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How To... Teach A Willing Retrieve

There are many ways to teach the retrieve and how you do it will depend upon your dog's previous experience with toys and humans. Try the different ways given here to find which works best for your dog.



Once your puppy or dog has learned to play (see 'How To Teach Your PuppyTo Play With Toys' and 'How To Teach Your Dog To Play With Toys'), teaching him to retrieve on cue will ensure that he spends more time running after the toy than you do. 

  • How to teach a retrieve 1

The easy retrieve

Use this ‘easy retrieve’ method for puppies and dogs that have not learned to avoid people when they have a toy.


Step 1.  Create enthusiasm for the toy

Keep the toy moving and have fun, being as child-like and as 'silly' as possible while teasing your dog with the toy.  Continue until your dog is very keen to get to the toy but not so long that he gives up trying to get it.


Step 2.  Throw the toy

Once your dog is really excited by the toy and is trying hard to capture it, throw it for him to chase and grab.


Step 3.  Encourage holding

As soon as your dog picks up the toy, tell him how clever he is and keep up this genuine praise and approval for as long as he carries it.  Do not try to touch the toy.  If your dog comes to you, continue to praise and stroke his back and body, avoiding the head and neck.


If your dog drops the toy some distance away, instantly stop all praise and approval.  Run towards the toy and encourage him to pick it up again by approaching it and making it move with accompanying encouraging noises.  If he has dropped it close to you, pick it up and tease him with it again before throwing it again.


If he continues to hold it, be content to praise him and tell him how clever he is for some time as this will build a strong foundation for the retrieve.  Continue in this way over several sessions until your dog shows great enthusiasm for running out and picking up the toy whenever it is thrown.


Some dogs enjoy possessing the toy and some dogs like to chase the moving toy.  Some dogs like both.  Working out what your dog enjoys about the game will help you to make the game more enjoyable for him.  Control reduces enthusiasm so, at this stage, avoid any control, such as asking your dog to sit first, and just try to create as much excitement and enthusiasm for the games as possible.  Keep toys you play with special and interesting by putting them away so your dog cannot get them at times when you are not playing.  Your attitude during these stages is important.  You need to be exciting, encouraging and having fun yourself.  Only try this when you are in a good mood and full of energy!


Stage 4 Bringing it back

Once you have got your dog playing enthusiastically and carrying the toy readily, it is time to move onto asking him to bring it back to you.  Throw the toy and encourage your dog to pick it up.  Then turn and run away, calling him enthusiastically as you do it.  Stand still as your dog catches up with you.  Stroke his body, keeping your hands well away from his head and neck.  Praise warmly and continuously for a while until he begins to lose interest in holding the toy.  When he is calm, gently hold his collar so he cannot move away from you.  Then offer him a tasty treat or tease him with another toy, whichever he prefers.  Be patient and wait until he decides to drop the toy to take the food or the toy.  As soon as he does so, feed the treat or throw the other toy.


Continue with this stage until your dog is coming to you readily and giving up the toy quite quickly.


Make sure whatever you are offering to get your dog to let go of the toy is worthwhile to him.  If he is hanging on to the toy a long time, try increasing the value of the treat or try using his favourite toy, keeping it moving enticingly so he wants it more.   Never chase a dog when you want to get the toy back.  They are faster and more agile and you are unlikely to win.  When your dog has the toy and is coming to you, don’t even think about trying to grab the toy from his mouth.  Dogs are very sensitive to our body language cues and he will guess your intentions.  Stop wanting it!  Dogs are not easily fooled and the important point is to stop wanting the toy so that he doesn’t feel he has to keep it away from you. Once your dog sees that you no longer want it, he can then relax, making it more likely that he will drop it.  To get him to let go, hold his collar rather than the toy and offer something he really wants (see 'How To Get The Toy Back After Play').


Stage 5 Put it on cue

Now put the action of dropping the toy on cue by giving the cue  ('drop' or similar) just BEFORE your dog drops the toy.  Try to anticipate when your dog might drop the toy (watch for the nose and lips wrinkling as he gets ready to release the toy) and give your cue just before the toy leaves his mouth.   You can use a hand signal instead if you prefer, such as pointing to the floor.  With enough repetitions, your dog will begin to drop to toy on cue. Remember to feed the treat immediately and praise, or praise him warmly then throw the other toy for him to fetch.


Once you have put the action of dropping the toy on cue while you are crouched down next to your dog, repeat the procedure while you are standing up.  It is very useful to have a ‘drop’ cue that you can use when your dog has something that you want him to leave, such as when he is holding a toy and you want him to go out into the garden without it, or he finds something unsavory on a walk that you would like him to drop.  Remember to reward him well for leaving a prized possession behind.


Never lunge towards your dog to try to take the toy before it is dropped or he takes it away again.  Instead, keep your body language soft and arrange things so he willing gives up the toy to you.  Some dogs prefer tug-of-war to chase games.  If this applies to your dog, reward him with a tug game for bringing the toy back instead of throwing the toy again.

  • How to teach a retreive 2

Two toy method

Use the two toy method for dogs that are enthusiastic about playing but have learned to return with the toy and stay out of reach.


Use two identical toys.  Hide one in a pocket (or hold behind your back), tease your dog with the other for a short time then throw it.  Wait for your dog to chase, catch and bring it back.  Decide on an acceptable distance in front of you that you want the toy to be brought to, say 3 paces, then encourage your dog to bring the toy to that distance by moving backwards and calling (watch where you are going when moving backwards to avoid falling over).    


If your dog drops the toy some distance away, run towards the toy and encourage him to pick it up again by approaching it and making it move with accompanying encouraging noises.    Then try moving backwards again to encourage him to bring it towards you.


While your dog is moving forwards, and as soon as he gets within 3 paces of you, produce the other (identical) toy and tease him with it.  Continue to put lots of energy into this, focusing completely on the new toy, until he drops the one he is holding.  As soon as he does this, throw the new toy, picking up the dropped toy and hiding it away while he retrieves the new one.


Repeat over several sessions until he will readily approach and drop the toys, then gradually reduce your acceptable distance over many sessions until he will bring the toy right back and drop the toy at your feet . 


Work on putting the 'drop' on cue by saying the word or giving a hand signal (hand pointing at the ground) just before he lets go of the toy.

The indoor retrieve

Use this method if your dog tries to run away from you as soon as he has a toy in his mouth, or is used to being chased.


Start in a room that has an open space and a table or shelf, such as a hall or kitchen.  Gather up a pile of toys for him to retrieve and put tasty treats in a large tin with a closed lid.  Take one toy from the pile, tease your dog with it, moving it erratically and encouraging him with your voice.  Then when he is close to you and excited about the object, throw it for him to chase and catch, saying 'fetch' as you release the toy.


As soon as he has caught it, busy yourself with the tin of treats, rustling the paper inside or stirring the treats round to release the smell.  Keep going, watching your dog out of the corner of your eye, then, when he takes a few steps towards you, throw him a treat so that it lands just in front of him (so he has to walk forward a few paces to eat it).


Take a second toy, tease him with it, wait until he is close, and then throw the toy.  This time, you should find that he moves a little closer to where he was rewarded last time, so wait for a few more steps forward before throwing the treat.


If the dropped toys are close to your feet, you can remove them from the floor while he is running after the next one.  If, however, they end up spread out around the room, lure your dog outside with a treat, throwing a few treats into the other room with him and close the door while you pick up the toys ready to start again later (this prevents him rushing to get the toys before you do with the associated feeling that you are trying to 'steal' his toys which you don’t want at this stage).


Continue in this way, eventually waiting until he comes right up close before passing the treat down to him.  If your timing is good, you can interest him in the treat, and put your other hand underneath to catch the toy as he drops it.  You can then develop this so that he will, eventually, after many sessions, try to put the toy directly into your hand even before you have removed the treat from the tin.  Always be fair and reward him well for returning the toy to you.


If he drops the toy before he gets to close enough for you to reward, move quickly towards it and encourage him to pick it up again by looking at it and using your voice to encourage him to take it.


Once your dog is retrieving nicely in the first room, move on to another room in the house, then another, then the garden, starting at the beginning each time and progressing slowly.  Eventually, you should be able to teach a good retrieve outside in the same way.

  • How to teach a retreive 3

Learning with a line

Use this method for dogs that have learnt to avoid humans whenever they are carrying a toy.


Dogs that have had the toy taken off them when they have got close to humans will try to avoid them if they can.  If they are well practiced, you will need to use a long line (about 3 - 4 metres) attached to their collars while you teach them to be more trusting.


If your dog is attached to a long line, be careful not to get tangled in it or allow it to cause a burn by rubbing against you.  Make sure there are no children, other dogs or vulnerable people close by, and always remove it before leaving him alone.


Use the stages in 'The easy retrieve' method above to teach the retrieve.  During Stage 3, reinforce your lack of desire to take the toy away by relaxing your body and avoiding direct eye contact. 


When you reach Stage 4, attach a long line to your dog’s collar before you throw the toy.  Let the line go while your dog runs after the toy, then pick it up and use it to bring him towards you, praising all the time your dog carries the toy and moves forward.  Try not to keep the line taught but, instead, to give gentle tugs and then release, allowing your dog to come forward without being dragged.   Once your dog is close to you, continue to praise and be relaxed about the situation, giving your dog time to realise that you don’t intend to take his prize away. 


Wait until your dog is a little bit bored with holding the toy (don't let him lie down with it, keep him sitting or standing), then offer a tasty treat or an exciting game with another toy instead.  Wait until his drops his toy, then reward him well with praise, a tasty treat or a game with the other toy.


Repeat until your dog is running to you readily to swap the toy for something better.  This may take many sessions if  he has a long-established habit of keeping out of reach.  However, your dog will, eventually, learn that you no longer want to take the toy away but, instead, will exchange it for a treat or another game.  Gradually, he will learn to trust you and be more willing to give up the toy.  Once he is coming to you readily, you can dispense with the line.

Too much of a good thing

Never play until your puppy or dog is exhausted.  Do several retrieves, and then try a different game.  Keep sessions short if you are playing with a young puppy or an older dog to avoid putting too much strain on joints.


See also:

'Aggression Over Food And Possessions'

'Importance Of Play For Puppies'

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