Romeo was not a natural retriever when he was young. He liked to take things and run off with them, but his natural inclination was never to bring things to me. I knew I wanted a dog who would retrieve for me, even if it wasn't one of his favorite games to play. So I taught him to retrieve when he was just a pup.
If your dog is a natural retriever – whether based on his breed or just his own personal inclination – then you have it easy! If your dog is not a natural retriever, then it's a bit more challenging! Nevertheless, any dog can be taught to retrieve – some just take a lot more work than others.
I started teaching Romeo by shaping his behavior in small steps. First by rewarding him for looking at, moving toward, touching, putting his mouth on and eventually picking up objects – always toys at first. Once I had that part down, then I shaped him to drop the object in my hand. Once he was doing that, I began adding distance by gradually tossing the toy a bit farther away from me.
Romeo still (December 2010) doesn't love to play fetch as a game just for the fun of it. He looks at it more as a job he wants payment for – usually treats. But the nice thing is, I've used it to my advantage when he steals something he shouldn't have.
One day I was working on my computer and in came Romeo with a small pillow in his mouth – not something he is allowed to play with. Rather than make an effort to get it away from him, and possibly turn it into a game of chase (by the way, one of his absolute favorite games!) I asked him to bring it to me. He did. I went and got him a biscuit as a reward.
Since he clearly needed some activity – some constructive activity – I decided to work a bit on his fetching and see what else he would bring me. Normally, I have him go find his toys and bring them to me. Today, I decided I wanted to test to see what kind of unusual things I could get him to pick up.
I picked up my i-click (clicker) and put it on the floor. Although a little bit of a challenge, he did pick it up and drop it in my hand. Then I tried my watch. No problem. Then a canvas belt. No problem. I was looking for a real challenge. Since dogs generally do not like to touch metal with their mouths, I decided to test him with a mini metal flashlight. I set it down. He mouthed it a bit. He moved it with his foot. He kept trying to figure out how he could pick it up without having to grab the cold metal. He started to give up, but I kept encouraging him. Finally, he managed to gently grab the very small clip (that you would use to attach to a belt or such) and bring it to me. Success! I was quite impressed.
Part of the challenge of bringing me new things is him picking them up – the other challenge is whether or not he will decide to run off with it and play with it first. My small experiment today was fun – I stretched his imagination and abilities a bit, which is always a good thing to do in constructive ways. (He's already very good at stretching his imagination in non-constructive ways.)
What novel objects can you get your dog to retrieve for you today?