Retrieve Training: A Lesson in Understanding the DOG'S Perspective

  When I teach retrieving for obedience competitions, I try to utilize a puppy's playful instinct and build the topography through play. Often I can get a fairly complete retrieve through play, and then later on do a bit of pointed shaping to formalize the hold. An over-enthused puppy will cause me to move to a shaped retrieve; but since the happy puppy already thinks the dumbbell is fun, this is usually an easy progression. But for many people,  worry about faults motivates some poor choices during the early introduction to the dumbbell.

  A friend of mine is working on teaching her third dog to retrieve a dumbbell. It’s been a struggle of unexpected proportions, especially given that the dog will retrieve just about every other darned thing in the world except the dumbbell. So what went wrong?

   The first problem (which I see a lot when experienced people are training new puppies) was  too much knowledge about formal retrieves, and what is and is not approved of in the regulations, and fear that mouthing and pouncing and dropping the dumbbell must be prevented at all costs; but at the time training began, she hadn’t learned enough about the particular dog, and how the dog interprets information and prioritizes concepts. Turns out the dog is very flighty, moves away from motion toward her very reflexively, and is not all that creative or assertive as a problem solver. She is very responsive to social posture cues with both dogs and people, and very worried about being wrong, and is tense and uncomfortable with any new situation until she knows what is expected. Ideally we strive to shape most new behaviors; but the fact is that the dog often is too immobilized to be creatively acquisitive, and many behaviors have had to be taught through modeling and direct guidance, both with food lures and with collar guidance. This complicated personality is a frustration for a trainer somewhat new to the concept of shaping more complicated skill sets, and one who had one dog that responded well to a traditionally structured retrieve that started with simply putting the dumbbell into the dog’s mouth and built from there, while the second dog pretty much came with a retrieve factory installed. Dog number 3 is an ENTIRELY different experience!

   As many experienced trainers do, I feel that the trainer tried too hard to prevent mouthing or spitting the dumbbell out in the very early stages of training, rules that are not applied to any other toy, and the dog decided that there were too many unknown and somewhat illogical rules about retrieving THAT item compared to everything else she’d been encouraged to play with. I also don’t think the owner did a thorough enough job of preconditioning the dog to accept the actions and restraint needed to open the dog’s mouth and put the dumbbell in without eliciting flight instincts. She thought as long as the dog had been taught to tolerate grooming and handling that she’d done what needed to be done; but the handling and restraint of a dog’s mouth, her primary form of defense, is a slower and more specific process than she realized. I still believe that this is a big issue between the team that the handler is having to work on Undoing; but the owner has been diligent about working on this for several months, and I was surprised at how difficult the process of reconditioning has been.

   Then in general conversation, the trainer made a telling remark. She mentioned that this young dog was doing very well with house manners, and could be left in the house uncrated and unsupervised for fairly long intervals without doing any destructive behavior. One sentence in particular struck me: “She has her stuff, and I have my stuff, and she leaves my stuff alone.” And there it was. Dog stuff gets put on the floor; human stuff is on tables or shelves and is to be left alone by dogs, even though humans pick those things up and do all kinds of strange things with them.

   In the dog’s view, the dumbbell had been treated as human stuff that was, for some odd reason, randomly taken off of the shelf or table and put into her mouth firmly and then immediately taken out again. The intention of the speed of removal was to avoid dropping or mouthing it; but the dog’s impression was that maybe the owner had changed her mind twice: Here was a human thing, then pressed into the dog’s mouth like a dog thing, and then removed because that must have been a mistake. Danger! Irrational human behavior!

   The handler has been working hard at playing with the dumbbell as a fetch toy since we identified the original unfortunate association the dog made with the dumbbell. In the informal interaction, there is improvement. At this point the dog will pick the dumbbell up and bring it toward the handler, but spit it out like a hot potato if the trainer’s hand appears and moves toward the dog. The dog will allow the dumbbell to be put into her mouth, but will NOT actively take it from the trainer’s hand. To some degree, I’m not so worried about the take from hand since the dog will pick it up off of the ground, and the only place where that behavior is actually required is in the optional grad novice class. But I am concerned about the uncertainty about “dog stuff” vs. “human stuff” in the dog’s mind that is associated with the trainer’s gestures.

   So for the moment the mission is to continue to focus on convincing the dog that the dumbbell is a fun thing. I think the next step with this dog will be the food levitation stage of hold training to turn it into a positive choice of action rather than a tolerance experience in the dog’s mind. There will need to be some counter conditioning to the proximity of the handler’s hand to diminish the dog’s desire to spit the dumbbell out ASAP when the hand is near her. I’m hoping for a more enthusiastic and confident play retrieve with gradual shaping of a delivery to hand, which will require the handler to be VERY careful about moving her body and her HAND  AWAY from the dog to encourage the approach and not put the dog on the defensive. For the time being, I would put the take from hand at the bottom of the priority list. I’d like to have it, so that the dog can be taught a collar pressure cue for “This is not an optional behavior”. But because there are accidental first-impression superstitions at play here, I allow for the possibility that the better approach for the particular dog may be focus on the motivation to be comfortable with the dumbbell. If this dog can be convinced that it is safe and fun, she may not require a correction installation associated with the dumbbell itself.

   The moral of the story (so far) is to think not only about the behavior you want to teach, but also how you want the dog to feel about the interaction, the equipment and the activity in general. Don’t let that immobilize you; but let that inform your observation of your dog’s personality and your literal plan of action. And take a long look at YOUR reasons for what you are planning on doing with THIS dog. You may well favor a structured so-called “forced” retrieve philosophically for reliability; but that program will go a lot better if you have established a happy and at least positive, if not downright playful association with the dumbbell in your dog’s mind before you take that road. While I agree that knowing what you want ahead of time can help you prevent some unwanted behaviors, too much focus on inhibiting of “wrong” behaviors can end up inhibiting overall effort. So what if the dog drops the dumbbell, as long as he grabbed it? So what if he mouths the dumbbell now, so long as he kept it in his mouth? He can be taught to hold, and hold it still, AFTER he has learned to willingly grab it.

   When you’re training a young dog you are painting a picture in layers, not taking an instant photo of a finished product. The dog’s attitude toward you, toward the equipment, and toward the interaction is an important background layer for your painting. They set the tone and affect the pace with which you can successfully add the more refined details of the perfect picture. As with paint, you can always go darker as you go forward with more refined and finished details; but if you start out too dark, with to many inhibitive actions, it’s darned hard to lighten the tone up again without starting the production all over again. This lesson certainly applies to many skills, but the retrieve is often the first real point of personalized challenge in a training relationship. Pay attention to how your dog adapts to retrieve training. You’re probably being given some important clues about how your dog receives and interprets information that will help you with utility training down the road.