Training a Dog to Retrieve

Training a dog to retrieve is important even for natural retrievers. Hunting dogs and other dog types are born with the instinct to retrieve. However even these dogs need to go through the process of learning to retrieve.

Remember, dogs will only do what makes them happy. Just because a dog will retrieve a ball when you throw it doesn’t mean he is retriever trained. He will retrieve the ball as long as it’s fun, but when he gets bored he may refuse. A trained retriever will retrieve whatever and whenever you ask him to. If the dog gets bored or distracted or won’t bring the retrieved object to you, he isn’t retriever trained.

When I first started training my Labrador to retrieve, she did so enthusiastically. She would joyfully run after the ball or stick, and bring it back dropping it at my feet ready for another throw. However, when I threw something other than a tennis ball or stick, she would go to retrieve it, sniff it, then come back without the object. Obviously she wasn’t retriever trained.

Training a natural retriever such as a Labrador or a golden retriever is definitely easier than a Chihuahua, but the same process should be followed. It may become frustrating training a dog to retrieve that isn’t bred for it, but it’s important to follow the training to the end. Giving up will only frustrate you and the dog, and can make future training tougher. Remember you want your dog to respect your authority. You don’t gain that respect by quitting.

Training a Dog to Retrieve

The Process

There are basically 4 distinct skills your dog will need to learn in order to master retrieving:

    • Going to the object
    • Picking the object up
    • Bringing the object to you
    • Giving the object to you

The first skill you’ll need to teach your dog is to hold an object in his mouth. For retriever type dogs this is a cinch, but for others it may take some time.

Find a good-sized stick that fits comfortably in your dog’s mouth. Make sure it’s long enough for you to grab an end while it’s in his mouth.

Have your dog sit facing you. Hold the stick in front of his nose. If he tries to take it give the command “Take It” and let him do so. Give him lots of love.

If he doesn’t take it kneel beside him and open his mouth by putting a finger behind his canine teeth. When he opens up gently put the stick in his mouth saying, “take it” at the same time.

Keep the stick in his mouth by gently holding his mouth shut. Only do so for a few seconds, then release his mouth and take the stick out saying the command, “give.” Give him lots of praise.

Practice this 5 or 6 times for one or two sessions a day. As he gets better at it add time to how long he holds the stick. If he tries to spit it out say ”hold” and re-shut his mouth over the object with your hand.

After the first couple of sessions you won’t have to help him open his mouth or hold it shut. This is progress!

The Next Step

The next step in training a dog to retrieve is teaching him to move to and pick up the object. Using the same stick, hold it away from his nose a couple of inches. Give the “take it” command. If he takes it give him lots of praise. If he doesn’t, help him by pulling him toward the stick by his collar. If he still won’t do it, you need to go back to the previous lesson. Don’t progress until you’re sure he’s got it.

As he gets better at reaching for the stick, make it harder for him to grab. Increase the distance. Make him sit and stay while you walk away. Then release him and let him come to the stick and take it. He’ll love the game and won’t realize he’s learning. Always let him have the stick, and always make sure you get it back by giving the “give” command.

Once he’s gotten this far you’re almost through training your dog to retrieve. There’s just one final lesson.

The Final Step – Lets Retrieve

Hold the stick near the ground in front of your dog. Make sure the dog sees it, and say, “take it.” When he does, give him praise and have him give it back with the “give” command. Now place half the stick on the ground and half in your hand and do the same thing.

Next put the stick completely on the ground and repeat. When he picks up the stick, have him hold it for a couple of seconds, with the “hold” command.

Now place the stick further away. Make it so he has to walk over to the stick, pick it up and bring it back to you. Give him tons of praise when he does this successfully.

Now you can start throwing the stick further away from him, he’ll love this game. Be careful though, dogs that aren’t bred to retrieve may not love this game, so keep the repetition light. It’s more likely though that you won’t be able to stop your dog from playing the game.

Retrieving may not be your dog’s

If your dog goes to the stick after you throw it but then doesn’t know what to do with it tell him to “take it”. If he doesn’t pick it up, go help him. The jump from him picking the stick up in front of him to running over to where you threw it and picking it up can be a stumbling block for some dogs. Natural retrievers usually won’t have a problem with this part. Remember for dogs that aren’t bred for retrieving, this may be a difficult learning process. Take it slow and don’t get frustrated. Keep the sessions short and try to stay cued in on when your dog is losing interest in the lesson. Don’t force something that isn’t happening, simply save it for a later time.