.

Look at the exercise as having been completed as soon as your dog picks up his dumbbell.

3. As the dog gains confidence, have the distracter stand a little closer, and then over the dumbbell.

The distracter also hides the dumbbell by standing directly in front of it with his back to the dog, and then lightly puts his foot on it. You can use a chair as a distraction by putting the dumbbell under the chair and then on the chair.

During distraction training, you see the following responses, or variations thereof:

– He starts going toward the dumbbell but then backs off and fails to retrieve, meaning, “I don’t have the confidence to get close enough to the distracter to retrieve my dumbbell.”

Remedy: Without saying anything, slowly approach him, put two fingers of your left hand through the collar, back to front, palm facing you, at the side of his neck and take him to the dumbbell. If he picks up the dumbbell, praise, remove the dumbbell and reward; if he doesn’t, put the dumbbell in his mouth, and then praise, remove, and reward. Don’t repeat the command.

Try again. Remember your dog’s learning style and how many repetitions it takes before he understands. You may find that you have to help him several times before he has the confidence that he can do it by himself. As soon as he has done it on his own, stop for that session.

– He leaves altogether and doesn’t retrieve, saying, in effect, “I can’t cope with this.”

Remedy: Same.

– He does nothing, meaning, “If I don’t do anything, maybe all of this will go away.”

Remedy: Same.

– He permits himself to be distracted, meaning, “I would rather visit than retrieve my dumbbell.”

Remedy: Same.

– He takes the dumbbell to the distracter.

Remedy: Slowly approach your dog without saying anything, put the leash on the dead ring of the training collar and, with a little tension on the collar, show him exactly what he was supposed to do by guiding him to you. No extra command is given.

– He anticipates the Retrieve, meaning he is catching on and wants to show you how clever he is.

Remedy: Without saying anything, slowly approach him, take the dumbbell out of his mouth, put it down where he picked it up, go back to the starting point and then send him. Whatever you do, don’t shout “no,” or do anything else that would discourage him from retrieving after you have just worked so hard to get him to pick up the dumbbell.

– He does it correctly and that is when you stop for that session.

Continue to use food rewards for Buddy on a random basis, that is, not every time, and not in a predictable pattern but often enough to maintain his motivation.
When your dog confidently retrieves under these circumstances, introduce the next level of distractions. The distracter crouches close to the dumbbell and tries to distract him by saying “here puppy, come visit for some petting.” The distracter doesn’t use your dog’s name.
After Buddy has successfully worked his way through that level, favorite object distractions are added, such as offering the dog food or a ball or toy. Of course, the distracter never lets the dog have the food.

Technical Stuff

Distractions add an extra dimension and take training to a higher level. Distraction training builds your dog’s confidence and teaches him to concentrate on what he is doing. This type of training is especially important for the shy dog, providing the confidence he needs to respond correctly under different conditions.

During distraction training, keep in mind that anytime you change the complexity of the exercise, it becomes a new exercise for the dog. If Buddy goes for the food, you would treat his response the same way you did when you first introduced him to distraction training. No, your dog isn’t defiant, stubborn, or stupid, just confused as to what he should do and has to be helped again.
You’re now ready to work with different objects. When you do, you may have to review the first few sequences. Just because Buddy retrieves one object doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll retrieve others. He may need to get used to them first.
By challenging Buddy to use his head, you can increase the strength of his responses and increase his confidence in his ability to perform under almost all conditions.


When using distraction training, giving Buddy a chance to work it out for himself is important. Don’t be too quick to try and help him. Be patient, and let him try to figure out on his own how to do it correctly. After he does, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the intensity and reliability with which he responds.

by Jack and Wendy Volhard