Teaching the Retrieve

Whether it is in AKC Open or Utility, or in Schutzhund or Ringsport, retrieves are often the exercises which can make or break a score in obedience. There are basically three methods used to teach an obedience retrieve, and each has its drawbacks and benefits. It is up to the individual handler to decide which one best suits his "training temperament."

The three types are:
1) Play/Prey based retrieve in which the dumbbell is understood by the dog to be a sort of toy, or play object, which he fetches as part of a game.
2) The forced, or compulsive retrieve, in which the dog is subjected to pressure until he takes the dumbbell. He understands that the only "safe" thing to do is get the dumbbell into his mouth.
3) The shaped retrieve, in which the dumbbell is not a play thing, but the dog learns to use it as currency to "buy" other desired rewards such as play or food.

In training more than a dozen dogs to various ( Schutzhund, CDX, UD) titles requiring formal retrieves I have tried all three methods, and it has been my experience that the properly developed shaped retrieve is the most reliable and certainly the most enjoyable to teach with the fewest negative consequences. Here are the pros and cons as I see them:

The play/prey retrieve seems appealing for those dogs with a lot of natural prey drive or chase instinct . They already have a natural desire to chase and grab objects, and it is relatively easy to get these dogs to fetch a dumbbell, a stick, a toy , or any other thrown or moving object. Sometimes it is difficult to have the dog transition to staying put while the object settles and the drive to fetch it diminishes with the length of time it lies still or "dead." Dogs trained with this method will often have a bad habit of mouthing the dumbbell , tossing it in their mouths to make it move more, hitting it with their feet to make it move, or snatching it up in a trial setting only to parade it maddeningly in front of the judge, spectators, and everyone else but the handler to see if they can get someone to buy into their game.

The forced retrieve, when done properly by someone with impeccable timing is often a very correct and proper exercise, with relatively high reliability. My problem with it is that so often it is not properly done, and it is much easier to create serious training problems from a badly done forced retrieve than a mishandled shaped retrieve. Behavioral science tells us that behavior taught using strong compulsion can be very hard to extinguish. Unfortunately, what is often taught with this method is avoidance and distrust. In all of our other dealings with the dog, we have only punished him after he has done something wrong. In a classic negative punishment based forced retrieve, we start out punishing the dog ( applying pressure) as soon as he sees the dumbbell, and he has no idea what he has done "wrong" to deserve an ear pinch or collar twist. He immediately assumes it has something to do with that wooden thing, and that wooden thing is bringing discomfort, so it must be a bad thing and should be avoided. Weeks are spent getting the dog over this idea, and conventional wisdom, at least in the schutzhund world, is that all other training must stop until the dog "works through" this problem of avoidance and mistrust.

Problems often show themselves in avoidance behavior toward the dumbbell, such as turning the head away, failing to go out, cringing, lying down at the dumbbell, or leaving the field. Others are a fast pick up but slow return, mouthing, or the other end of the spectrum, failing to give up the dumbbell which must be pried from the dog's mouth, and dropping the dumbbell while returning. All the problems have solutions of course, but why have to fix so much wen you don't have to break it in the first place? Even so, my chief objection to the "forced fetch" is that I don't care to have that sort of relationship with my dog. I like him or her to feel that experimenting and offering behaviors is a good thing, and it makes for a broader spectrum of behaviors I can use or shape to get desired results in many exercises.

That said, teaching a retrieve using shaping does not preclude eventually giving the dog a correction for failing to complete his task, but the correction comes only after the dog has a complete understanding of what is required of him, and chooses to do otherwise because he perceives something else maybe more rewarding ( like jumping ahead to the go-out, because he enjoys that exercise more.) He knows what the correction is for, why it happened and how to avoid it, and the flow of understanding between dog and handler is uninterrupted.

The shaped retrieve is not without its down sides. It absolutely takes longer. Building the understanding of "currency and exchange" in the dog or young puppy is time consuming. Sessions are short, generally no longer than 10 minutes, but they are many, and must be repeated with gradual increases in the frequency of the desired behavior over a long period of time. However, you will not find yourself dreading your training sessions, and feeling as though you ought to apologize to your dog for what you are about to do to him. You will not see the dog cringe and try to hide when you bring the dumbbell out, and you will not have to tell yourself that "these things just have to be done," as you watch your dog twist and squirm and scream while you apply chocking pressure with one hand and hold the dreaded dumbbell in front of his face with the other. Or, even worse, fight the creepy feeling of being a torturer as you hoist him onto "The table" so you can hog tie him for his "session."

With shaping, mouthing can still sometimes be a problem, but since the dumbbell is never treated as a toy or play object, it is generally minimal, and easily corrected without losing drive. You may have some excess enthusiasm, and see dogs that bark in anticipation of the retrieve, which can lose points as well, but again, that is easily addressed without knocking down the dog's enthusiasm. You generally will get very fast pickups with equally fast returns, since the return is where the reward happens, and will not get the playing footsie, hard mouthing or refusal to give up the prize.

What I like is the practical application around the house. With a whole house full of shaped-retrieve trained German shepherd dogs, I never have to bend over to pick up anything. I don't have to gather up metal food dishes at feeding time, or crawl into the backs of crates to get them out . Its a scrabble to see who gets to be the one to "bring" whatever I indicate, any where, any time, because there could be a goodie forthcoming. With sufficient repetitions, the mere act of retrieving becomes intrinsically rewarding and I don't have to lure or offer a payoff to get what I want.

There are many sources for learning the classical forced retrieve, so I won't elaborate on that; likewise a play retrieve which is fairly intuitive for anyone who plays with his dog. The shaped retrieve is a fairly new concept, and I will describe how I use it next.

Copyright 2003 Julia Priest

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