The retrieve is an important task for most service dogs, and the uses for this behavior go far beyond picking up dropped objects. The components of the retrieve — taking, holding, carrying and delivering to the person’s hand — are themselves foundation behaviors for other service dog tasks. For example, opening a door with a tether and helping with dressing both involve taking and holding. Bringing an emergency phone and delivering medication are both retrieves. This is a challenging behavior to train precisely, and it is not uncommon for trainers to encounter glitches in the process.
Three Troubleshooting Strategies for Retrieve Training
It’s a wrap!
Many dogs are uncomfortable holding specific materials, like metal. Certain items, including awkwardly shaped ones like inhalers, can be difficult for many dogs to hold. Foam tubing, on the other hand, is soft and comfortable for most dogs. It is inexpensive and can be cut to accommodate different sizes. If a dog is struggling to retrieve a particular item, begin by wrapping most of the item with foam tubing. As the dog becomes more confident, cut the foam down so that more of the item is exposed. This allows for a gradual, comfortable transition process.
Many materials, such as old towels and even duct tape, can be wrapped around hard-to-retrieve items to make things easier for the dog. When using a wrap, make sure that whatever material you are using can be easily removed and put back on. That way you can regularly test to see when the dog is ready to work without the wrap.
There are important distinctions between a play retrieve and a trained retrieve. For one, dogs chew and shake items when they play, but this is not appropriate for a service dog retrieve. Additionally, playful behaviors are associated with arousal, so they may lack the control and precision needed for service dog tasks. This is why trainers were often told in the past not to mix playing fetch when training a precise, controlled retrieve. However, play can be used carefully to help build a dog’s confidence and increase motivation during training.
There are two keys to using play during training. First, keep the intensity of the game low enough that you do not inadvertently trigger unwanted behavior. Second, fade out the play as quickly as you can, as soon as you have the opportunity to mark and reward the behavior you are looking for. For instance, if you are using a playful tug to encourage a dog to grip an item more firmly, click and reward the moment that the dog responds by tugging back. As soon as the dog is offering the firmer grip frequently, fade out the tugging. Obviously, this strategy is not appropriate for a dog who escalates in excitement with tug games too quickly. However, for many dogs, play can be a helpful troubleshooting strategy when training the retrieve.
Check the Training Environment
The trained retrieve is a precise behavior, and sometimes things that appear not to matter actually make a big difference. Of course, after you have finished teaching the behavior and generalizing it, the dog should be able to perform the retrieve in a variety of settings. However, the environment you are initially training in should be one that makes it as easy as possible for the dog to learn. Begin by looking at the flooring. It can be difficult for dogs to pick up items from a slippery floor. Depending on the shape and texture of the item, it may be much easier for the dog to pick it up from a carpet rather than a firm flooring. Additionally, it may be hard for a dog to stand still holding an item on a slippery surface when first learning. In most cases, it is best to begin training on rubber matting or carpet rather than hardwood or tile.
Consider distractions. Background noises and odors in the training space can add challenges. If the dog catches an interesting odor in the process of practicing the retrieve, you may be setting the dog up to fail. The retrieve requires concentration on your part and the dog’s. Having people or animals walk through the training space can interrupt the learning process.
Think about the size of the training space as well. When working on increasing distance for the retrieve, you will need a larger location. However, when you first begin to teach the dog to take and hold an item, working in a smaller space may be important. When using shaping, less space may make it more likely that the dog will offer a behavior that involves being in close proximity to you. If you are using a strategy that involves some limited play, less space also makes it easier to rein in the game.
A solid retrieve is a critical component of many service dogs’ behavior repertoires, but teaching the components of the retrieve will ideally be fun for both ends of the leash. These skills are the foundation of many useful service dog behaviors; an understanding of how to teach them effectively, and how to adjust the training process as needed, is a key component of the service dog trainer’s toolbox.
Learn more about training this important task! See our course, The Retrieve: The Essential Service Dog Task.