There are three behaviors that are part of a dog’s retrieve
- Go out and get the object
- Pick up and hold the object, and
- Bring the object back to the person who sent you.
I ask my students to use a primary reinforcer as a marker. We use a clicker, which has already been preconditioned to tell the dog he is right and serve as a promise that food is coming. I also like to use a secondary reinforcer such as the word yes. The click means the dog will always get food. The “yes” means that I am really happy with him; he is to keep working; and food will be coming at some point soon.
First we condition a “come.” To do this I will have food in my hand near the dog’s muzzle. I will hold the clicker in the other hand. In a class situation, the dogs need to be on lead, so the hand that is holding the leash will also have the clicker. I hold the clicker between my thumb and forefinger, and my other fingers loosely hold the leash. I trot backwards as I say the dog’s name and “come.” As the dog comes along, I click and treat. Because this is the showing phase, I won’t use any pressure on the leash; I want the dog to offer the behavior (after all it will happen because I am luring it). In class, we will work individually on this first, then the group will be ready and eager to learn the motivational retrieve.
The food we use to teach the motivational retrieve is soft and easily swallowed. I do many repetitions on this part of the teaching plan, and for my own dogs I will sometimes even use their own kibble and give the rest of their dinner for doing something like coming back really fast or from a longer distance. Obviously, in a class format this wouldn’t be practical!
Practice on a surface where the dog can easily see the food. You might use lighter-colored food like string cheese on a dark floor, and darker food like hot dogs on a lighter colored floor. With my dog at my side sitting or standing and facing the same way I am, I show him the treat and say, “ready, set.” If he moves, we start over. The dog’s cue to move is “get it!” In the early stages I will throw the treat only three or four feet away, and I will click as he is about to eat the treat.
As soon as the dog eats the treat, I call his name and “come.” Initially, it may be necessary to go back to the dog with your treat at his nose so that he is reminded that he should come to you. As he comes in to me, I click and treat to reinforce that behavior.
When the dog starts to understand what I want and is going out and coming in to me quickly, I will add some distance to my throw. You can also play this game by sitting in a chair to encourage the dog to come in to a nice front, and to keep things interesting.
Picking up and holding an object is trained separately. I like to use an object that is soft and fuzzy and that can also hold food, but you can use any object that the dog likes to pick up. First I present the object, and click and treat if the dog shows any interest, i.e. bumping, sniffing, or even just looking at it. In the early stages, the treat can actually come out of the object, as this will make it even more interesting. If the dog looks at the object, for example, I will click and treat for that no more than three times, then wait for a sniff and go on. If the dog tries to offer at least minimal effort, I will give my secondary reinforcer (“yes”) to keep him working, but he won’t get the treat until I can get him to work at the most recent behavior I have seen him offer.
After several sessions with the dog offering the behavior of grabbing and holding, I will withhold the click and try to get him to hold on a little longer. If he drops the object, I will say “oops” or “wrong,” and we’ll try again. I always work to get the dog to hold the object for different (small) amounts of time. Sometimes I will click after a three-second hold, sometimes for a five-second hold, etc. This way the dog won’t know how long you will wait before the click and giving the treat.
One point to keep in mind is that the click marks the behavior but also ends it, so as soon as you click, the dog will let go of the object to get his treat. This would be a good time to add your release word, such as “give,” or “out.” Release cues are just as important in terms of information for the dog as the original cue of “get it.” It lets the dog know the exercise is over. I don’t want the dog to have to guess! Also important is having the dog take the object and hold it in different locations (in relation to you). For example, you could have the dog trotting at your side or you could move backwards and as you stop, give your release word, take the object, and give a treat. At this point, you can trade for the object, sometimes clicking and treating, sometimes just treating, and sometimes just praise and petting. Try putting the object on a chair or close to the floor. Click and treat for the dog taking the object. Finally, put it on the floor with one finger on it and lastly put it alone on the floor. Remember to always positively reinforce every new step of the way, and often in small steps. Whatever we reinforce we are likely to get again! Vary the objects you ask your dog to get, and use many things that he likes.
Now you are ready to put it all together. With the “ready, set, get it” game, you will use the object you have been training with instead of the food treat. Keep the distance you throw the object short at first. You no longer will have to click for going toward the object or getting it. Trade the object for a treat; then wean him off the treat by sometimes offering just praise, sometimes praise and petting, and sometimes a treat. Sometimes offer another of the dog’s favorite objects and play the game again.
On graduation night, play games like Charlotte Schwartz’ Grab ’n Go Race (Forward, Feb. 1998), or for more advanced dogs try some of the retrieving games in Terry Ryan’s Games People Play to Train Their Dogs (chapter 3). The goal is to have fun with your best friend while teaching him something useful. Get it? Got it? Good!