Before I present a dumbbell to my dog, I want to do some foundation exercises. To shape the retrieve can be challenging for beginner trainers and we sometimes get students that actually have created a situation where the dog finds the dumbbell repulsing and aversive – through shaping! By doing foundation exercises before presenting the dumbbell, you can be more certain to get exactly the behavior you are looking for when the time has come for training with a wooden or metal dumbbell.
I spend my time developing a good tug with my puppies before thinking about retrieving. When the dog is tugging well, retrieving is much easier. Tug games teaches the dog to grab and hold firmly.
I mostly work on retrieving toys because I want training with toys to be more efficient, with the dog returning to me with the toy any time I throw a toy or let the dog win while tugging. But I also feel that it helps my formal retrieve, since the dog is programmed to run fast back to me as soon as she picks something up. For my toy retrieve, I use hand targeting. The dog presses it’s nose to my hand with the toy in her mouth. This is really easy to teach some dogs, especially those who likes to carry things around a lot. For them, it is often enough to reward a hand touch a few times, and then present the hand when the dog is holding an object.
The most common problem that occurs in teaching this is the dog letting go of the toy as the hand is presented. My first solution is to take the hand away as soon as the dog lets go, then presenting it again as soon as the dog picks the toy up again (dog is only given opportunity to hand touch when she holds the object in her mouth). If the dog fails many times without improvement, I will teach the dog to hold the object in her mouth while I tempt her with treats, before trying the hand touch again.
What kind of object I start with depends on the personality of the dog. A dog that likes toys, but wants to keep them on her own, gets a boring object to start. A dog with less interest in toys, gets something easy and attractive. In the beginning, I do the play retrieve in separate sessions, but later start using it in play, with gradual increases in intensity and difficulty (indoors is usually easier than outdoors, some objects are easier than others etc.). While training this, I also introduce my puppies to different kinds of objects, like a few repetitions with a metal dumbbell if the puppy has a nice hold.
The start of the formal retrieve
When I start training the formal retrieve, I start with objects that isn’t a dumbbell, so that the behavior is good when I present the dumbbell for the first time. To start with, I use objects that are soft and easy, like a piece of rope, a thick leather leash or a fleece tug toy with two handles. The behavior that I want is similar to what I look for while tugging, with a firm grip and weight shift, but my priority now is koncentration and a calmer behavior. I want the dog to be able to sit down and grab, hold and weight shift (you will notice the weight shift even when the dog is sitting). The hold should be calm and feel heavy in my hands.
I have been a bit slow with teaching the formal part of it to Squid, so this is one of her first sessions: