Retrieve – Imprinting

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Great care must be taken not to use any force on a dog, especially if under the age of 12 months, in an effort to get it to retrieve! The Retrieve exercise, in obedience competitions, requires a dog to “retrieve promptly” at different levels. Firstly an own article chosen by the handler, then a dumbbell and finally any article a judge may decide upon provided it is not glass, food or dangerous to the dog.

The dog must not play with the article or chew on it. He must bring it back to the handler when told to do so, sit straight at arms length in front of him, hold the article until ordered to release it and then, when told, to return to the heel position.

From the above it is clear that retrieve is not simply a matter of chasing an object and bringing it back. Unless the retrieve is very carefully planned and controlled from the beginning, few dogs end up as reliable retrievers and most have to be forced to do so.


Step 1: Getting the puppy or young dog interested in retrieving.

Anything that the pup will pick up such as a squeaky ball, knotted handkerchief, old sock, rubber toy etc can be used at first. Allow him to play with and carry the article while you clap hands and make fun of the event. If the pup does not want to pick an article up and hold it, a treat can be placed inside the handkerchief or sock. When the pup happily carries the object and confidently comes to you he is ready for the next planned step. I prefer to encourage the use of a ball because most dogs love the rolling motion of a ball and will willingly pounce on the prey. It can also be rolled in such a way that it comes back towards you or be hidden so that the dog can smell it. If the dog does not want to release the ball do not force it from him. The dog should be encouraged to “hold” the article and then very gently get it to “give” by placing one hand over his nose and get the thumb and middle fingers of the other hand behind the ball from the front and then gently easing the ball out and praise him for letting go.

Retrieve articles should be used exclusively for retrieval exercises and be hidden between training sessions and must not be one of his regular toys. This helps the dog to associate the article with retrieving.

A good place to start teaching a puppy to retrieve is to sit down in a passage or similar quiet place and playfully toss or roll a squeaky ball about in order to get the pup interested in it and try to get him to bite and tug at it. When he picks it up you produce a second identical ball and now make that one very interesting by playing with it. The pup will drop his ball and will try to get the new one. Soon most young dogs will catch on to the game and run from one ball to the other. After a few days he can be encouraged to “come” by pulling him towards the trainer and making a big fuss and rewarding him with a treat for bringing and “giving” the ball. Great patience and many repeats of this game may be needed to get the puppy to “fetch” the ball. Gentle tugging at the ball teaches him to hold the ball in his mouth. The reason for starting in a fairly confined area is because the closer the pup is to the handler’s area of influence; the more likely he is to “give” the article. You do not have to chase the pup and you are in control all the time.


Step 2: The wall game. To teach the dog that HE must bring the article to YOU.

Next, the retrieve game is taken to a wall. A line is attached to the pup and the ball is gently thrown against the wall so that it will come straight back in the direction of the handler who encourages the dog to “fetch” the ball. In the beginning the pup has difficulty in stopping the ball and the trainer can easily pick it up and throw it again. This helps to agitate the pup and makes him more eager to “fetch” the ball. When he gets the ball the handler calls “come,” and with the leash gently guides the dog towards him and with a “give” removes the ball and replaces it with a treat.  The wall limits the area of movement of the dog so that the trainer needs only to pop on the line to get the dog to come to him. This exercise needs to be conducted daily until the dog willingly brings the ball to the trainer for more. When the dog consistently returns the ball to the trainer he is ready to progress to the next level.


Step 3: Eliminating the food treat

The trainer now moves to a different location, which allows for more space with a wall or steps at one end. As in the game above, the ball is again thrown against the wall or steps so that it returns to the trainer’s area of influence while at the same time he tells the dog to “fetch” and then quickly pops him closer to “give” before rewarding him with a treat. Soon the food /treat can be eliminated and a second ball can be introduced. Now, as the dog “gives” the first ball a second ball is thrown a short distance in the opposite direction and the dog is again told to “fetch” and is tugged back to the trainer who continues the game by throwing the first ball in the opposite direction. When the dog gets the hang of the game he will bring the ball close to the handler who must take it before throwing the next one. The second ball now becomes the reward for bringing the first one to the trainer and so, in a short while a very enjoyable retrieve game can develop.

Imprinting is not formal training. The pup must not be forced to get it right. Stop as soon as the dog begins to lose interest. Sessions should not be longer than five minutes at the most. It is best to stop while the dog is still eager to get the ball. However, it is imperative that the dog be exposed to controlled retrieval exercises for as long as possible and in different locations in order to get a dog that is 100% reliable.


Step 4: Introducing the dumbbell

Do not start retrieve training with a dumbbell because one careless incident can result in the dog having a bad association with the dumbbell for life. Start a new session by playing the retrieve game as above and then suddenly replace the ball by throwing a different object such as a piece of hosepipe or a block of wood instead of the ball. When the dog successfully retrieves the new objects, they are replaced with a light dumbbell. The dog will run to the dumbbell and after some hesitation may or may not pick it up. Some dogs will come running back for the other ball in the handler’s hand, but when it is not given will go back to fetch the dumbbell. By gently pushing the dog in the direction of the dumbbell and with lots of encouragement to “fetch,” one should find that most dogs would be willing to pick up the new toy and bring it to the handler. Now is the time for enthusiastic praise, hugs and a special treat. If he drops the dumbbell make him fetch it again by treating it as a big game. Pretend to want to grab it, fumble it and let him get it.

The dumbbell must now be included in daily retrieve exercises. Great care must be taken to teach the correct responses by controlling the movements of the dog. Do not always take the retrieve article as soon as the dog brings it back, but quietly begin to stroke him behind the ear, on his back and the side of his face and let him “hold it” for longer periods before saying “give” and taking the article with much praise. Occasionally just touch the dumbbell or roll it in the dog’s mouth before letting it go. Make sure that your hands are underneath his mouth before you say, “Give.”

Repetition in retrieval training will yield a high rate of success. Never over train! A few minutes, twice a day, until the steps are completed and the dog retrieves reliably should be enough. Make sure the dog returns to the correct Front Position. Make sure that the dog is in a playful mood before starting the retrieve exercise, not after a long walk, a big meal or when he is tired.

Mouthing: Some dogs start “mouthing” the article as it nears the handler because it knows that the handler is going to take it away. This can be corrected. Ask your trainer how? Suggestions: When the dog sits in front mouthing the dumbbell/object, ignore the dog completely until the mouthing stops. Do not look at the dog, wait until the mouthing stops, then take the article and praise enthusiastically. However, this method may take some time, so be very patient. A tap under the chin or on the nose with a firm “No” or “Hold” works for many dogs. Dogs do not chew/mouth when they run, so when the dog brings the article to your front, before he sits, say,”Come with me” as you turn around, take the dog’s leash and run a distance with the dog following next to you in the heel position. Then, stop and run backwards a few steps, calling the dog to you and as he gets to you, say:”Give” and take the article before mouthing starts.

Refusing to release the article: If the dog refuses to release the dumbbell after being commanded to “Give,” lightly hold the dumbbell with one hand, lean over the dog and with the other hand give him a sharp pinch in the waist as you command ,”Give.” Praise when he releases. Another method is to push the dumbbell sharply and quite hard backwards against the back teeth while, at the same time, you say, “Give.”

The stage has now been reached where it must be decided whether the dog’s retrieving is consistent and very reliable or whether forced retrieval must be undertaken. Difficulties must be discussions with the trainer, who will be able to suggest new training methods that can be carefully introduced if the dog is at least 12 to 18 months old.

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