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A retrieve isn't chasing the ball, it's putting it in your hand. Focus on the delivery!

"He'll get it, but he won't give it back!"


This is not a problem of refusal.  It's not a power play.  The dog has simply not been taught how to deliver the ball.  This isn't a behavior problem, it's an incomplete teaching problem.


Dogs already know how to chase things. 

Dogs need to be taught how to deliver to hand.


Ellie has returned with the ball and placed it carefully in the hand.

retrieve ellie ball.jpg

Baby Puppy retrieve.  When you toss a toy out for your puppy to play with, watch where he takes it.  Go sit there.   Now the next time he takes it to that place, he is also coming toward you.  You'll need two similar toys.  When he gets there with the first one, ignore that toy and engage him in a game with the second one.  When he drops the first one to play with you with the second one, toss Toy Two and while he's off fetching it, pick up Toy One.  Cheer as he brings the toys your way.  Repeat.  Keep games short and fun!

Troubleshooting - BODY LANGUAGE MATTERS!

If you lean toward your dog you will trigger a natural inclination to keep the toy.  Step toward him and he will move away.  Chase him, and he will run away.  Stand up right, back away, turn and run away to encourage him to move toward you.  Retrieving is the dog giving the toy to you.  Not you getting the toy away from the dog.  See: "Teach a Willing Trade.

Teach a willing exchange, a clean and consistent delivery, and you'll have a reliable retrieve!

A retrieve is a behavior chain.


Cue "get it" - locate item - run to item - pick up item - turn - orient to handler - run to handler - deliver item. 

The Reward happens at the end of the chain!

"Back-chaining, teaching a skill by starting at the end and working back to the beginning, is one of the training tools that clicker trainers use to build highly reliable behaviors. It is a very efficient way to teach, a method that limits the potential for error and leads to fluency with less training time.


Back-chaining has many applications for animal training. For example, the retrieve is an important skill that can be taught "backward" easily."


  • Start by teaching the dog to take and hold the retrieve item

  • then to give it

  • then to bring it and give it

  • then to pick it up, bring it and give it

  • then to go out, get it, bring it, and give it!

from: Back-Chaining “Retrieve” | Karen Pryor Clicker Training

Some dogs prefer food over toys, some like toys better than food. 


For the dog who prefers toys, teach the two-toy fetch game. Each "drop" is rewarded with the next throw. The series is rewarded at the end with a game of Tug.

Step one: 
Build a reliable delivery: put it in your hand or drop it at your feet.

Key: He has to spit out the item to take the reward.  Encourage the dog to take the item and give it back.  Start by exchanging for a treat to teach the dog to target delivery to your hand (or drop a treat between your feet to encourage a drop at your feet.)  Mark the release of the item with a *click* or "Yes!" The dog will soon be eager to release the item to take the treat.  For the dog who likes food more than toys, hide the food behind your back when you present the toy so it isn't a distraction.  Taking the toy makes the food appear and the toy is only gone temporarily.

Even food-crazy dogs who have little interest in toys will learn the advantage of taking hold of any item in order to exchange it for food, and the dog who likes to carry things will learn there is value in giving up the item.  For the dog who wants to keep the toy more than he likes food, make sure he is hungry and use higher-value food and a lower-value boring item to start, something that will be less interesting than the food and easier to give up; like an empty paper towel roll that has no history of being something he'd like to keep.

Step two:

Take and return the item to you from various directions.  Extend your arm out for him to take the item from your hand and then encourage him to turn back to you to exchange for the treat.  Back away a step or two to encourage more steps in your direction.  Next, place (don't toss) the item on the ground at your feet and encourage the dog to "get it!"  When the dog is eagerly picking it up to give it back, place it a couple of feet away in various directions so the dog has to take a step or two to put it in your hand or drop it at your feet.  As he turns to bring it back, back away to encourage speed and enthusiasm.


Step three:

Drop the item just a couple of feet away.  Keep arousal to a minimum.  Chasing and pouncing promotes keeping, so keep it low key and short distances.  Change up the direction, keeping it short and casual.  "Get it!"  The dog should be turning immediately back to you and delivering it as reliably as before to exchange for the treat.  When dropping is going well, roll it a couple of feet.  Then toss.  Always be aware of any tendency to want to keep the item.  If he hesitates or slows down, back away to encourage him to move more quickly toward you.


Step four:

Gradually extend distance.  The farther he chases it and the faster he goes, the harder it will be to make the choice to give it back.  ANY reluctance is a sign that you need to go back and build your foundation again.  Change up the direction of the throw.

Step five:

Build a series.  The next throw rewards the return and delivery. When the retrieve to hand is strong and reliable, begin two-fers and three-fers - the next throw and chase will become the interim reward for a series of throws.  Reward at the end of the game.  Build stamina gradually.  He should be eager for another throw when you end the game.  He shouldn't drop the ball and wander off.

Step six:

ALL the above steps in new locations.

Generalizing to new locations takes time and lots of repetition.  Every time you take the game to a new place, start over with your foundation steps.  Don't move ahead until each step is reliable.

Expand your retrieve skills to teach your dog to help around the house!

Put your toys away - Day one

Put your toys away - Day two

(c) Carol A. Byrnes - Diamonds in the Ruff -

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