What do you do if your puppy or young dog has no interest in a ball, or a tug toy and you want to train him for working trials? All of the stakes in working trials have several retrieve based exercises – even the introductory stake has at least 3 retrieves (minimum of 2 out of the search square and the formal dumbbell retrieve). I guess you could train him for obedience –but only Pre-beginners has no retrieve, after that in beginners the dog can retrieve any article (you can use his favourite toy) then in novice you must have a formal dumbbell retrieve; and in test A there is also a scent cloth that has to be retrieved. Maybe agility is the best option! But even here a tuggy/fetch type game is usually used as an incentive or reward for jumping. Perhaps you should try heelwork to music.

For me none of the above can match the thrill of tracking. Training a dog to follow a specific trail and to recover articles left in the field at least half an hour previously. Working trial dogs regularly recover articles we cannot find. Even when we are told what the article is and how many paces away it is, or in line with a particular piece of landscape, we still cannot find it and yet the dog will go out with none of the above information and locate and retrieve the article.

There is no way around it - if you want to do trials you must get your dog to want to find and retrieve things.  Please note I did not say you must make your dog retrieve. I said you must make your dog want to retrieve. There is a vast difference between those two statements. Many a dog with potential has been ruined by a handler who tries to make the dog retrieve using compulsion and poor training skills. Shoving a dumbbell in a dog’s mouth and clamping his jaws around it will not make a dog want to retrieve! Equally flapping a tug toy in the dog’s face so he closes his eyes and turns his head away, will do nothing to help matters – no matter how much you say, "Come on Fido, play – please play!"

How then can we inspire our young dog to retrieve?

Fortunately for us, dogs are social, pack animals. Much of their early learning in life skills is learnt by watching and copying their mother and other pack members. Healthy young puppies are observant and competitive. In the litter they compete, firstly for the best (most productive) nipple, later for the prime feeding station at the bowl and the best place to sleep and then the best bone or the best toy.

Dogs, like humans, continue to use observational learning throughout their lives. Last month I saw a couple of people take a short cut through my local car park to the shopping precinct. I had never seen anyone go this way before, but having then noticed they were way ahead of me at the other end, guess what? I now use this short cut myself every week. I used my powers of observational learning to make my life easier. We all do it all of the time.

Both species also retain a competitive edge, although of course it is much stronger in certain individuals, it can endure into old age. Whilst breeding and selecting dogs as companion animals we have selected dogs that retain juvenile qualities throughout their lives. Many old dogs who struggle to get to their feet, once warmed up and moving, love to chase a ball – it is their main reason for getting up. Dogs love to play. One way or another they all play. We just need to convince our working trial potential that fetch is the best game to play. If you have an old dog that behaves like the one mentioned above, you probably also have a puppy that wants that toy and wants to play similar games. You may not even have noticed, but your older dog has taught your dog to play retrieve based games.

If your youngster does not retrieve and you do not have an older dog that will play fetch, you need to find one. Once you have found a suitable candidate, you can employ the processes of observational learning and competitiveness to teach your puppy the desired behaviours.

If you go to a dog training class, sit out when they teach the retrieve. Do not get involved with trying to make him. Instead allow him to watch, particularly if there are dogs in the group who love the fetch game. If, generally speaking, there is a poor level of success and dogs are not having fun, perhaps this is not the best class for your dog. Even so all might not be lost. Look for a dog that enjoys retrieving and befriend the owner. One way or another you need to allow your dog to watch other dogs enjoying fetching the toy. You might just need to keep an eye on the local park and plan your walks to coincide with dogs that love to run after the ball. Look out for an owner carrying a ‘chuck-it’ and accost them. Of course the other dog needs to be of a reasonable temperament and your dog needs to be under control on the lead. If you allow your dog to run up to a strange dog that is possessive about his ball your dog may well get bitten!

Once you have sourced your model dog, allow your dog to watch him play, but do not allow him to run after the model dog. Many dogs, particularly herding types will get hooked on watching the other dog run and can develop ‘an eye’ (as sheepdogs do when working sheep) so watching at a distance will not suffice, you really do need to get the dogs together and take control.

With both dogs on the lead, throw the ball and allow both to watch it go and then release the model dog to fetch it. Repeat this several times keeping the throws quite short to start with so your dog can see exactly what is going on. Do not allow him to fly around on the end of his lead or he will correct himself every time he tries to run towards the ball. Instead hold on to his collar keeping a little tension to prevent him lunging and to wind him up.  Just let him watch. When he is desperate to join in, take hold of the model dog, throw the ball just a few feet and release your dog. If you are lucky his will have used his observational skills and his competitive spirit may cause him to grab the other dog’s ball and you will have the beginnings of his first retrieve. Make a big fuss of him and then take the ball from him. (Having the dog on a flexi lead will facilitate this whilst allowing the dog enough space to run after the ball in the first place.) Hold on to your dog’s collar again and repeat the retrieve with the model dog. Again allow your dog to watch several times before holding back the model dog and allowing your dog to chase after the ball once more. Fuss him, get the ball back as before and return the toy to its rightful owner. Your dog will not have another go on this first session. Stop while he is interested and if possible repeat the whole thing the following day. After a few days of this you will have the raw beginnings of a play retrieve. Your aim is to be able to throw the ball and to allow the dogs to take a turn at fetching it back to you.

Separately, at home, you need to increase your dog’s desire to get the toy by teasing him and

not allowing him to get it. Again we are using the competitive nature of the dog. A ball on a rope is good for this. At a time when your dog is ready for some action, get the toy out and have a really fast action game with the toy either on your own or with a family member. The idea is to have fun but pretend to not want the dog to get the toy: it is your toy! Now you are being possessive. The toy is far too good to let him have it. You are aiming to stimulate the competitive nature in your dog. You will not achieve this by leaving toys around the floor to which he can help himself. The skill of this game it to really give the dog the impression that you are having fun and you do not want him to get it. Many people only do this half heartedly and are transparent in their aim. This will not work. You cannot plead the dog into this game, but you can trigger his drive by excluding him from the fun. At some time in your game when your dog is interested you will ‘accidently’ drop the toy to the floor but aim to grab it very quickly before your dog has a chance of getting it. Flaunt the toy – you have it, he missed it, ha-ha!

Repeat these sessions always maintaining the deception that you do not want him to get the toy. Do not rush this stage. Eventually when you ‘accidently’ drop the toy he will genuinely beat you to it and get it. Eureka, the beginnings of a retrieve! Keep the up excitement but be observant and note exactly what your dog is doing. You may now need to refer back to last months article  to develop your dog’s retrieving instinct.

If you have tried all of the suggestions in the first three parts of this series and you are still unable to get your dog to retrieve anything to you, you will need to train the retrieve formally. Many dogs that are taught a formal retrieve first, will later develop a play retrieve as long as during the training they did not experience anything off-putting which confirms their suspicion that retrieving is not such a good idea. Clicker training, where absolutely no compulsion is used, is brilliant for this. 

Traditionally, dogs have been forced trained for generations. It was often quoted that a retrieve would never be reliable enough for competition unless it was force trained – no matter how good the dog’s natural retrieve was. Books dating back to Colonel Konrad Most, William Koehler and Charlie Wyant all recommend forced retrieve training methods using differing levels of compulsion. Of course these methods worked well, or else they would not have prevailed. The downsides being;

1) If used by an unskilled person, or someone whose timing was not perfect, the dog could be ruined. Many dogs have been discarded from training programmes in this way.

2) Even when well taught using a forced training method, the dog’s first association with retrieving is a negative experience and any kind of stress can lead to longer term problems with mouthing, or reluctance to return to the handler.

I used to force train my dogs to retrieve, but now I have experienced the benefits of clicker training the retrieve I would never consider returning to the traditional methods. However, I always encourage my dogs to play fetch based games to enrich our relationship throughout the dogs’ lives. Games never involve any compulsion – they are just games that have been developed using the ideas stated in these few articles. Retrieve based games not only improve your relationship with your dog but can also be used to encourage and reward many of the working trial exercises. As I say, without a strong retrieve you will not have a working trials dog.

Anne Bussey