Many service dog handlers need their dogs to perform tasks that involve retrieving, such as picking up dropped items, retrieving medications or bringing an emergency phone. The components of this important task — take, carry, hold and give — are also foundation skills for many other service dog tasks. However, training a service dog to retrieve is more challenging than it appears at first. Trainers can make the process easier by taking steps to prepare service dog candidates in advance. Here are four ways you can set the stage for success.
Teach a Nose Touch
Having a dog touch their person’s hand on cue is a very simple behavior that can facilitate teaching the retrieve. The first part of the retrieve training process involves teaching the dog to take an item that the trainer holds. If the dog already offers a nose touch, the dog is highly likely to immediately touch any item in the trainer’s hand. Building from the touch, the trainer can delay marking and rewarding until the dog grabs the item. A nose touch can also help address challenges that may crop up in the retrieve training process. For instance, if the dog is not delivering items to the person’s hand, incorporating some nose touches may help address this problem.
Teach a Chin Rest
Teaching the dog to rest their chin on the palm of a person’s hand is a simple behavior that can help with several aspects of the retrieve training process. As with the nose touch, this behavior helps reinforce the dog’s movement of their mouth to the person’s hand. In addition, chin rests can be incorporated in the retrieve training process to build duration on the hold. Some dogs get overly excited when working on retrieve training. Cuing chin rests during retrieve training can help dogs calm down.
Provide Toys Made of Various Materials
Service dogs need to be comfortable picking up objects made of an array of materials, such as plastic, wood, metal and fabric. Providing service dog candidate puppies with toys made of different materials can help build their confidence so they will be comfortable working with various materials in a training context.
A play retrieve is very different from a service dog retrieve in that service dogs should not chew, shake or drop the item when performing a retrieve. However, play can be helpful in the retrieve training process. A dog who knows how to retrieve in play may be more likely to offer behaviors like taking, carrying and giving when they are needed in a training context. Also, play can create a positive emotional association with this task.
As you take the time to prepare the dog, also take some time to prepare yourself. Gather items of different sizes and materials, like wooden dowels, training dumbbells, and household items like empty medication bottles and old remote controls. Review the training process and troubleshooting strategies. Training a controlled retrieve cannot be rushed, so allow plenty of time to work on this behavior. Also, be ready to laugh when things do not go as planned. Training should be fun for both the dog and the trainer!
Learn more about retrieve training in our in-depth course – The Retrieve: The Essential Service Dog Task