When choosing a dog for working trials, what do we look for? Do we select a certain colour of dog, a particular type, or breed? His structural conformation will be dictated by his genes, but you can maximise on his physical potential with good diet and fitness regimes. The aspect of your dog that is most malleable is his behaviour. What you do with your dog and how you do it will have a huge effect on how he develops: what he does, or does not do and how he does it.

So what is it we look for when choosing a dog? Is it the colour, or a particular breed, do we focus on conformation, or coat type, or do we concentrate on specific behavioural tendencies? Generally speaking, I guess most of us take all of the above into account when selecting our canine colleague. However, once acquired, you cannot change the dog’s colour, coat type or breed. But you can change his behaviour. It is important therefore to constantly re-evaluate your dog to ensure you are actually rewarding and utilising those behavioural tendencies that you selected. You need to look at your dog’s strengths and incorporate those strengths into your training programme. Dog training is not prescriptive; no two dogs are the same, no two trainers are the same. Your job, as a dog trainer is to develop and encourage the behaviours you want, by making them rewarding for the dog.  Firstly you will need to appraise your dog. You need to know what he likes and what he dislikes, - what are his strengths and what are his weaknesses? Is he a workaholic, or a greedy dog? Does he prefer to run after a moving toy, or would he rather lie and chew it? Does he like to return a ball back to you, or would he rather run around with the toy in his mouth?

If he naturally brings a ball back to you, you can reward him by throwing it again. Thank your lucky stars (or glow with pride that you know how to choose a puppy) your dog has an innate behaviour that you can use as a reward as well as an incentive to shape new behaviours.  If, however, your dog will run after the toy, grab it and run off with it, don’t worry that is still good – at least he wants it. Your job is to watch and notice what he does with the toy and then ensure what you do is compatible with what your dog wants. For example, if he wants to lie down and chew it, but every-time he gets near you with it you take it from him and then throw it again, you are not increasing his desire to bring it back to you. If however, you sit on the floor and tickle him whilst he chews his toy, you are adding to his enjoyment: he will be more likely to bring it to you next time. The majority of this type of dog have a favourite place to which they take their trophy – often under a table or chair where you are less likely to reach them and take the toy. Notice where he goes and on the next play time throw his toy across the room and sit yourself in his favoured spot. When he comes towards you do NOT put your hand anywhere near the toy in his mouth. Instead stroke his rump or wherever you have assessed he enjoys being tickled, but nowhere near his toy. He should relax enjoying both your attention and his toy. Continue to fuss him until he is completely relaxed and no longer trying to turn his head and the toy away from you. Now get up and walk away leaving him with his toy. Make no attempt to steal his trophy. Later when he has forgotten his toy (maybe to have a meal) pick up the toy and put it away ready for the next session. Repeat the above exercise until he is keen to bring the toy back to you for his cuddle. As his confidence in you not to steal his toy increases, you can progress to taking the toy after a little affection, to throw it away again for him to fetch a second time before coming back for his routine cuddle with his toy in his mouth. Build in this way but always remember his best reward is to have the toy, and ensure he is rewarded in the way he likes to be rewarded – not how you think he should be rewarded!

If your dog is the type who runs after the toy and then runs off to shake it and play on his own with the toy, the chances are he prefers games with the toy to the actual running and fetching components. In this case your job is to provide a better game with the toy – not retrieving. Start by sitting on the floor with an old sock or tug toy and invite him to play. Do not let go of the toy - you know he will run off with it! Make the game as much fun as you can for him. Notice what he likes and do more of that, - just don’t let go. After a few minutes take the toy and finish the interaction. Repeat this frequently until he will run to play with you and the tug toy without hesitation as soon as you sit on the floor and invite him to play. Now continue in the same way, but put his lead on when you sit on the floor before starting the game. The lead does nothing at this stage - it is just there. When the lead is accepted as a routine procedure before the fun starts, you are ready to progress. The next stage is to proceed as above and have your tug game and then throw the toy two or three feet away. He should pick the toy up and bring it to you so you can resume your usual games (the lead is only there to prevent him running off with the toy). Do not use the lead to pull the dog towards you; instead use the skills you have developed over the past few days to provide the games he enjoys. He has to bring the toy to you for the fun to resume. Build on this routine until you can dispense with the lead and throw the toy across the room for him to bring it back to you for the game. The fun he has with you and the toy is better than he has on his own with the toy.  Before long you will be able to stand up and throw the toy and he will bring it back to you for his tuggy game. Eventually you will be able to take him out and throw his toy and he will fetch it back to you like a natural retriever, just remember to frequently reward him with his best reward – the tugging games.

All of the above is designed to get your dog to enjoy playing retrieve based games. They are just games – not to be confused with a formal retrieve. I do not mind if my dog mouths the toy or shakes it, as long as he is having fun. I would not use a command that I will later use for my formal retrieve. So my play retrieve might be "fetch" and my formal retrieve when trained at a later stage would be "hold."

Maybe your dog has absolutely no interest in chasing a ball or playing tug. If this is the case you will have to train your dog to retrieve, because a dog with no retrieve will never make a trials dog!

More of this next month.

Anne Bussey