The retrieve is a fundamental behavior needed for most service dogs – and it’s a challenging one for trainers new to training service dogs. Unlike for pet dogs, the retrieve behavior must be trained very precisely. Service dogs are expected to pick up medication bottles, utensils, clothing and objects of various textures and sizes. They should not chew, damage or drop items as they retrieve them.
Unlike training a dog to sit, lie down or stay, the training process for the retrieve requires much more adjustment and responsiveness to the dog. Here are a few common challenges encountered in training a retrieve and strategies to address them:
The dog holds too gently, insecurely and the item falls out of the dog’s mouth.
Often tugging a little will prompt the dog to hold more firmly and pull back. Click precisely when the dog starts to hold more firmly and reward the dog.
The dog destroys the item, chewing hard.
More powerful and exuberant dogs will often grab items too enthusiastically. Take a step back and click and reward very early, immediately when the dog takes the item. Another strategy is to change the retrieve object being used to something larger and wider. Many dogs are less likely to bite down on a very large item. Slowly transition to smaller items.
The dog won’t accept the item at all, the dog appears disinterested in retrieving or walks away from the training session.
A common error when working on this behavior is to move the item being used to train the retrieve towards the dog’s mouth rather than allowing the dog to move towards the item. This can be intimidating for the dog. The fix is simply to hold the item in front of the dog and wait until the dog moves towards the item. Another error is to click too closely to the dog’s ear. Try holding the clicker behind your back or use a quieter clicker.
The dog knocks over items like drinks or bottles when trying to retrieve them.
I usually work with a flat sided dumbbell to address this. Place the dumbbell in the vertical position on a dog nose-height table and place one hand on the top of the dumbbell. The dog will need to turn his or her head in order to take it, Click and treat when the dog’s head turns, before the dog grabs the dumbbell. After a few repetitions move your hand off the top of the dumbbell.