Training a Shaped Retrieve

I am often asked how to teach a retrieve.

I train a "structured" retrieve.  That is neither a forced retrieve nor a play based retrieve.

In a structured retrieve, the retrieve is taught in a systematic manner. This is the same process that is used for most forced retrieves.  The difference is that rather than punishing a dog for dropping or failing to take the object, I click and reward for performing correctly, and mistakes are simply ignored.

The other major difference is that I teach the hold portion of the retrieve at the very end, after the dog understands to pick up objects and place them in my hand.

A while ago I taped a Border Collie's lessons on the shaped retrieve.  The following videos were taken over five days; there was no practice or work in between sessions.  As you watch, you can see that the owner and I trade off teaching - this is both to help the owner refine her technique, and also to demonstrate that different appraoches can be used to get the results.

Each dog is a unique individual and should be taught at their pace and with their temperament in mind.  A clicker savvy dog will progress faster than a dog that has had mostly lure or correction based training.   Don't worry about following this exact progression; simply use it as a guide to help you work through whatever challenges you may encounter.



BOTH methods (SG and Denise’s) are excellent, R+ ways of teaching a retrieve. I have successfully trained retrieves to dogs using both methods. I am in SG’s Puppy Peaks, Contacts, and Recallers courses, and I have many of the “extras” including the e-book where she talks about taking a couple weeks to teach a JRT with no shaping experience how to retrieve (in a method very, very similar to what Denise demonstrates) so I’m unsure how her method is “eons better”.

My youngest dog, Finch, is approximately the same age as Swagger and has lots of toy interest but did not have any sort of natural retrieve – in fact he had the opposite, he would run off with toys. It was very easy to use Susan’s retrieve method to teach him to actually bring stuff back and not haul off with the toy every time.

A few months after teaching Finch his retrieve, I was hired by a training client to teach her two toy-breed mixes (with severe underbites, which impacted their ability to pick up anything at all) how to retrieve. Susan’s method would have gotten me nowhere, these dogs had basically zero interest in putting objects in their mouths. I shaped a retrieve with both of these dogs using Denise’s videos as a guide. I had 9 hours of training time with these dogs (which also included teaching the youngest many other skills including recall, loose-leash walking, sit, down, hand targeting, etc) spread over 3 weeks, and by the end of this time the puppy was reliably retrieving multiple objects to me, my assistant, and her owner and the adult dog was retrieving one specific object we modified for her extremely undershot tiny mouth to the three of us as well.

Moral: both methods are extremely effective. Choose one or the other depending on your dog’s natural talents (or lack thereof). If one isn’t working, try the other.


This dog is not an obedience dog, so no reason to use a dumbbell; we were simply training for the fun of training. As far as time, I would argue that a force fetch and the structured retrieve are identical processes so should take the same amount of time. Of course dogs and handlers vary in how long it takes. These videos were taken in five consecutive days – I don’t consider a week an excessive amount of time to train a retrieve, and indeed I see no problem with taking a couple of months if that is how long it takes the owner to find a way to communicate with their dog. I consider a correct retrieve to be important enough that I’ll spend as much time as it takes for me to get it exactly the way I want it. If your goal is simply to get the dog to pick up an object, you can do a play retrieve – throw it and make it a game. In the case of this dog, the purpose was to teach the dog something new that she had never done before, more for the handler than the dog.

Mufaasa's Mum

Hm, this is an interesting method. I taught my dog to chase a ball the usual bumbling way which was to throw it increasing distances (there was never any trouble with drive to chase) and then running away and hoping for the best. I think I finally saw success when I did that as I walked around our park and he would sort of meet me half way, which eventually developed into an awesome retrieve (it’s his fav game).
However, when I tried switching to a different object (like a tug or a frisbee) he just defaulted to chasing and not really bringing it back. I decided to just throw the frisbee out and sit there with his dinner and shape him picking it up with zero verbal encouragement (aside from “Good!” which is my reward marker, I’m too uncoordinated for a clicker). It took a very long time in the initial sessions. For my guy it’s better to wait him out (instead of cutting things off after a few minutes) because he’s pretty smart and patient, and so will try to give up to get you to just give him the treat or lower your criteria to make it easier on him. I think I sat there for twenty minutes before he actually mouthed the frisbee on the ground. Also, he was super determined to just poke it with his nose since he looooooooves his nose touches, so if I had given up after a few minutes I seriously would not have had anything constructive to reward. However, after a week we were getting some pretty enthusiastic retrieves which are finally working outside, and in this case actually transferred to other objects.
Unfortunately I didn’t get a video of our early progress, but this is us five days in:

The DIY Dog (@theDIYdog)

I think how fast you\’re able to train this depends on the dog\’s natural retrieve drive and the handler\’s timing. It took me months to get an enthusiastic retrieve on my dog. She had no toy drive whatsoever when I got her at a year old. No chase, no tug, just looked at me like I was an idiot when I tried to entice her to play. She didn\’t even know how to chew on bones or chewys. Also, I had pretty atrocious timing with the clicker. That combination, plus my not wanting to take classes (stubborn, independent and broke LOL) meant it took me nearly a year to get her fetching.

With a dog that will actually mouth objects, I\’m sure it goes a lot faster! Denise\’s videos helped me a lot, especially with figuring out that I had to communicate to my dog that she was to bring the object to my hand and not just drop it on the floor where she stood. Once we got through that, things progressed so much faster. Now my dog will play retrieve for fun, and I\’m still amazed every time. :) I tried a force fetch but couldn\’t get around the ear pinch thing. And it wasn\’t doing much to build enthusiasm in a dog that had zero to begin with. I wouldn\’t change my \”year long retrieve\” for anything, though – it was such a learning experience for me. I\’m a better trainer for it, and understand my dog a lot better.

Really nice Denise, Katy and Kir! Love the use of shaping and relationship building with a very soft dog.

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