Dog Obedience – Retrieving

We now come to an exercise which may require literally no training at all or which you may find the most difficult of all to teach — depending more on your dog than on your training ability.

Most training authorities will tell you that there are two methods of teaching a dog to retrieve — he can be taught in play or by the German or forcing method. It is much more accurate, however, to say that a dog can be taught to retrieve by the German method or encouraged by play to use his natural retrieving instinct.

Whether or not the dog will ever be reliable if he is taught in play depends entirely on the strength of this instinct. In some dogs, particularly gundog breeds, the retrieving instinct is so strong that it often makes it difficult to prevent a dog picking up anything you throw. Such dogs can become quite reliable without having to resort to the rather laborious forcing method. My wife and I always attempt to teach a dog in play but, if we find that he is not going to be reliable, change to the forcing method. Usually we end up by combining both methods, the extent to which each is used depending on the dog.

We now have much clearer instructions as to how this exercise should be carried out than we did in the past.


Retrieve any article. Handlers may use their own article.


Retrieve a dumb-bell. Handlers may use their own dumb-bells.


Retrieve any One Article provided by the Judge but which must not be in any manner injurious to the dog (definitely excluding food and glass). The article to be picked up easily by any breed of dog and clearly visible to the dog. A separate article to be used for each dog.

On top of that we have explanatory note 4:

Retrieve a Dumb-bell/Article

At the start of this exercise the dog should be sitting at the handler’s side. On command the handler must throw the dumb-bell/article in the direction indicated. The dog should remain at the Sit position until the handler is ordered to send it to retrieve the dumb-bell/article. The dog should move out promptly at a smart pace to collect the dumb-bell/article cleanly. It should return with the dumb-bell/article at a smart pace and sit straight in front of the handler. On command the handler should take the dumb-bell/article from the dog. On further command the dog should be sent to heel.

Working Trial Regulations say:

The dog shall not move forward to retrieve nor deliver to hand on return until – ordered by the handler on the Judge’s instructions. The retrieve should be executed at a fast trot or gallop without mouthing or playing with the object. After delivery the dog should return to heel.

The important point for the novice to remember is that his dog must not do anything until he tells it and he must not tell it until a judge tells him. Although I should hate anyone to do it to me, a judge would be quite in order to keep a dog sitting in front of the handler for half an hour before he gave the command to take the object, and, theoretically, a well-trained dog would sit still until he was told to move.

Let us first try to teach our dog in play, in other words develop the instincts which we hope is already there. Few people understand instincts, which are often confused with intelligence. Instinct could be described as an urge from within which makes a dog do something. This is due as much to his inability to resist the action as to his desire to carry it out. It has no connection whatsoever with intelligence. Instincts vary considerably in strength between different dogs and different breeds. Very often they are not apparent in young puppies but develop at some later stage. The age at- which this development starts also varies tremendously. And the same applies to the speed at which it develops once it has started. All instincts are handed down from the wild dog. They may be, and often are, strengthened, weakened or modified by selective breeding and domestication but they cannot be put there or taken away. The retrieving instinct is closely associated with the hunting instinct. A gundog retrieving a pheasant to its handler is not so very different from a fox taking a duck home to its den.

The dog derives its greatest pleasures through following its instincts. It therefore finds its own reward and if allowed (it cannot be forced) becomes keener and keener. On the other hand if an instinct is not allowed to develop it will remain dormant or even die out. It is often easy to kill it outright by suppression in the early stages of development. This can be very useful, for instance, in stopping a puppy from chasing bicycles. But many people unthinkingly kill, (in the seedling stage) an instinct which they later want to develop. If, therefore, your puppy brings your best hat in triumph don’t scold him. Take it from him gently (it will do the hat less harm anyway), praise him very well, and put it out of his reach.

The age at which you start teaching the retrieve in play depends on the age at which the retrieving instinct shows signs of developing. If the puppy shows an inclination to pick up and carry objects, no harm will be done by starting when he is quite a baby — providing that you do play with him and never keep him at it until he is bored. Never try to force him (you can’t anyhow); just encourage him if and when he feels like it.

To do this get him really excited and throw the object away from you. Something the puppy fancies is best at this stage, and throw it along the ground, not up in the air. The hunting instinct will make him chase the moving object and the retrieving instinct, if present, will make him pick it up. But it may not make him bring it back to you.

Don’t, on any account, run after him. Run away from him and he will probably come after you with the object in his mouth. If he wants to hang on to it don’t try to pull it out of his mouth. Many puppies will release an object if offered food as an alternative. This makes the puppy open his mouth, and also serves as a reward for retrieving. If it does not work, get hold of the puppy, place the left hand across his muzzle, and very, very gently press his lips against his teeth with fingers and thumb. At the same time tell him firmly to ‘drop it’, and praise very well the instant he does so. Many dogs taught to retrieve in play spit the object out at the feet of their handlers. To overcome this you will have to combine this method with the forcing one and teach the dog to hold the object in the way I shall be explaining shortly.

Remember that thousands of pet dogs with no training at all retrieve all sorts of objects to owners who have no idea how to train them — and they show much more enthusiasm than is often seen in the ring. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, like everything else the average pet dog wants to do, he does it without suppression or control of any sort. Secondly, the dog realizes that if he brings the object to his owner he will be rewarded by having it thrown again. This provides him with the pleasure of following his hunting and retrieving instincts. They in turn will strengthen with use, sometimes to the extent of becoming an obsession if no control is effected.

Suppose now that your puppy will not retrieve in play either because the retrieving instinct is too weak in the first place or because it was not encouraged when it first showed signs of developing. It should still be possible to teach the retrieve by the German or forcing method. Some trainers start off on this method irrespective of whether the puppy will or will not retrieve in play.

Don’t start the German method with a young puppy. Nine months is quite young enough even with a forward youngster, and it has the great advantage that it can be used when the dog is past the playful age.

The object used universally in training circles is a wooden dumb-bell, which, for training, should be of a size and weight appropriate to the dog. This object is used because it is so easy for the dog to pick up and for the handler to put into the dog’s mouth.

Do not start trying to teach the retrieve until you have succeeded in instilling some sort of obedience into your dog. It is useless trying to make a dog hold a dumb-bell if, at the same time, he is struggling to get away from you. Absolute obedience is unnecessary, but he must sit still and pay attention. Otherwise you are trying to teach two things at one time.

Make your dog sit in the usual position by your left side, with lead on. Now put your left hand over the dog’s face, and gently press the lips against the gums with the fingers on one side and thumb on the other as already described in teaching a puppy to let go. This will force him to open his mouth. As he does so, give the command, ‘Carry’, ‘Fetch’ or whatever you like, and with the right hand, place the dumb-bell in the dog’s mouth.

Here you are likely to come up against the first obstacle. He will almost certainly try to spit out that lump of wood. It is up to you to see that he does not succeed. In the same way as you allowed him to struggle unsuccessfully the first time he was on a lead (until he gave it up as a bad job), you must see that he allows the dumb-bell to remain in his mouth, not tomorrow or the next day, but right now, before you finish the exercise. Some dogs offer no resistance at all, but others require very firm treatment. At the same time be very careful not to hurt the lips or gums as this will of course make him even more resentful. Keep giving the command ‘Carry’ or ‘Hold’ in a firm commanding tone and hold his jaws shut on the dumb-bell until he stops struggling. Immediately he does so, change your tone of voice completely and praise him enthusiastically. And take the dumb-bell out of his mouth on command ‘Drop it’.

He may have given up struggling only for a breather, and if you now try to make him hold the dumb-bell for any length of time the chances are that he will start struggling again. If he holds the dumb-bell for a split second until you say ‘Drop it’, you will have gone one step forward. But if you get him to hold it for a minute, and then he starts struggling and succeeds in spitting the dumbbell out when he wants to, you will have gone several steps backwards. Continue on these lines, making the dog hold the dumbbell for gradually longer periods. When he will allow you to put the dumb-bell in his mouth and will hold it for some appreciable time without resentment, you have reached the first stage in this exercise.

Here I might mention a method of my invention which I tried on a very stubborn three-year-old Corgi of my own. He had no intention of allowing anything to be put in his mouth and had a quite inexhaustible ability to keep on struggling. I tied the dumbbell in his mouth like a gag, with a piece of bandage round the top of his head, rather like a bridle on a horse. I then let him ‘have a go’ at getting it out. After about ten minutes of trying to get rid of the thing, he gave it up as a bad job. I then told him to sit, praised him very well, took the dumb-bell out of his mouth — and we went on from there without further trouble. He was retrieving in ten days, and until his death at I I years was quite reliable and very fast on that exercise.

Once the dog will allow you to put the dumb-bell in his mouth, and will hold it, the next stage is to get him to take it himself. Don’t go on opening his mouth and shoving the dumb-bell into it indefinitely. Hold the dumb-bell just touching his lips and, with the fingers and thumb of the left hand in the same position as before, give the command ‘Carry’. You may have to press the lips very gently, but if you do it properly, very soon the dog should open his mouth in anticipation of your doing so.

Very often the first indication that he is about to respond is that he licks the dumb-bell or opens his mouth very slightly. If he does, encourage him in a praising tone of voice, and he will probably take the dumb-bell, when you must praise him very well indeed. It is a good idea to finish at that point for the day or at least for that lesson.

Up to now the dumb-bell has been going to the dog: the next stage is for the dog to go forward and grasp it himself. This is done by continuing as in the preceding paragraphs, gradually holding the dumb-bell farther and farther away from the dog. At first he will stretch his neck to reach it, but very soon he will have to get up from his sitting position and move forward, which he must be encouraged to do. If he refuses to go forward, you will have to make him move by jerking him on the collar, or by pushing him with the hand at the back of his head.

Continue from there until, when you hold the dumb-bell in front of you, the dog will, on command, get up from a sitting position beside you, go forward and take it from your hand. When he does, you can move back a step and he should bring it to you, so that you have now got the dog going forward for an article and bringing it back to you, which is the basis of retrieving.

The next stage is often a difficult one — getting the dog to pick up the dumb-bell off the ground. Many dogs will take an article quite cheerfully from the handler’s hand even when he holds it on the ground, but take the hand away, and they won’t touch it. You can encourage the dog to pick up by putting the dumb-bell on the ground and, as you give the command ‘Carry’, moving it slightly with the right hand or even with your toe. If this does not work, you may have to use quite a lot of force.

By now your dog should understand the command quite well. If he cannot be persuaded to pick up the dumb-bell you must push his head down to it and make him pick it up. This should not be too difficult if you have been working on the right lines. Having got the dog to go forward a few steps and pick the dumb-bell off the ground and bring it to you, the rest of this exercise is usually plain sailing.

All you have to do is to put the dumb-bell further and further forward until the dog will go right out to the end of the lead, pick it up and bring it back. To make the distance a little farther you can move forward a step as he goes forward and take a step back as he comes towards you. When you can rely on his doing this — and not before — you can take the lead off, throw the dumb-bell about the same distance as you have been with the lead, give the command, and the dog should go forward, pick it up and bring it back. He should, in fact, retrieve, and you can go on gradually increasing the distance until he will go as far as you can throw the dumb-bell.

Now for the finish of the retrieve. Many very successful trainers make the dog sit in front, deliver properly and go to heel right from the start, but I do not. In teaching any exercise, I concentrate on that one exercise only, and in this case all I am concerned with is getting the dog to retrieve. If he stands up from the sit when I am putting the dumb-bell in his mouth, I do not bother. If I correct him he might well associate the correction with retrieving, not with getting up. And I never worry about his finish until he is retrieving well.

To be successful in competitions, however, finish and speed are absolutely essential, and of course speed is also essential from a practical point of view. There would be very little sense in going to all this trouble in teaching a dog to retrieve if, in the end, you could do the job more quickly yourself!

You will probably find that the dog mouths or plays with the dumb-bell when he brings it back to you. If he does, tap him under the chin with the hand, at the same time telling him firmly to ‘Hold’ or ‘Carry’. And do not take the dumb-bell until he holds it properly. Immediately he stops mouthing it praise him well, give the command ‘Drop it’, and take the dumb-bell.

Gradually increase the time he holds it until you have a dog that will sit and hold a dumb-bell untilyou are ready to take it and not until be thinks you should take it.

Many dogs are inclined to drop the dumb-bell as the handler puts his hand down to take it. This can be prevented by putting your hand under the dog’s chin, as though you were going to take the dumb-bell. But instead of taking it give the command ‘Carry’ and make him hold it until told to ‘Drop it’.

If your dog stops on the retrieve before coming right up to you, don’t make the common mistake of going forward to take the dumb-bell. As I have said several times already, never go towards your dog; always make him come to you. If he sits wide, move backwards and keep coaxing him up until you get him exactly where you want him, sitting squarely with his head right up to you. Then, and not until then, praise him well, take the dumb-bell and finish to heel. It may be necessary to put him on a lead to get him right up to you, but it is very important for competition work.

Having got finish, you now want speed in the retrieve, which ‘should be executed at a fast trot or gallop’. To do this make every effort to praise very well by actions and tone of voice at the right psychological moments. For example, you throw the dumb-bell, giving the command ‘Carry’ firmly. Your dog walks up to it, not very willingly, looks at it and then looks at you as if to say ‘Must I?’ You then give another even firmer ‘Carry’, and he opens his mouth to pick it up. If, at that moment, you say ‘Carry, carry’ in a very enthusiastic and encouraging tone, at the same time running backwards and patting your hands against your thighs, the chances are that he will pick it up and rush up to you with it. If you just stand and look stupid he will probably either mouth the dumbbell and then come back to you without it, or pick it up and return at a slow walk, head and tail down. Not exactly what we are aiming at!

The retrieve can be speeded up considerably by playing with the dog and I always finish a retrieving lesson in that way. Having got a dog to do what we can call a ‘serious’ retrieve I make a great fuss of him and get him really excited. Without bothering about sitting I then throw the dumb-bell as far as I can, preferably into long grass or other cover, and let him rush off to find it. When he does I run in the opposite direction so that he will come galloping after me and I take it from him without worrying about finish.

So far I have dealt entirely with the retrieve for competitions, but as I have said I hope that many of you will train their dogs with a view to making them more useful. To test a dog’s practical ability in retrieving, the exercises as carried out in competitions are quite farcial. The dog has won the title of `man’s best friend’, not by being ‘almost human’, but by his ability to do things which man could not or would not do. An article that is ‘clearly visible to the dog’ is even more visible to the handler. So why does he not go and pick it up without messing about with a dog? Why in fact did he throw it away if he immediately wants to have it back? Some competition dogs would not even go to look for an article unless they saw their handler throw it.

If you want to have a useful dog, teach him to hunt for a dumb-bell and inconspicuous objects in long grass or other cover. Start by throwing them where he sees them fall but later hide them when he is out of sight. You can also encourage him to seek back for objects that you have dropped surreptitiously as you are walking along. That is of some practical value and will help to develop his sense of smell and his instinct to hunt — an instinct which should strengthen with use and make him all the keener to retrieve. The sooner you teach your dog to do this the easier it will be to teach him to search a marked area in trials. Perhaps I should put that the other way round. The longer a dog is kept retrieving clearly visible objects the more difficult it will be to encourage him to hunt for invisible objects. That may be one reason why so many dogs are so bad at the search.

Leave a Comment