Tips for teaching your dog to retrieve
Retriever puppies are awesome! Their innate desire to retrieve anything you throw is the best. And their (usually) easy going personality and ability to adjust to different situations makes them the most popular breed in the world. But fetching is more than just a fun game. Especially If you bought your pup with a plan to use it as a duck or gun dog down the line.
While the desire to retrieve in an innate quality, it is still a good idea to work on the concept of fetch with your retriever puppy to build that desire. It is also important so they can learn other not-so-innate behaviors such as steady (waiting for you to send them to get the retrieve) and delivery (bringing the item back to you and releasing it to you quickly). Let’s begin with how you can teach your retriever puppy to fetch in a way that he or she will transfer that knowledge to hunting as they get older.
When should I start fetching with my Lab?
You do not have to wait for your puppy to get older to start working on fetch. You can start working on it almost immediately after you bring him or her home. The video below shows me working with a 7-week old puppy.
If your puppy shows no interest in retrieving the first few times you try, don’t give up. Sometimes it takes a little while for the retrieving desire to build. Your new puppy is adjusting to a lot of new things. Don’t get frustrated or angry. Just keep trying. Eventually most retriever puppies start retrieving within the first few weeks. But it is important for you to introduce fetching correctly, because if your puppy has bad experiences retrieving while young, he or she could just shut down and stop retrieving. And that can be a difficult thing to fix.
Tools you need to teach your puppy to retrieve
What you will need:
an item that can easily be carried by the puppy
a closed off hallway
a well-rested puppy
Let’s discuss each of these in more detail.
An item that can easily be carried by the puppy
This should be an object that is not too heavy or too hard on their teeth. A small stuffed dog toy, a paint roller, or a tiny bumper (like the one I use in the video) will work fine. Try to stay away from balls, Kongs or other items that roll or bounce. While there may be a need to resort to these types of toys if problems arise, it is best to not start with them.
A closed off hallway or other narrow area with only one way in and out
You should do your first retrieves in a long hallway with all the doors closed or another long narrow area with no way of escape. The reason is that your puppy may decide to go out and get the item you toss but he or she may also decide not to bring it back to you. This is common and quite natural, but we want to start out the fetching experience without creating bad habits. By using a long narrow area with no other means of escape, your puppy is forced to run back to you. This gives you a chance to grab his or her collar to stop the escape.
In the video I use a short well-lit hallway with all the doors closed to avoid distraction and escape.
A well-rested puppy
You need a well-rested and enthusiastic puppy. This may be the most important thing you need for this exercise. If the puppy has been running around and playing prior to working on retrieves, your chance of success diminishes greatly. It is best to do this training just after they have woken up and “emptied”, aka been outside to go potty (see article on teaching empty on command).
How to teach your retriever puppy to fetch
Start by taking your well-rested puppy to the fetching location you have chosen. If you don’t have a long narrow area to use, attach a long, light weight lead to the puppy’s collar.
Knee down with the puppy at the open side of the hallway.
Tease your puppy with the retrieving item a little bit then toss it down the hall. See video above for example.
If the puppy runs out to get the item, encourage him or her with a GOOD BOY or GOOD GIRL and say HERE as the pup runs back toward you. If you don’t have a narrow area and are using a lead, gently pull the puppy toward you saying HERE.
As the puppy reaches you, grab his or her collar and pet the puppy. DO NOT be in a hurry to take the item away from him. Let him hold it while you pet and praise him. Then gently take the item away and throw it again. You should only throw the item two or three times per session maximum!
Common mistakes made when teaching a puppy to fetch
Young puppies are very impressionable, so it is important to reinforce the retriever’s love of retrieving while they are young and not inhibit it. Here a few common mistakes I see clients make when fetching with young dogs.
Hurrying to take the item from the puppy once he or she has brought it back to you.
The retriever views a retrieved item as a prize. Something they earned. So instead of taking the item away right away, simply hold onto their collar and pet and praise them. This lets them know how proud you are of them. Taking the item from them immediately may teach them that they lose the prize whenever they come to you and can lead to a game of chasing or keep away, something you want to avoid.
Having the puppy do too many retrieves in a row.
Building retrieving desire is done by limiting the number of retrieves a dog gets. If you end each session with the dog wanting more, that is great. If you do too many retrieves in a row, the puppy will likely become disinterested and tired of the process. Limiting the number of retrieves makes them more interested and “hungry” for the next session. A few retrieves each day is plenty to make your dog a retrieving fiend.
What to do if your Labrador puppy won’t retrieve
If, after a few weeks, you are still not having any luck getting your retriever puppy to fetch your pup may have low desire. This could be due to genetics or he or she could just be very immature and needs more time. In these cases, you may want to try using a tennis ball or other bouncy toy for the retrieves. A tennis ball rolls and bounces which can heighten a puppy’s desire. You do want to be careful if you start down this path. Only use the tennis ball for a few sessions and then try and go back to the dummy or paint roller. Dogs that only retrieve balls, frisbees and other items that roll and bounce often struggle when expected to pick up a dummy or dead bird.
Older dogs that won’t retrieve
If you don’t have a puppy but are actually struggling with an older retriever, over 6 months of age, that is not retrieving check out Help, my retriever won’t fetch anymore! for some helpful ideas.
How to train a Lab puppy to retrieve ducks or other birds
If you plan to use your retriever as a hunting companion, as he or she grows you will want to start introducing him or her to birds. We find that it is best if this is done while they are quite young. Here at Otter Tail Kennels we usually do our first live bird introduction when the puppy is about 12 weeks old. The introduction is done with a live pigeon. It is not uncommon for the first introduction to go badly. The pup often just smells the bird, or maybe even chases it a little bit, but they rarely retrieve it.
We follow this up with a second live bird introduction a few weeks to a month later. There is almost always a huge difference. The pup almost always chases the bird hard and picks it up and carries it around. Over the course of our training programs, we systematically move to introducing dead ducks, dead pheasants and then live flyers to the dogs. Through this approach we have great success with building the retriever’s desire for birds and retrieving.
Adding other elements
Developing and strengthening a retriever’s desire is only one piece of the puzzle. For hunting dogs, they need to learn to retrieve with many other elements thrown in. These elements should NOT be added until the dog has shown a strong retrieving desire and is closer to 6 or 7 months of age. Here are some of those important elements:
Steady, the act of waiting to be sent for a retrieve, is an important concept for hunting dogs. It would be exceedingly difficult and frustrating to hunt waterfowl with a dog that does not sit in the boat or blind and wait to be sent for the downed bird. Teaching steady should not begin until a dog around 6 months of age and has proven strong desire to retrieve and is obedient. You should NOT steady very young puppies much at all as it can cause them to be confused and can crush their desire.
Boats and blinds
If you are a waterfowl hunter, you should teach your pup how to fetch out of a boat and/or blind. Do not just assume that the dog will just understand. Getting in and out of boats in the water is a skill that has to be taught. Even if you have a ramp, most dogs need to be taught how to use it.
To start teaching this concept, start with a boat on land. Spend some time teaching the dog to jump in and out of the boat and let him or her get comfortable with this concept. Then you can start throwing some retrieves while sitting in the boat and having your retriever deliver the object to you inside the boat. After your retriever is comfortable with this concept, you can start moving the boat to water and repeating the process.
Gun introduction is particularly important for any hunting dog. And it is vital that your hunting retriever be introduced to gun fire slowly and systematically. You should never put your retriever in a position of hearing his first gun shot while in a blind hunting. This is a sure-fire way to create a gun-shy dog.
First gun fire exposure should be done from a long distance away from the dog and always with a retrieve. You want the dog to associate gun fire with a retriever, something he loves to do. We talk more about this subject in 6 vital tools every gun dog trainer needs.
Final thoughts on how to teach my retriever puppy to fetch
Teaching your retriever puppy to fetch can be a fun and exciting experience. Retrievers love to retrieve so much that it is truly fun to watch them do the work they were born to do. With a little structure and encouragement, you can help your retriever puppy achieve his or her true retrieving potential and set your puppy up for a lifetime of joy doing exactly what he or she loves and was born to do.
Remember, if you really want your retriever to grow and progress in his/her hunting this year but doing the training yourself sounds overwhelming or maybe your schedule is just too busy to get it done, I’m here to help! You can email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or just give me a call (651-303-6459). I would be happy to discuss your goals for your retriever and tell you about the programs I offer.
Until next time, happy retrieving.