THE RETRIEVE: Suggested associated sounds: Fetch or Bring, Carry or Hold. Leave.

The most basic description of the “retrieve” is the act of getting a dog to locate, and then fetch, or bring back, upon command and under control, any retrievable object either thrown or hidden, and then present or deliver the article to the handler. For the purposes of this article, the “finish” after such delivery is a non- issue,  save to say that it is foolhardy to insist on a perfect “finish” to heel before the retrieve itself has been completely mastered. In any event the retrieve finish is the same as that practiced in the recall.

There is no other basic exercise more essential for progression in the training of an obedience or working dog to an advanced stage, where it may be required to execute a broad range of useful and exciting tasks, than the retrieve.  For this reason, I have always considered the retrieve and recall as the two most urgent and important exercises the dog must master. They are non- negotiable and, by far, much more important exercises than any others such as heelwork, agility, stays etc. Therefore, with any new pup or dog, it is on the retrieve and recall that I always focus most of my training efforts, albeit in the fun, game or play modes. With a strong enthusiastic retrieve and recall in one’s toolbox, these can be used as very effective starting points or motivators for all nose related exercises such as scent discrimination, article searches or tracking. They can, in certain cases, also even be used as an initial stimulus to get send away training off the ground.

One will find in the Club environment that those handlers whose dogs fail to master the retrieve will reach a training progression barrier and consequently have to remain in the most junior classes. The end result is, that the handler loses interest and confidence becoming bored or frustrated in the process and eventually ends up leaving the club.

Some of us may be extremely lucky to acquire a puppy or dog that, from the onset, instinctively displays a willingness to chase after a moving object and pick it up. Others are even more fortunate, if the same dog also shows a desire to return to the handler with the article. Much has to do with the following factors:-

Certain breeds of dog have stronger play, chase or retrieve drives, call them what you will, than others. This is not rocket science. It is in their genes, simply because this requirement has, over time, been genetically manipulated by man to be dominant.  Most gundog breeds and certain other working or terrier breeds have such genes, just ready to be stimulated. In fact the desire to chase and pick up an article may be so strong that the dog is willing to dive into water to retrieve it!  Other breeds, such as, for example, Huskies, Sighthounds, Mastiffs, Danes and certain “Bull” breeds have different genetically modified or dominant genes which may well supersede the desire to pick up and bring back an article.

The good news however is, that even with such breeds, if one adopts the right training or conditioning strategy, almost any dog can be taught to retrieve and end up enjoying the experience.  If there is a secret to this, it is probably taking the greatest care not to create any bad associations whatsoever during the retrieve training process. This includes getting angry or frustrated.  In fact quite the opposite is needed. Play, play, fun, and reward, at exactly the right time, otherwise called positive reinforcement these days by all those budding dog psychologists.

 I often feel that many handlers create their own problems once they realise that they are suddenly under pressure to get their dogs to retrieve.One only has to observe most “non- club” pet owners playing with almost any breed of dog in their garden, park or even on the beach and one will invariably see Balls, Sticks, Frisbees and the like being thrown and, with varying degrees of success, being brought back.  I strongly suspect such enthusiasm evolved naturally out of play and with absolutely no pressure on the owners. So let’s not write off any breed or use this as an excuse.

Secondly, age has a bearing, because puppies are far more inclined to be playful and responsive to stimulation via movement and games.  If one has studied the five critical stages of dog character development, one will know, that given the correct knowledge and opportunity, the fastest training results are obtained between the third and fifth critical periods (i.e. the 5th– 16th week) of the dog’s life. Google it. “The five critical Periods by Bruce Sessions.”

Thirdly, it goes without saying, that handler/trainer knowledge and experience can make all the difference, especially where a dog shows no natural inclination whatsoever to retrieve. Then we need to dig into our bag of tricks to find the correct motivator or trigger to spark some interest by a particular animal. This includes the initial selection and use of the most effective articles with which to obtain a desired response and thereafter, a gradual introduction to a broader variety of articles rather than reliance merely on a favourite one. A ball is normally the most practical and attractive because it bounces and rolls easily.  Alternatively one may be fortunate to have a dog that shows immediate interest in a wooden dumb bell. If such is the case, use one.Later, this will be to your advantage. Balls tend to encourage mouthing or chewing of an article whist a hard wood dumb bell does not.

 So, just to reiterate;  with any dog, or puppy, the first and most important step is to find that suitable article with which to play with the animal and which seems to generate the most interest.  This will become what we call the “favourite” article. As previously pointed out, this may be an easier and quicker process with a young pup.One may need to exercise one’s mind and come up with a plan to enhance focus on the article.This could be by attaching a string to the article and moving it around, much like one does with a kitten. It could involve scenting the object (piece of hard wood, hosepipe, tug rope, conk, or a square of cotton type cloth etc.) with some attractive substance such as biltong fat, raw meat etc). Then, by any means possible, get the dog excited enough to want to chase it. Never leave the favourite article around for your dog to play with or chew at leisure, as this will diminish the fun time excitement association when it is produced unexpectedly.

There are basically three initial objectives. One, to get the dog to chase the article, two, to encourage it to pick it up and three, to get it to want to come back to you. Many people find the third challenge the hardest and this should not be surprising,  for it is not natural for a dog, having chased and picked up an interesting article, to straight away bring it back to another member of the pack. Bending or kneeling right down and/or running away, whilst at the same time encouraging the dog to “come “, is often effective. Using the dog’s name can also help.  However, if one puts in sufficient time with separate “recall” training, done in such a way that the dog eventually wants to rush back to the owner with enthusiasm every time it is called, then you will have complete “control” and you can start to insist on the recall with the article in the dog’s mouth.

There is therefore absolutely no point whatsoever in trying to teach the retrieve until such time as the recall has been mastered. Otherwise one may end up with a dog that chases and picks up an object every time it is thrown, but then will not bring it back to an increasingly angry and frustrated owner. Unless there is some urgent training intervention, the situation will get worse and worse and the dog will likely form a lasting bad association with the retrieve exercise. In many ways this is like trying to teach the send away before mastering the basic “downing” of a dog.

It cannot be stressed too much therefore, that intensive but fun “recall” conditioning of a dog is paramount before one tries to “insist on an article recall”.  So, as I touched on earlier, from as early a stage as possible, play recall games either by running away, hiding, and/or getting someone to hold ones dog and then calling the dog. Always use the same recall command with hand/lap clapping in front of the body, running backwards if necessary and followed by an appropriate reward, plus loads of affection/fuss when the dog comes to you.  Initially food may prove useful.   A high pitched stimulating recall sound is the most effective often combined with the timeous use of the dog’s name. “Feetchhhhh”, said with a whispering encouraging tone has to my mind, always been a sound that seems to get the best response. A shepherd’s whistle can also be effective in the early stages.

As I have said, once this “bounding, enthusiastic” recall has been mastered, without the use of food, use it as soon as the dog picks up the article. When the dog does reach you, praise lavishly (voice and gently stroking top of head and under chin), doing this, if at all possible, whilst the dog has the article in its mouth.Before the dog gets a chance to drop the article, gently remove it using a chosen release command. The sound Leave is one option. Once released, DO NOT PRAISE. The sit in front is not important at this stage. Praise should be associated primarily with the return and holding of the article.

To reinforce this message one can, once the article is released, encourage the dog to hold it again using fetch, praise and release again, with no praise and repeat.It will not be too long before the dog gets the message that praise and affection come only when returning to the handler and/or whilst the article remains in the mouth. With very sensitive dogs try to avoid the use of any “bad sound” during this whole process.However, once it is clear that the dog is 100% reliable in the chase, pick up and recall including the hold and delivery, one may find the bad sound can be used, immediately followed by fetch or hold when the dog either drops the article prematurely, or even fails to pick it up due to a distraction.  The sit in front can then be insisted upon before the “leave” and when appropriate the “finish” to heel can be incorporated into the exercise.

Some dogs from the onset, may be reluctant to release the article upon return to the handler.This, is not a major problem, because it is far easier to resolve than the problem of the dog dropping the article before given the command to do so. To get a stubborn dog to “release” merely requires   a harsher leave command and/or bad sound with, at the exact same time, firm physical manipulation of the jaws.Upon release, unlike the dog who tends to leave or drop articles too soon, one should then give appropriate praise.  The fetch/hold and leave, done several times until the desired result is achieved, can be practiced as a completely separate exercise anywhere, any time. I prefer my armchair during the ad breaks on the TV. This often requires a bit of nifty hand, voice coordination and for further suggestions on this, see the latter part of this article on the topic of ‘the long hard slog dog!!’

The offer of food as a reward after releasing the article, is seldom a good idea, as it may soon result in the premature dropping of the article in anticipation of the food.

Another common problem is of course the dog who is reluctant to return to the owner with the article. You should by now have realised that this is simply an indication that you have not mastered your recall training.  Consequently, your recall training needs to be revisited ASAP. With the correct training, no dog should ever refuse to come to the owner when called, with greatest of haste and gusto, unless of course it has been physically restrained.  So, never risk infecting your retrieve training with anger due to a weak or uncertain recall. Master the recall first.

But now we come to the problem dog who shows no inclination whatsoever either to chase or pick up an article. I call this the long hard slog dog.  One thing that has always intrigued me is that, at the end of the day, after the long, hard, stage by stage, slow progress retrieve training slog method, dogs trained using this method, invariably end up much more reliable and consistent retrievers than any dog who found it easy to begin with.


 With the long hard slog dog….similar principles apply, maybe even more so.  For example, avoid at all costs, creating a bad association; try to make it a pleasant, comfortable, non- threatening experience, using soothing voice tones, stroking and caressing of the muzzle area with lots of good reassuring sounds, all at the right time, and so on.  The difference here is that we don’t start by waving an article in front of the dog and getting it excited enough to either take hold of it or chase it, and then hopefully pick it up. We start by gently placing a suitable attractive article in the dog’s mouth.  To do this, we calmly and with vocal reassurance, use both our hands to open the jaws, just as one would do to examine the dog’s teeth. Where and when possible stroking of the head and muzzle with one hand will help.

Once the jaw is open, and with one hand underneath the dog’s chin, gently and as unobtrusively as possible, slip the article onto the teeth of the bottom jaw whilst, the same time, slightly tilting the muzzle upwards so the dog cannot just easily spit out the object. The other hand can be stroking the top and sides of the muzzle and during the whole process, the good sound/ praise is given, combined with an encouraging command/sound to “fetch”.Do not attempt to press the top and bottom jaws together with any degree of force or cause any discomfort to the dog whatsoever.

In fact, for many years, police forces around the world including the metropolitan police in London, used this as the standard method of training. See photos.

Initially, wait a few seconds at most, before removing the article, using an appropriate command such as “leave”. With the leave, no praise should be given. The sooner the dog clicks that praise and affection are only associated with the act of holding the article, the better.

Repeat the “fetch (praise) and leave (no praise)” as above, gradually increasing the time to approx. 10-15 seconds. Eventually test the strength of the association the dog has with the command fetch by placing the article just close to the jaws in the hope that they will, at some stage, eventually open voluntarily to take the article.Once this has been achieved, it is merely a matter of holding the article further and further away from the dog’s jaws until, upon command fetch, it will even pick it up. Take care not to try to progress too fast until you are 100% sure of success at any particular stage.Much the same as with your stay training. Slow but sure, going back a stage or two if necessary. The long hard slog!  Several short sessions of 2 mins each day, all ending on a good note.

Then of course one can reach the stage of placing the article a few metres in front of the dog, and or throwing it a metre or so.There will certainly come a time when you can throw an article further and further, holding the dog back for longer and longer.

Where any dog initially strongly resists the placing of the article in the mouth, one needs to start the entire process without using any article and master the art of merely opening and holding the jaws open (praising) for up to 10 seconds or so, before letting the dog close its mouth (no praise). Make certain that this is as enjoyable and as pleasant experience for your dog as you can.

The final stage will of course be to introduce new articles. Ones that are pleasant to hold, with perhaps a similar scent impregnated on them as that used originally for the favourite article.

With my own dogs, even if they do show an initial willingness to retrieve and bring an article using “fetch”, I will also include some separate passive in the armchair, “hold or carry” and “leave” training, using a variety of articles.  The use of “fetch or bring” as discussed in this article is perfectly fine and works well, with the fetch initially used for the act of holding as well as the eventual act of retrieving.  However, I have always found it very useful at times to try develop an extra sound such as “hold or carry” for use in a variety of other situations. For example, if I need to insist on a pick up where the dog hesitates yet confidently indicates the presence of an object which may be an awkward one, such as a handgun or a set of keys. The leave of course is always useful if there is a confident indication by the dog and for one reason or another, I do not want the dog to pick it up. For example, as a grenade!

The basic retrieve command can be used for any search and retrieve exercise even, during the initial stages of training, for simple scent discrimination. However I have found it helpful to eventually develop a different sound, where I wish my dog to go out and select/find a specific scent that has been given to him. In such cases I usually start with “seek fetch” eventually ending with a simple “seek”.

Hope this article will help.

John Cox

Revised on Nov 2016 (from original Nov 1989 article in Kennel Union Gazette)