The retrieve is my favorite behavior to train. When I used to take dogs into my
house to train them, I almost always instilled a retrieve as an extra. It polished
up my skills on a huge variety of dogs, and gave the owner an exercise and
enrichment option. Once a retrieve is built, it can be applied to any item the
dog can carry, and it can be used as a foundation for other games, such as toy
hide-and-seek. I also think it adds value to the dog’s toys, as now they are
associated with her enjoyable time with you learning to retrieve them.
SHAPING THE DEAD RETRIEVE
We’re going to shape (train by small steps) a dead retrieve, which means the
object lies still on the floor or in your hand. This is different from a live retrieve,
where the trainer prompts the dog by throwing or wiggling the object. Because
dogs are predators, they have a natural tendency, as do cats, to chase and bite
moving objects. Not every dog has this drive in a strong way, but almost all
dogs have at least a little. If your dog has a strong natural retrieve—without
any training she chases an object you throw, picks it up, and brings it back to
you—I still urge you to train a dead retrieve.
Although I’m also a fan of training live retrieves, I’m choosing a dead
retrieve here for a couple of reasons. One is that a dead retrieve is unparalleled
for building certain training skills: timing, criteria setting with superfine splits,
disciplined adherence to Push-Drop-Stick rules, and strategic position feeds.
By training without prompts (notably the prompt of a moving object), you will
be able to focus solely on the above training skills. My goal is for you to focus
on razor-sharp timing, sophisticated criteria setting, and feeding for position!
● A clicker, precharged
● A retrieve object that your dog won’t chew or shred
● An easy-to-use portable timer to count down one minute (beeps)
● A supply of small soft treats
1. If you have not already done so, charge your clicker
This is not a case where it’s smart to charge as you go, that is, the dog is
being taught a behavior while gradually learning the meaning of the
clicker. Get an easy-to-use timer, something that you can set to one
minute. We’re going to train in one-minute sets where you will keep
track of how many times your dog is rewarded. You’ll start the timer to
count down one minute and train until it beeps. The number of rewards
(number of clicks) in that minute will determine whether you Push,
Drop, or Stick.
2. Choose an object such as a durable dog toy. It can be anything your dog
won’t chew or shred and that won’t roll around, which would make it
harder for you to observe. Once the retrieve is instilled, you can transfer
it to things like the newspaper or your slippers, but these are not good
choices for initial instillation.
3. Get prepared: familiarize yourself with the milestones.
Now read through the first few steps, including the “Help! She Didn’t
Even Look at the Object” sidebar, load up with food, get your thumb on the
button of the clicker so you won’t be late on the first trial, and clear a spot in the house so you can get down on your hands and knees for an unobstructed
view of the action. Put the object down when it is very clear in your mind what
you are about to be clicking: your dog’s nose within an inch of the object.
Don’t forget to always pay after clicking.
Retrieve I: Nose Touch
1. Set your timer for one minute. With your thumb ready on the clicker,
start the timer and put the object down. Your dog will probably investigate it. Click when she puts her nose near it. Count: “One.” Feed on the
floor a couple of feet from the object. Then wait, keeping your eyes on
2. Click every time she puts her nose near the object, and feed a couple of
feet away on the floor after each click. Make sure you click first and feed
after. Your goal is to click at the instant her nose is closest to the object.
Keep count of your clicks out loud—it’s easier to remember this way.
3. When the timer goes off, pick up the object. How many clicks were
Help! She Didn’t Even Look at the Object
You are not alone. Plenty of dogs start out this way and end up with splendid retrieves. Try the following:
1. Put the object down and click any movement your dog makes—anything
at all (breathing will do).
2. Pay on the floor a couple of inches from the object.
3. When she trundles over and collects the piece of food, click—her nose is
within a few inches.
4. Pay on a new spot on the floor but still within a couple of inches of the
5. Click as she collects.
6. Do ten of these, then pick up your object.
7. Wait a minute or two and then do another set of ten.
8. Retire for the day, and then try Retrieve I tomorrow—click anytime her
nose is within a few inches, but now pay a couple of feet away.