How to Best Work Alongside Your Dog, Part 6: The Retrieve

Brought you to by Charley Perkins and Romi  

If you make the game fun, many dogs’ natural retrieving instincts will kick in easily.

For the next post in our series, we will discuss one of my favorite ways to give Romi some mental and physical exercise. I find that working your dog’s mind and body every day (preferably in the morning) will help your dog burn up any extra energy, which will make them a much better co-worker.  A great way to accomplish this is to work on the retrieve, which is a logical next step after your dog has mastered the recall. Retrieving is fun and pretty easy to train because most dogs have some level of natural desire to retrieve, and your job is just to encourage that tendency.

Romi and I spend a bunch of time each year hunting birds, so retrieving for us is both a game and a job. You may have a dog with a natural, genetic drive to retrieve–such as Labs, Golden Retrievers, and many other breeds–and even if you never hunt, it is nice to give these dogs an opportunity to do the work they were bred for. There are a lot of different strategies for teaching the retrieve, with some specific and complex variations tailored for hunting dogs. In this post, we will take a more casual approach.

The nice thing about the retrieve is that it can be taught from an early age, and it is best taught indoors, at first. Start your training in a confined, narrow space, such as a dead-end hallway. I like introducing the retrieve in this setting because your dog doesn’t have a choice but to bring the object directly back to you. 

Before you begin teaching, you need to think carefully about the object you want your dog to retrieve. It should be an object that is dedicated for retrieving time: a tennis ball, a soft bumper, or something similar. I know some people start their puppies retrieving a ball of socks, but they usually end up with a dog that steals their socks. Pick an object that is large enough to avoid becoming a choking hazard, and if you have any interest in hunting, you may consider using an object that has some bird feathers or a wing fastened to it. 

Romi retrieves a bumper on the pond at Orvis headquarters in Vermont.

To start, take your dog to a spot a few feet from the end of the hallway, and start building their interest in the object they will retrieve. Wave the object in front of your dog’s face and make enthusiastic, encouraging noises.  Once your dog is fixated on the object, toss it into the corner of the hallway. Let your dog go and chase the object; they will mirror your  enthusiasm, so be excited. When your dog picks the object up, they will typically want to run with it, but because you are in a hallway they will run directly back to you. Even if they try to sneak past you, take the object away from your dog, praise and treat with a ton of energy, and repeat.

If your dog doesn’t want to give the object to you, try offering a treat. Not only will your dog open its mouth for the treat, but the treat also acts as an immediate reward for giving you the object.

Once your dog is bringing the object back a short distance with some regularity, it’s time to label the behavior. You’ll need to teach your dog not only a retrieve command but also a drop command. The next time you toss the object to be retrieved, hold your dog back and do not release them until you give a retrieve command. You will feel your dog get keyed up to go, and you can say your retrieve command (I like “fetch it up,” “back,” or “get it”) as you release their collar. When your dog is bringing the object back, give the “drop” or “give” command right before they drop the object, or as you take it away. Again, be super enthusiastic, keeping your dog as excited as possible. Move slowly backward, maybe a couple feet at a time, down the hallway, making the retrieves a little bit longer as you go.

Here’s a quick bit of training from when Romi was a puppy.

As you move along through this process, there are a few tips to remember:

  • First, as the retrieve gets longer, don’t do too much praising until your dog is a bout ⅔ of the way back to you. By that time, you will know they are coming, and they are less likely to drop the object before the retrieve is complete.
  • You can use treats to reward your dog, but only show the treat when your dog has brought the object all the way back to you. If your dog sees that you have a treat while they are still a distance away, they might just focus on getting the treat, and drop the object they are supposed to be retrieving.
  • If your dog tends not to like to give you the object, you have a few options:
    • You can “bait and switch” by giving a treat and taking the retrieved object when your dog goes for the treat. 
    • You can try pushing the object back deeper into your dog’s mouth, which will often make them let go.
    • If your dog is really stubborn, you can push their lip against their teeth with just enough pressure to get their attention. They will often loosen their grip on the object quickly, so you can take it.
    • REMEMBER – once your dog understands the desired behavior, label it. Say “give” when they finally give up the object, and be sure to reinforce with treats and/or lots of praise.
  • If your dog doesn’t want to bring the object back at longer distances, you will be tempted to chase after them to get it. Do not do this! It will confuse the retrieve with a game of chase, which isn’t what you want. Instead, turn around and move away from your dog in the opposite direction. When your dog sees that you are going away, they will likely come in really quickly.
  •  Move slowly through longer and more complicated retrieves. If anything breaks down, you might be moving too fast for your dog, and you should consider going back into a hallway where the retrieve is more controlled.
  • Finally, if your dog gets growly or possessive of the object they are retrieving, that is not okay. This means it is time to assert your dominance. The best way to do so is to put your dog on a leash on heel immediately, and do some heeling practice. This should re-balance your relationship, reminding your dog that you are the boss.

As you and your dog get better and better at retrieving, the fun really starts.  You can now start to have your dog retrieve by smell, or retrieve hidden items. When I was a kid, this was my favorite game: we would hide a bumper with a bird wing or feathers tied to it somewhere in the house, and then tell our dog to fetch. It’s incredibly fun and rewarding to see your dog get excited when it starts to scent the object. Romi loves this game, and it is a great indoor “hide-and-seek” that will engage your dog and give them some good, safe exercise. 

This can also be a great way to enlist the family in some training. While you hold your dog, have a spouse or a child go hide the object. When they come back, release your dog with a “fetch” command, and let them sort out the smells. (Incidentally, if you like to use tennis balls, they also have a strong smell that your dog will recognize over time.) If you have a safe place to practice, and a dog that has a good recall, take this game outside. It is amazing what sort of crazy creative retrieves a dog can do. Check out this crazy long retrieve by my second cousin and co-worker Leigh Oliva and his dog, Walker.

Tip: Try rubbing the bumper on the ground around where you hid it, or leave a scent trail.  

That is retrieve. It is a great game that engages the body and the mind, and sets the scene for the future skill of “sit and stay.” Feel free to start this process indoors with a puppy, just as a fun game. You and your dog will get to love retrieving time, and it should gain you some necessary exercise that will keep your dog really happy.

Charley Perkins is Orvis Brand Marketing Manger, and a member of the third generation of family ownership.

Click here for previous posts in this series:

1. New Series: How to Best Work Alongside Your Dog
2. How to Create Productive Spaces for You and Your Dog, Part 1: Crate Training
3. How to Create Productive Spaces for You and Your Dog, Part 2: Place Training
4. How to Best Work Alongside Your Dog, Part 3: Behavior and Psychology
5. How to Best Work Alongside Your Dog, Part 4: Establishing Leadership with “Heel”
6. How to Best Work Alongside Your Dog, Part 5: The Reliable Recall

Products to Help Train at Home

Duck Training Dummy and Hexabumpers

Dog Beds

Dog Treats

(Romi and I like smaller sized training treats so you can train with more reps without over feeding.

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