Any dog can learn to pick something up in his mouth and bring it to her handler. Although some dogs have an instinctive talent to perform this behavior, even the most reluctant dog can learn to retrieve using operant conditioning by means of a clicker and treats.
Each of these tricks involves the dog retrieving or picking up something in her mouth and transferring it to another person. If your dog has any difficulty picking up the prop you are using, don’t be afraid to go back to the basic steps of the retrieve using the new object. You will find that going back to kindergarten will help your dog’s overall grasp of retrieving and will make him less likely refuse to cooperate.
Go Get Your Leash Trick
This trick involves having your dog retrieve his leash and bring it to you. To make this easier on the dog you may want to have one place that you leave your dog’s leash, like on a doorknob or by the front door. The dog has to go to where the leash is kept and pull the leash off with his mouth. He needs to carry the leash to you and hold it until you take it from him.
If you teach this and the following behaviors using back chaining, you will find it easier for your dog to perform them because he is always moving toward the more familiar steps. Here are the shaping steps:
- Hold the leash out and ask your dog to take it. Click and treat the exact moment he puts it in his mouth.
- Back up a step and see if he will follow you; click and treat him for moving with the leash in his mouth.
- Put the leash on the floor and tell him to Take It. As soon as he picks it up, click and treat.
- Put the leash on the floor but don’t click and treat until he takes it and takes several steps toward you.
- Put the leash in various places at various distances and repeat. Click and treat for taking it under these new circumstances.
- Gradually move the leash to where your dog can expect to find it and click and treat him for going to that spot.
- Replace the Take It cue with Leash, by saying the new cue Leash right before the old cue. Gradually fade Take It so that your dog will perform the behavior on the new cue.
Get the Mail/Newspaper
This trick works well if you have a door slot for your mail or you have a daily newspaper that gets delivered to your door. For this trick, your dog has to go to where the mail or paper is kept, pick up the item, bring it to you, and release it into your hand. Here are the shaping steps:
- Teach your dog to carry nonessential letters and junk mail without stopping to shred them before you use the real thing. (“The dog ate the mortgage bill” probably won’t go over well with your spouse.) Do this by clicking and treating your dog for taking the letter or newspaper and holding it without mouthing it.
- Take a step or two away and have him bring it to you. Click and treat the motion of moving toward you.
- Put the letter on the floor and tell your dog to Take It. You may want to use junk mail for this part until your dog refines his techniques in picking up something so close to the floor.
- When your dog is retrieving with finesse, begin to work him with the real mail pile or newspaper.
- Label this behavior Mail or Paper by saying this new cue right before the current cue Take It; pretty soon your dog will be fetching with enthusiasm and finesse.
Go Find the Remote
Visitors, especially those with only a mild interest in dogs, love this trick. Guests are always impressed when a dog can serve a useful purpose. If your housemate tends to hog the remote control, your dog can be your advocate in getting it back with a smile. For this trick, the dog has to find the remote, pick it up, carry it to you, and drop it in your hand.
- Hand your dog the remote and click and treat him for holding it.
- Back away a step or two and click and treat him for carrying it to you.
- Put the remote on the couch or coffee table and tell your dog to Take It. Click and treat him for picking it up in his mouth.
- Send him into the living room at greater distances and click and treat him when he finds the remote.
- Call him to you as he gets the hang of this and click and treat him for holding it until you reach out to take it.
- Replace Take It with the command Remote by offering the new cue right before the old cue “Take It.”
Go Get the Phone
Nothing is better than having your own personal answering service. For this trick your dog has to go and retrieve the phone and bring it back to you. You may want to use a cordless phone for this and store it on a low table or the floor to make it easy for your dog to reach it.
Using a cordless phone for this trick is ideal, but you may want to start practicing with the receiver from an old phone to prevent damage to your existing one. Once the dog is pretty good at picking up the receiver without damaging it, make sure you make the real thing easily accessible to prevent dropping it or knocking it off a table.
- Hand your dog the receiver and tell her to Take It. Click and treat your dog for taking it in his mouth and holding it for a few seconds.
- Hand your dog the phone and back away from him, encouraging him to follow you. Click and treat him for carrying the phone to you. Make sure the click happens while he is moving toward you, not when he arrives.
- Repeat this step again, but now click and treat your dog for delivering the phone to you.
- Put the phone on the floor and ask him to Take It; click and treat him for picking up the phone.
- Put the phone at greater distances and have him retrieve it from further away. Time the click and treat for when your dog puts his mouth on the phone.
- Increase the difficulty by delaying the click until he has the phone and is turning back to you. You can use a voice prompt like his name or the Come command.
- Label the behavior Get the Phone by saying it right before the commands Take It and Come, until you can gradually fade the old commands and replace them with the new command Go Get the Phone.
- Practice in short sessions until your dog begins to move toward the phone on the command Go Get the Phone.
Go Get Your Dish
This trick is a great way to show off your dog’s intelligence. You’ll probably want to keep his food dish in one spot so that he knows where to go to get it. For this trick your dog goes and brings his empty dish to you.
Some dogs find it hard to retrieve metal dishes, in which case you may want to use a plastic one instead. If you decide to use the metal dish, don’t be afraid to review the retrieving steps with this new object. The shaping steps are as follows:
- Hand your dog his dish and tell him to Take It. Click and treat him for holding the dish.
- Take a step away and call him to you. Click and treat him for moving toward you with the dish in his mouth.
- Put the dish on the floor and tell him to Take It; click and treat him for picking up the dish.
- Repeat this step but back away and click and treat the dog for picking up the dish and moving toward you.
- Put the dish closer and closer to where you normally keep it and send him to take it over greater distances.
- As your dog gets good at this, replace Take It with the new verbal cue Wanna Eat? by saying the new cue right before the old cue, until the dog starts the behavior on the new cue.
Find My Car Keys Please
If you constantly lose your keys, this trick may save you a lot of time. Your dog has to use his eyes and sense of smell to locate your keys. Then he will pick them up, bring them to you, and release them into your outstretched hand. The shaping steps are as follows:
- Hand your dog your keys and tell him to Take It. Click and treat him for holding your keys.
- Take a few steps back and call him to you. Click and treat him for moving toward you with the keys in his mouth.
- Put the keys on the floor and tell him to Take It; click and treat him for picking up the keys.
- Repeat the previous step but back away. Click and treat him for picking up the keys and moving toward you.
- Put the keys in different places at varying distances and click and treat your dog for finding them. Vary where you put them, sometimes leaving them out in the open, sometimes leaving them concealed.
- Gradually work it so that your dog is actively searching for your keys. When you are at this point, go ahead and label it Keys. Replace Take It by giving the new cue Keys right before the old cue. Then, gradually fade the old cue.
- Practice this one frequently to keep your dog motivated about searching for your keys.
Just when you think you’ve covered pretty much everything, new games and tricks come along to keep you and your pet learning together. Play them in your backyard, at the beach, or in the living room. Your dog is part of your family; if he’s well trained and well behaved, he’ll be treated as such.
Let’s Play Ring Toss – Retrieving Game
This old-fashioned game is a wonderful way to occupy a high-energy dog. For this trick the dog has to pick up each ring and place it on the post one at a time. This behavior is repeated until all three rings are on the post. You can buy an inexpensive ring toss game in any toy or department store. The shaping steps for this trick are as follows:
- Hand your dog a ring and click and treat him for holding it.
- Put the post close to you and have the dog deliver the ring close to the post. Click and treat him for releasing it over the post.
- You may help the dog by tapping the post and encouraging him to drop it. Click and treat him for gradually closer attempts to leave the ring close to the post.
- Withhold the click and treat and only click attempts to put the ring on the post. Once the dog is able to find the post on his own, add a label just before he drops the ring over the post. You can choose any label you like.
With patience and time, this can be a very entertaining game for your dog to play.
Sea Hunt – Retrieving Game
For this trick, your dog has to fetch things out of a body of water. You can use a baby pool, the bathtub, a bucket, or a lake or pond. The goal for the dog is to retrieve all the items you sink or float and bring them back to dry land.
This is a terrific warm-weather game because it gives your dog a great way to cool off. Fill up a baby pool with a few inches of water and sink some treasures for him to retrieve. The shaping steps for teaching your dog to play Sea Hunt are as follows:
- Hold an object on the surface and ask the dog to Take It. Click and treat him for putting his mouth around it.
- Hold the item just below the surface and click and treat the dog for dipping his nose under and taking it.
- Gradually hold the item deeper until the dog is snagging it off the bottom.
- Vary what you have the dog retrieve and keep the game light and fun.
- Vary the depth of the water as your dog gets better at this game to make it more interesting and fun for everyone involved. Once the dog is grabbing the object easily without much help from you, add the cue/label Take It just before the dog puts his mouth on the object.
Achoo! Can I Have a Tissue?
This trick is a real crowd pleaser. To perform this trick, the dog has to retrieve a tissue on a sneeze cue. Who wouldn’t be amazed by a dog getting you a tissue when you sneeze? For this trick you need a pop-up box of tissues and a convincing fake sneeze. The shaping steps for teaching this trick are as follows:
- Hand the dog a tissue and click and treat him for taking it and holding it.
- Take a step away and have him bring it to you. Click and treat him for moving toward you with the tissue in his mouth.
- Introduce the tissue box by pulling a tissue out and placing it across the top of the box. Click and treat the dog for taking the tissue off the top of the box.
- Gradually tuck the tissue in so the dog has to pull the tissue out to get his click and treat.
- Replace the old cue Take It with the new cue Achoo! by saying the new cue right before the old cue.
- Click and treat the dog for starting the behavior as you sneeze.
Teach your dog to grab a tissue without tearing it into a million pieces by giving him lots of opportunities to practice and by not letting him hold the tissue for too long. You may also want to keep the tissue box in one place so the dog knows where to go to get a tissue when you sneeze.
Retrieving tricks are some of the most impressive because they involve several steps and highlight a dog’s ability to think things through to put together a great performance. Each trick involves different props, but they all involve the same basic skill of being able to pick something up and carry it back to you. Reviewing the basic retrieve with the new item is a great way to warm up any new trick regardless of how experienced your dog is.
Shaping the Retrieve
To shape the process of retrieving, break it down into tiny increments. Even dogs that are retrieving fanatics may refuse to pick up certain objects like keys or tools. Teaching a shaped retrieve using operant conditioning will make your dog a reliable retriever, and it will also give you a strong base for teaching the retrieving tricks that follow.
When shaping a dog to retrieve, it is best to pick an easy object to start with, something the dog is likely to pick up on his own. If you’re not sure what texture appeals to your dog, set out a bunch of objects and see which he chooses to play with on his own.
When you are training for retrieving exercises, use an object that you can put away when the session is over. Keep the item “special” so that your dog looks forward to working with it every time you practice.
Most dogs don’t like to pick up metal and have difficulty picking up small objects that require them to smoosh their noses into the floor trying to get their mouths around it. Choose something your dog can get his mouth around easily, such as a face cloth, a retrieving dumbbell, or a small empty box.
Using a novel object will make it more likely that your dog will at least investigate it, giving you a starting point for shaping the retrieve. Teach the retrieve by breaking it down into the most basic steps so that it won’t fall apart later. The shaping steps to teach the retrieve are as follows:
- Put an item on the floor about three feet away from your dog.
- Click and treat him for moving toward it.
- Click and treat him for touching the object with his nose.
- Repeat this step about a dozen times and then withhold the click.
- If he mouths the object at all, click and treat.
- Once your dog is mouthing the object, withhold the click until he picks up the object.
- Delay the click once more and build the time he will hold the object.
- Add distance by putting the object a short distance away at first and gradually increasing it.
- Label the retrieve Take It as the dog is picking up the object.
- Label the release of the object Give or Leave It.