It’s relatively easy to teach your dog to retrieve, especially if they already like to play tug with you. To use this method you just need to know that your dog is willing to play with you using a toy and will relinquish the toy when you ask. The only equipment you need is your dog’s most valued tug toy or any favorite toy that’s easy to tug.
How to play:
Start off by playing a fun game of tug with your dog. Stop playing, make the toy still, and ask for the toy. Upon relinquishment, immediately toss the toy just a foot or so away. Your dog should run to the toy and grab it. As soon as he grabs the toy, start moving away from him. At this point he has several choices:
1) He can drop the toy and chase you. Fun, but he loses the toy.
2) He can play with the toy by himself. Also fun, but he loses the opportunity to chase you.
3) He can grab the toy and run with it to chase you. Excellent choice and maximum levels of fun!
4) He can wander off and lie in the sun. Um….
Let’s focus on choice #3 where your dog grabs the toy and runs to chase you down. As soon as he arrives, grab the toy (in a sharing and caring sort of manner) and play a most excellent game of tug. Repeat the process described above, but toss the toy a bit further away this time. You can also experiment a bit with how fast and how far you run away. If you’re too quick, some dogs will definitely drop the toy to catch you. That’s okay, it just tells you how much your dog enjoys chasing you. You can work up to this!
Play this game a few times, but make sure to always stop playing when your dog is having the most fun ever. You might be thinking, “Wait! What? But, he isn’t tired yet!” That’s fine – we’re playing the long game here. We have a plan. Stopping while your dog is at the height of enjoyment means he’ll be extra-eager to play again next time. This speaks to building motivation. Yes, we could probably even get the lazy dog lying in the sun from #4 above to enjoy this, but that’s another discussion.
Okay, so you have a dog who is an eager participant in the game and you’ve played over the course of a few days, always leaving your dog wanting more. Good. Now, let’s generalize the behavior. Why? Well, wouldn’t it be handy if your dog would retrieve absolutely anything? To start this ambitious quest, choose a different toy than the one you’ve previously been using. Repeat the entire process and make sure his absolute favorite toy is well hidden. Your dog might try to remind you that this game is played with his first favorite toy and NOT his second favorite toy, but work through it!
Now that your dog has some reinforcement history (read: he enjoys playing this game with you) bringing back a toy, let’s label the behavior. Go back to using his favorite toy and do a practice session. Assuming this goes well, repeat and this time say “fetch” (or whatever word you want to use) after he gives you the toy and immediately before you make any move to toss the toy away.
Remember: It’s imperative that you play tug with him every time he brings the toy back to you. You’re using play as reinforcement for the retrieve and for many dogs this is even more rewarding than using food. The word “fetch” is now part of your process.
How far do you want to take this? Well, it’s COVID-19 time and you’re sheltering in place so why not take it to the next level? At this point your “fetch” is likely dependent on you tossing the toy, i.e. creating movement. But wouldn’t you like to point him toward any object, possibly stationary, and ask him to retrieve it for you?
This time, set up a scenario where his favorite toy is laying in the yard or in the middle of the room (somewhere he’s used to playing and where the toy is highly visible) and your dog is elsewhere, say, in the backyard. Open the door from elsewhere and when your dog comes bounding through, watch him closely. As soon as he sees the toy, give your “fetch” cue. If he retrieves the toy, let him have a fun chase and tug session. All parties, well done! If he doesn’t go toward the toy, run to it yourself and give it a little toe kick or create some small movement. Hopefully that will jog his memory. If he still looks puzzled, just grab the toy, play some tug, and go back to the original game to make the behavior stronger before you try again.
Concurrently, but not in the same session, continue swapping out items for your dog to fetch. Be creative and use unusual but not scary objects. For example, an empty plastic water bottle is challenging to retrieve but the crinkle-crinkle sound can make for some fun tugging. However, make sure to play a little game of “keep away” with any unusual object first to establish that it belongs in the “toy” aka “items that are okay to fetch” category. If you’ve been quite adamant about your dog not picking things up in the past, you may have some undoing to do.
But wait, won’t this encourage my dog to pick up things he shouldn’t pick up? Maybe. But what it will also do is make it easy for you to recover things your dog does pick up. This is a particularly good skill to teach puppies because they pick up everything and stick that everything in their mouths. You really don’t want to yell at your puppy as this will, at best, teach him you are scary and have resource guarding issues and, at worst, damage your relationship. But if you reward him for bringing stuff to you, it becomes easy-peasy to get things back.
Continue to work on more difficult items to retrieve and having the items farther and farther away. It’s important that you only work on one new element to the game per session. For example, you wouldn’t want to both introduce a brand new object AND have it at a record-breaking distance away in the same session. Rather, focus on one new thing and don’t stress if other parts of the behavior fall apart a little bit. Always reward, throw in some easy ones from time-to-time, and don’t ever get frustrated. If you find yourself getting frustrated, it means that you’ve asked for too much, too soon. Bad human! Remember…you have plenty of time!