Last post I discussed how to get your young pup swimming. During the early months after acquiring a pup there is much to consider as far as exposure goes. One of those things is establishing a strong desire to retrieve from land.
Start with Sound Genetics
If you get a pup from a litter whose parents have a strong desire to naturally retrieve (i.e., Before the trained retrieve/force fetch), then you stand a good chance that your pup will have that same desire. I take this into account when selecting breeding stock. When selecting breeding stock, a trait high on my list is a strong “desire to acquire”, meaning a strong desire to go out and pick something up with their mouth. The completion of the retrieve is accomplished by the handler through praise and letting the puppy know they have done a good job upon returning to the handler. Retrieving seems to be something that if not worked on early and often when young, even in a well-bred puppy, the instinct can diminish over time. I’ve seen well-bred dogs at 5-years old that never had the proper development who showed little interest in retrieving. Of course, I don’t know how they would have turned out if they ended up in a more dedicated trainer’s hands, but I am left wondering if the dog had the instinct, but it was not properly brought out or developed at an early age.
Fostering the Desire to Retrieve
Let’s get into how I foster the desire to retrieve in a young pup. First, working on the retrieve should be one of the most exciting times of the day for the puppy. When you pull out the retrieving object get excited and talk to the puppy using an excited tone of voice. I want my pups thinking that there is fun on the way when they see the retrieve objects I use when they are puppies. For very young puppies I like to use a paint roller or a small canvas bumper as these items are light enough for the young puppy to carry and don’t seem to hurt young puppy teeth before adult teeth come in at around 16 weeks. I will do about 3-5 retrieves once or twice a day. A good place to do this is down a hallway or along a backyard fence. The fence or hallway encourages the puppy to go straight to the object without veering off course. Once the object is picked up, the pup has nowhere else to go but back towards the handler, which is, of course, the desired behavior. However, I often will simply go outside and toss the canvas bumper/paint roller in the yard with no barriers, and it has worked out fine for me. One thing to consider is that the pup’s powerful nose can be more of a distraction to them in grassy areas when working in the yard. If your pup stops short of the object to sniff something interesting to them, don’t get frustrated. Just walk out and pick up the retrieve object again, call them over, get them excited about the object again, and throw it closer this time. I have found that if I toss it so that it bounces once or twice while the pup is in hot pursuit, the instinct to chase and catch helps overcome their urge to stop and sniff before reaching it. If you’re having poor luck in the yard on grass, move to a concrete garage/driveway or inside where there is less scent to distract. One thing I always do at this early age is make sure the puppy is focused on the bumper in my hand before tossing it. I accomplish this by showing excitement myself and dragging the bumper in front of the puppy until he/she is trying to chase and get to the item while in my hand just before tossing it.
I do not suggest that you use the word fetch “as soon” as you toss a retrieve object, because you don’t know if the pup will pick it up when it leaves your hand. At this stage of development most pups are inconsistent in their willingness to pick up the object thrown. Instead, I prefer to wait to say “Fetch” until the pup reaches the object, and when they are just about it pick it up. This fosters over time the association between the word “Fetch” and picking something up. As soon as they pick up the canvas bumper/paint roller I let the puppy know they did a good job through praise. (Note: Some folks choose not to use the word “Fetch” until the trained retrieve is undertaken, but I have always done it this way and it has never been a problem. In fact, I believe it moves things along more quickly later during the trained retrieve (or force fetch), as by then a fairly strong association has developed between the word “Fetch” and grabbing something from the ground or water.) Now that the puppy has picked up the retrieve object, back away from the pup to encourage a good return. It seems counterintuitive to back away to get them to come to you, but a pup’s natural desire is to be with you at this point, so once you call them, and they see you backing away, they will often run towards you with the object in their mouth. As they run towards you bend down and greet them. Assuming the pup comes all the way back to you carrying the retrieve object, let the pup hold it for 10-20 seconds when he/she gets to you as you praise their efforts and pet them. If they dropped it half way back to you don’t worry about it. With repetition they will get there.
The retrieves must become farther and more difficult as the pup improves and matures. You can do morning and evening sessions for retrieving, but again, I’d suggest you only do around 5 or so each time while the pup is young, so as to not bore them. Also, just as with all training, do your best to stop on a positive note. As I said earlier, make a big deal out of his/her retrieving to you as this should be one of the best and most fun times of the day for the pup. Let them know through positive praise when he/she does something right in the retrieve sequence. Young pups can only see short distances at this stage, so make sure the retrieves are short enough that they can see where the object lands (5-10 ft at first). As they get older you can expand on this distance.
I have found that for some puppies, the use of treats can be helpful in bringing out a young pup’s inherent instinct to retrieve through the concept of shaping. Shaping is a gradual, behavior modification technique in which successive approximations to the desired behavior is rewarded. What does this mean? Basically, I, initially, use treats to reward the pup for touching or picking up the object, then gradually move to where I only give a treat when they move back towards me with the object.
Anytime I use treats for training, I only buy small, soft training treats so they can be very quickly eaten. I use them to shape the desired behavior over time. In the case of retrieving, if the puppy goes out and “even touches the bumper”, they immediately get a treat and are praised. As soon as they touch it, I will say “good dog” in an excited/positive tone, and give them a treat ASAP. Before long, they will pick it up, at which point, I praise them and give them a treat, even if they drop it before getting it back to me. Once they are picking it up fairly consistently and moving back towards me, I will usually not give them a treat unless they at least pick it up and move some distance towards me before dropping it. They are beyond the point of getting a treat for just touching it at this point; this is how one shapes the behavior. I will continue to praise them when they pick it up, however. As previously stated, I will move away from them each time they pick it up while praising them to get them running back towards me, hopefully with the bumper. At this point they will usually drop it at my feet to get their treat. I am happy if they are running out, picking it up, and bringing it back to drop at my feet and don’t require it brought to hand for the time being. Folks that have trouble getting the puppy to leave their side because the pup knows they have the treats usually are throwing the retrieve object too far at first or not getting pup excited and focused enough on the bumper before tossing it. If this happens, try tossing the bumper a matter of only a few feet after getting them excited, and start there. Lengthen the distance as they are willing to go further to touch and/or grab it. All you are doing is shaping the desired behavior through the use of treats.
When discussing the concept of shaping there are some technical terms that it helps to understand. As a psychologist, these terms were very familiar to me when I began to apply them to dog training. I don’t employ treats very much in training (although I do during puppy retrieve training and again when the dog is more mature on the training table just before I put the dog through a traditional Force Fetch program), but I have no problem doing so if I think it will help a dog learn a given task. The following are some of the terms, and is the sequence I go through, when using treats with a young puppy for shaping the retrieve: At first, I use a continuous reinforcement schedule (giving a treat every time they go out and touch or pick up the bumper). Then, I move to a Fixed-Ratio Reinforcement Schedule (where they get a treat every other time). And finally, I move to a Variable Reinforcement Schedule (where they do not know when they will get a treat and it is completely unpredictable and random). For example, when you get to the Random Reinforcement Schedule you might give them treats on the 1st, 2nd, and 5th times in one session, and only the 2nd and 4th during the next session. Once they are reliably going out and picking up the object and bringing it to your feet you can phase the use of treats out completely over time. The phase out period is usually accomplished over a few weeks for most pups. It is important to not skip the phasing out process, and finishing off with a Variable Reinforcement Schedule, as this is what makes the pup always wonder if the next retrieve will produce a treat and drive them to continue retrieving into the future.
Some pups will show great interest in retrieving at a very early age; whereas, other pups will take a few weeks to a few months to really show their love of it. Be aware that around 16 weeks of age their gums and teeth can be sensitive as their puppy teeth come out and adult teeth come in. This could cause a minor setback during this time. Some trainers will stop all retrieving for a couple of weeks during this time until they get through this developmental stage. Besides this possible momentary delay in training, stick with it and be consistent in working on developing their desire to retrieve, and most likely you will end up with a pup that loves to fetch. I usually will mix in one session of retrieving with a defrosted quail or pigeon once per week when I am working with a young puppy, but not more than that, as this may make the pup not want to retrieve bumpers, preferring birds instead. Some folks wonder why one shouldn’t use birds all time. Afterall, this is what we intend to hunt, right? For me, there are two main reasons: 1. Most versatile hunting dog puppy testing venues require the use of a bumper at the water. A puppy who has mostly retrieved birds during its early development will often balk at retrieving a plastic bumper. 2. I want my dogs to love retrieving bumpers because I want them to be able to use bumpers when doing more advanced work, such as when working on blind retrieves and marked retrieves, when they are older. It saves time and money to be able to reuse the same plastic/rubber bumpers each time doing these training exercises than having to constantly defrost birds to use.
In my first post I discussed how to get a pup exposed to water and swimming. In this one I discussed how to foster a strong desire to retrieve on land. Folks generally want to now timeframes and how early to start working on things. I like to begin working on retrieving in the yard and/or house as early as 8-9 weeks old with young pups. Here, I have provided you with the general methods and tools I have used to foster a love of retrieving in the young pups I have owned or help train for others. Your most important asset in working with young pups are short sessions, and consistency over time. Keep working with your pup to develop their desire to retrieve when they are young and it will pay dividends when they are older.