Now I have got a dog that is keen to search the square with no inhibitions. I hear you say ‘no articles either’ and this of course is a valid point! It is when we start to train the retrieve whilst the dog is working the square that we are likely to incur problems. For example; if my dog runs into the square, locates and picks up an article and then mouths it on the way back – what do I do?

Do I praise him for searching and locating an article?

Do I praise him for picking up the article and returning it to me?

Do I chastise him for mouthing the article?

Of course we all want the perfect square and nobody wants chewed articles, so it might seem right to chastise him for mouthing. But if I do that – particularly if I do that repeatedly, I would reduce his enthusiasm to work the square, it might reduce his commitment to locate articles, it could reduce the speed at which he returns, it would also probably make him less keen to deliver the article to hand as the closer he gets to the hand the more he is chastised!

It might seem obvious to us that we are criticising only the mouthing, but does our dog know that? Maybe the dog thinks that we do not want him to pick up that article – maybe it is the wrong one. Or maybe he should not have picked anything up. Does the dog know exactly what the problem is? Who knows what the dog thinks? One thing is clear though, if you criticise your dog whilst he is working the square you will cause confusion and that will damage your dog’s attitude to the square.

Confusion and anxiety come hand in hand: I am not talking ears pinned to the head anxiety here, or panting anxiety, I am referring simply to the dilemma of a dog that wants to please its owner but cannot understand what is required. Let’s face it our dog wants to please us (dogs try time and time again to hear a few words of praise). If you think that your dog does not want to please you, or that he is deliberately misbehaving because of some ulterior motive, then I suggest you stop square training and look at your relationship with your dog. (Refer back to the beginning of this article printed in WTM April 2012.) The whole point of dog training is to build a relationship in which the dog wants to please you; and you should make it possible for him to understand what you want him to do– so that he can please you. If he pleases you, you reward him -this is a satisfying experience for both you and your dog. You can build the dog’s knowledge and confidence in this way. A knowledgeable, confident dog will produce a good square.

So for me the answer to the question ‘What do I do if my dog runs into the square, locates and picks up an article and then mouths it on the way back?’ is:-

‘No, I do not chastise the dog for mouthing, but I make a mental note of what has happened and plan to train the dog so that the problem does not recur.’

Before I can rectify the problem I need to do some detective work to find out what is causing the mouthing. I know that he can locate the article and pick it up because he did that bit alright, the problem started once it was in his mouth. The first thing I need to check is whether my dog can pick up and retrieve the article in question.

Before being sent in to locate and retrieve an article from a square it is good practise to ensure the dog is able to do a simple retrieve with that article first. There are a number of standard articles that one is likely to encounter at a trial and your dog should be familiarised with all of these for a start. Things such as; a piece of carpet (varying size and shapes), a teaspoon, a plastic milk bottle cap, a gun-cartridge, dolly peg, wooden coffee stirrers (courtesy of Starbucks), half tennis ball, plastic plant ties, a knot of green garden string, a fir cone, keys on a key ring, and so on.  You should be regularly training with metal, wood, rubber, plastic and fabric articles, soft and hard articles, small and large articles, heavy and light articles. In short your dog should be trained to hold any shape, size, texture and weight of article that you can think of so that nothing he finds in a square really comes as much of a surprise to him.

Get to know your dog’s weaknesses and work with these to overcome them. Some dogs are not good with soft articles – they like to chew them, or shake them to death. Some dogs are not good with very small objects as they want to swallow them (take care when selecting articles to train with this type of dog as you do not want to end up asking your vet to remove something from your dog’s inside!). Start with something like a piece of carpet and reward the dog with a ball game rather than food to distance the swallowing action from the exercise. As the dog becomes keen to spit out the article for the ball game, reduce the size of the piece of carpet. Continue in this way until the dog will happily spit out a tiny piece of carpet in anticipation of the game. Then start the whole process again with something slightly different maybe a piece of fabric, perhaps a strip of your old jeans. Again start with it being too big to swallow and as your dog progresses, cut it smaller.

Some dogs dislike picking up metal objects. Focussing on metal objects with such a dog can often make the problem worse as the dog (who may have sensitive teeth) grows to dislike the game as it always sets his teeth off. The trick here is to play a fast game of fetch swapping through a range a different retrieve toys and occasionally slipping in a metal one. I once overcame a dislike of metal objects in my GSD by swapping his favourite rubber ring for a check chain. A check chain can be thrown quite well and after a week of that being my dog’s only fetch toy out on walks, the metal chain no longer presented a problem and after that he would pick up other metal articles without any problem. He just needed to view metal objects as ‘toys’ and he lost his inhibition. Another way of getting a dog familiar with metal is to wrap a metal article such as a teaspoon with string. As the dog’s retrieve improves allow the string to become loose and gaps develop. It will still be his familiar article but gradually as you lose the string he will have learnt to retrieve the metal spoon. Then progress to other metal objects in a similar fashion.

When I feel confident that my dog is unlikely to be phased by anything he finds in the square I need to check that he will walk, trot and canter with the article in his mouth without reverting to dropping or mouthing. Some dogs will do a perfect hold whilst stationary but mouth as soon as they move. This will need to be trained separately.

Some dogs will retrieve and carry the article very well in a static exercise but when starting exercise with the excitement of searching and finding the article, they become over stimulated and start mouthing on the return. In this case you could follow the dog into the square so that you are right behind him when he locates the article so you can help him to perfect his pick-up and delivery at that point. Just because you cannot enter the square in competition does not mean you cannot enter it to advantage during training. Some people seem to think that once four poles are in the ground there are man-eating crocodiles in the grass ready to snap their ankles! It really is not a no-go area during training.

Your dog will of course need to know how to deliver any article cleanly to hand. I teach this as a separate exercise and would never expect my dog to retrieve anything to hand if he had not first been taught this away from the search field. You should never teach hand delivery to your dog when he has just brought you an article out of the square. If your dog does not know to deliver articles to hand and you ‘get on’ at him when he brings an article to you, you will risk introducing a range of faults that we were trying to avoid, i.e. dampening his attitude to the exercise, teaching him to be reluctant to return articles to you, mouthing articles - as we know that anxiety increases mouthing.

So in my book the dog needs to be taught to pick up any article, he needs to be able to walk, trot and canter with the article held firmly in his mouth and he needs to know how to deliver and release the article to my hand. When he can do all of these things as separate exercises I can put them together and merge these exercises with the pole association as outlined in WTM November 2012.  If I check my list of desired attributes in the square, my dog now has half a chance of measuring up to my desires.


Anne Bussey