Want To Teach Your Dog To “Fetch?” Try This!

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May 19, 2017
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Not all dogs are natural retrievers. Some want you to throw a toy so they can chase and get it but don’t understand the concept of bringing it back to you for another toss. Old training methods used to advocate for a forced retrieve. This entailed a negative reinforcement technique if the dog did not bring the toy back. There is another method to help your dog learn this game and it involves baby steps and positive reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement

In positive reinforcement training, you get the dog to offer the behavior you want without using force, and then give a reward. When you want your dog to do something simple like sit, the dog learns with a treat as a motivator. We have all learned that rewarding a dog for a wanted behavior helps the dog learn what the word we say asks the dog to do. Over time, you reduce the use of treats through a process known as random (or variable) reinforcement.

Retrieving is a complex behavior that takes more patience but can be accomplished with the same technique of rewarding. While some dogs are natural retrievers who pick things up easily, others are not, and have to be encouraged.

Breaking tasks into steps
Whenever you want to train a complex behavior, break it down into small steps. For the back yard fetch you want to throw the ball, Frisbee or toy and have your dog run after it, pick it up, bring it to you. Broken into small steps it would look like this:

1. Wait until I throw the toy
2. Run after it when I throw it
3. Pick it up
4. Hold it in your mouth
5. Bring it back to me
6. Drop it when you get here
7. Receive a reward

Wait Until I Throw The Toy

Ask the dog to sit, and hold the toy up to throw. If your dog leaps for it, place it behind your back and wait for him to sit again. Every time your dog sits, the ball appears. Every time your dog leaps at you, the ball vanishes. The first time your dog stays sitting when you bring out the ball, say “Yes!” and quickly throw it. In this case you don’t need a food treat because your dog gets a “life reward” – chasing the toy.

Run After It When I Throw

Lots of dogs will chase something that is moving but won’t pick it up. That’s OK – the pick-up is a separate behavior. Choose a toy that your dog really likes, play with it with the dog until he gets excited, then toss it a short distance. If your dog runs after it say “Go!” and when he gets to it and give your dog a treat.

If your dog picks up the toy, give a treat! Your dog will get the idea. Increase the tossing distance gradually. If your dog doesn’t chase it on a longer toss, recalibrate and go back to short distance tosses.

Pick It Up

This can be either the easiest or the hardest part of a retrieve. A natural retriever will pick up a toy. In fact, most puppies naturally pick things up. If your dog is not a natural retriever, don’t despair. Take your dog’s favorite toy and use it to reinforce the attention your dog pays to the toy. In any series of “attention” responses with the fetch toy, sometimes your dog will sniff or touch it, sometimes your dog may just look at it, and sometimes your dog will put his mouth on it – maybe even pick it up.

Up the ante, if your dog touches the toy or picks it up, give a treat. If at any time your dog “quits,” you may have raised the criteria too quickly, or you may have trained for too long. Training sessions should generally be 5 to 15 minutes in length, several times a day. If you get two or three really good responses in a row, stop the session with lots of praise before the game becomes frustrating for you or your dog.

Hold It In Your Mouth

The pick-up is only half the battle. Your dog has to hold the toy to bring it back to you. In any series of pick-ups, sometimes your dog will hold it longer than others. Once your dog is picking the toy up easily, gradually raise the criteria by rewarding for longer and longer holds.

“Gradual” is the key here.

Bring It Back To Me

Now it gets easier. As soon as your dog is holding the toy for three to five seconds, back away when s/he is looking at you. It’s likely that your dog will start moving toward you, hopefully with the toy. Reward. He will probably drop the toy when you bring out a treat. Gradually raise the criteria so your dog comes closer to you before you reward.

Drop It

You can practice this piece of the “Fetch!” any time your dog has something being carried in her/his mouth. Offer a treat. When s/he opens her/his mouth to take the treat, say “Drop It!” or “Give!” in a happy tone of voice. Eventually, this will become a command like sit.

Putting It All Together

Eventually, all the steps will come together as one trick. The key is patience and gradual increases of complexity.

Have other tips? Let us know!

Image from Peoplethatlovedogs.com

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