Building Play Retrieve Drive
Whether you are raising a pup for hunting or competition, or you simply want to play Frisbee with the family dog, the play retrieve provides a fun outlet for exercise, is useful for rewarding the dog in training, and lays a foundation for advanced training.
Almost all dogs have some natural interest in retrieving. Your job is to bring that out and develop it to a high degree. Daily play retrieving sessions can begin as soon as you bring your pup home from the litter at around eight weeks.
Just remember that your puppy’s attention span is very short, so end each session while your pup wants more — don’t keep going until she gets tired of the game. These methods work with grown dogs, too.
Typically, pups will show one of three different responses when introduced to retrieving. Some pups will chase a thrown or rolled object but not pick it up; some will chase it, pick it up, and run away with it; and a very few will chase it, pick it up, and return it to you. Most of the well-bred retrievers I have started as pups would chase and pick up; very few would actually return something to me at first. These actions make up the components of a retrieve.
Your puppy’s initial response shows you what you need to work on, and in what order, to develop a full retrieve in the pup. First, you need to stimulate the desire to chase. Once your pup will chase, you need to find an object your pup wants to possess or carry. And finally, you need to teach your pup to bring the object back to you. We will work on each segment individually and try to keep them in balance.
Stimulate the chase or prey drive in your pup
Restrain your pup and tease her with a rolled sock or tennis ball and when she is trying hard to grab it, roll it out about two feet in front of her and let her go. If the pup runs to chase it, great; repeat several times. Sometimes an odd-shaped toy that bounces unpredictably will excite a pup. Alternately, allow the pup to run loose as you drag a sock or ball on a string in front of her to tease her and when she is excited, toss or roll the object low and out in front her. Remember, your pup’s vision is not fully developed at eight weeks so if you toss too high or too far your pup will lose sight of the object. Your teasing and a little tug a war should stimulate the pup’s prey drive and encourage your pup to chase what you throw.
Now that your pup’s chasing, find something he wants to pick up
If your pup will chase but doesn’t pick up what you are throwing, throw something else. You may have to try several different objects until you find one your pup likes to pick up and carry. If your pup is not interested in your new store-bought puppy bumpers, try squeaky toys, knotted socks, or Kong toys. Some pups like empty plastic soda bottles with some of the air squeezed out and the lid put back on. If you cannot find a toy the pup likes, let the pup pick something out. Just watch your pup and see what he is getting into around the house. I have started a couple of pups retrieving my old shoes. Once they get into the game you can switch them to objects you want him to retrieve.
When he will chase and pick up, teach your pup to return to you
With all pups, work on teaching your pup to come to you when called in sessions separate from the retrieving sessions. Food treats work well with most pups for teaching a quick recall. Sometimes if you place the pup on the ground in a new area and run away calling to him, the pup will come to you. In addition to using treats to get your pup to return to you, watch where he goes when he runs off with his thrown toy. Many pups will try to run to a safe spot with their toy when they pick it up. Some will return to their bed or doggie mat. Work with that. Sit on the floor near the dog bed and throw his first retrieves. When he returns to the bed you can praise and reward him with a treat for the good retrieve. Now, this is important: do not grab and take the toy from your pup as soon as he returns. If you do this, he is not going to want to return to you. Instead, when the pup returns, get a hold of him and praise or treat him, but let him keep the toy. When he gives it up you can throw it again. You can also work with two toys. Once your pup returns and he has had a chance to enjoy your praise for that retrieve, tease him with the second; when he drops the first toy you can throw the next.
When should you teach your pup to wait for a command to retrieve?
If you find you have a physically tough pup with very high retrieving drive, begin to teach your pup to wait for your cue to go as soon as he is retrieving and really into the game. Hold the pup in a sit until he stops struggling before you cue and release him to retrieve. He will learn that sitting calmly brings the opportunity to retrieve, thrashing wildly doesn’t. A more sensitive pup with soft or medium retrieve drive doesn’t need early practice waiting to be sent. Let this pup go for the retrieve as soon as you throw as it helps build his drive.
What about birds and the hunting pup?
Birdyness and retrieving desire are two different things. If you are raising a retriever for hunting you need to develop both. Make sure you introduce your dog to birds right away, preferably before he is 12 weeks old. Once he shows interest in the birds, throw some bird marks for him from time to time as he grows up as long as he is not too rough with them. If he gets too rough, put the birds away until after force fetch. With a little effort and a few minutes of play each day you can teach your pup to retrieve. A solid play retrieve offers a fun way to get good exercise and helps build a close working relationship with your pup. You and your pup will reap the benefits throughout his whole life.