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Teaching the Retrieve - Addressing the Controversy - Part 1
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Teaching the Retrieve - Addressing the Controversy
Part I

I don’t remember life before dogs and dog training. My mother trained dogs before me. In fact, she told stories of living in New York and training Lucky, her mix-breed spaniel, with Blanche Saunders, the author of some of the first books about dog obedience.

My mom, disappointed that she could not compete with Lucky, determined that her next dog would be a pure-bred. Ch. “Ace” CD, a Puli, was the first competition dog our family owned. However, his obedience career was short as he would not pick up the dumbbell. Her next dog, a pure-bred who would retrieve, was a golden retriever. She trained and competed with Golden Retrievers for the rest of her life.

Fortunately, we have gotten a lot smarter about training dogs in the 70 years since my mother began. However, teaching the retrieve still remains the single most controversial topic among obedience enthusiasts. More bad dog training has been done in the name of teaching dogs to retrieve than any other subject. Methods used run the gamut from begging dogs to retrieve to punitive approaches that leave dogs and owners confused. Sadly, people with non-retrieving breeds still fail to pursue advanced obedience degrees because of the trouble they encounter trying to teach the retrieve.

I have been training obedience dogs since the 1970’s. I started training service dogs in 1986. Having a dog that will pick-up items and carry them for you completely changes the relationship that you have with your dog. He is no longer a well-behaved member of your family, he is of service to you. Growing up in a two story house, my mom taught her Goldens to take objects from one person in the family and deliver them to another, most often on another floor. She had dogs that carried items to and from the car and certainly picked up their bowls when finished eating. Dogs retrieving for fun and for function became part of my life. Several years ago, I hobbled into my own home on crutches, fresh from knee surgery, and dropped a crutch. My Labrador met me at the door. When I pointed to my dropped crutch, he looked skeptical, but obediently picked it up. My recovery was underway.

There is not one way, but several ways to approach this topic. Most importantly, it can make sense to you and the dog. Using reinforcement, both positive and negative, you can have an extremely reliable retriever. It does not matter whether your dog naturally retrieves or not, you can teach any dog to retrieve and carry objects for you.

Step I: Shaping the Behavior
I begin by doing everything I can to encourage a dog to retrieve in play.

(Video #4: Encouraging the Retrieve)

With a puppy, I introduce the dumbbell, or in this instance, a metal article, using a reward marker and a manner’s minder. The food dispensed from the manner’s minder allows me to get the food out of my hand and begins to teach the pup to move away from the treat to earn the treat.

(Video: Nathan's Introduction to Manners Minder)

Finally, whether or not I have gotten my dog to play with the dumbbell, I add some formality as shown.

(Video #17: Introducing the Dumbbell)

At this point, most dogs fall into one of three categories:

  1. Great - my dog loves to retrieve.
  2. My dog understands that he can make reward happen by picking up the dumbbell.
  3. My dog wants nothing to do with this dumbbell, but I have taught him to allow me to put it in his mouth.

In order to compete in obedience, teaching a dog that he must retrieve on command is equal in importance to teaching him a that he must pay attention. No matter how much shaping you do, you may still run into difficulties. I will address those difficulties in Part II.