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Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: Part One

For many Service Dog teams, formal retrieving is one of the most important tasks. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the hardest Service Dog tasks to teach. In the professional dog training world, a formal retrieve consists of picking up or taking, holding and carrying any object pointed out to the dog until he’s told to release it to the trainer’s hand. While it takes patience, time and a good sense of humor, you, too, can learn to teach your Service Dog to retrieve.

Retrieving is the foundation for more Service Dog tasks than we’d care to try to count. Tasks like opening doors, carrying bags, picking up dropped items, fetching the phone, delivering messages and helping a handler to dress/undress all begin with retrieving. If a human would use their hands to do something, it’s likely a Service Dog is going to use their mouth, which means retrieving. By teaching your Service Dog to retrieve, you open up a whole new realm of task work possibilities.

When teaching the retrieve, it’s important to remember the end goal: creating a happy, motivated worker who clearly understands what they’re being asked to do. In this case, your goal is to teach your Service Dog to retrieve, or pick up and hold until released, any object pointed out to him. It’s vital that you take things as slow as is necessary for your partner. Trying to rush will only create frustration and stress and will wreak havoc on the training process. Training a Service Dog to reliably retrieve takes a lot of time, patience and understanding, but the end results are well worth it.

Teach Service Dog to Retrieve

SD Axel nose-bumps a retrieving dummy.

There are many different methods of teaching a Service Dog to retrieve, but we’re going to present the “motivational retrieve,” or a method of teaching the Service Dog retrieve that relies solely on positive reinforcement and shaping. While a motivational retrieve takes longer to teach than a forced retrieve, dogs who are taught to retrieve using motivational methods tend to be happier workers and they’re usually less stressed and fearful than Service Dogs who are taught to retrieve using force or pain-based methods.

Keep in mind that any age of dog or puppy can begin learning the foundation retrieve behaviors. Puppies as young as 5-7 weeks are capable of mastering the skills required in formal retrieval. When you’re first starting with a young puppy, your job will be infinitely easier if you accustom your future Service Dog in Training to carrying, mouthing and playing with a variety of textures. When your puppy is supervised, offer him glass bottles, short lengths of metal and PVC pipes, keys on a ring and other “toys” with slick, cool or otherwise “not fun” textures to play with. If your SDiT is used to a variety of textures and “feels,” you won’t have to struggle nearly as much when introducing the traditionally more difficult objects.

Teach a Service Dog to Retrieve: Prerequisites
Before beginning to train your Service Dog to retrieve, you need to understand how to mark behaviors with a clicker. Timing is vital during retrieval training, and you need to be confident of your ability to get it right before starting to teach your Service Dog to retrieve. You also need thoroughly understand that retrieval training is a process and that it will take as long as it takes.

Your puppy or dog needs to be clicker conditioned, able to focus on you for short periods of time, and know the basics of how to target.

Teach a Service Dog to Retrieve: Things You’ll Need

  • Dumbbell or Retrieving Dummy (Check out J&J for great dumbbells)
  • Clicker
  • High-value treats (diced chicken, cheese, hot dogs)
Teach Service Dog to Retrieve

SD Axel mouths a retrieving dummy.

Teach a Service Dog to Retrieve: Targeting

  1. Sit in a chair with your Service Dog facing you.
  2. Hold the dumbbell and clicker in one hand and treats in the other.
  3. Present the dumbbell to your partner. Click and treat for nose bumps.
  4. Move the dumbbell from side to side. Continue clicking and treating for nose targeting. Ignore pawing, vocalizing or anything except nose bumps.
  5. Continue practicing until your Service Dog will move a couple feet in either direction to nose bump the dumbbell.

Teach a Service Dog to Retrieve: Mouthing

  1. Stop clicking for nose bumps. Just wait. Don’t offer any cues and don’t lead or guide your partner. After a few seconds of trying to nose bump the dumbbell without any response, your Service Dog will open his mouth in frustration. Immediately click and treat several times in a row (jackpot). Don’t worry if he doesn’t touch the dumbbell; simply click and treat for his mouth opening.
  2. Continue to ignore nose bumps. Click and treat once for your Service Dog’s mouth opening, and jackpot if he actually brushes or touches the dumbbell with any part of his mouth for any reason, even if it’s an accident.
  3. Work towards your Service Dog purposefully putting his mouth on the dumbbell, even if he spits it out instantly. Click and treat for mouth to dumbbell contact.
  4. Begin clicking and treating only for actual “grabs,” which are mouth opens, teeth close around middle of dumbbell, no matter how briefly, and then dog lets go.

That’s it for Part One! Look out for Part Two of training the Service Dog retrieve next week, which is extending the hold. Check out the attached video to see how to go from the super quick snatches to encouraging just a bit of duration.

Teach a Service Dog to Retrieve: Troubleshooting
If your partner just won’t move from nose bumping to mouthing, it’s time to troubleshoot your retrieve. Try smearing just a trace of peanut butter on the backside of the dumbbell grip, the side that’s facing your body that your Service Dog can’t see. Alternatively, if your partner won’t snatch it from you, freeze a hot dog to use for the first couple of sessions. You can also position a treat just behind the dumbbell, super close to the grip, so that when your partner opens his mouth to get the treat, he touches the dumbbell.

Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: Tips
Hold the clicker and the dumbbell in your left hand and keep the treats in your right. That’s the easiest way to keep all your “stuff” organized. If your partner needs to be on-lead to keep him from wandering off, then simply step on the end. Use super high-value, special treats while teaching your Service Dog to retrieve. The more interest and focus you can generate in the process, the quicker your partner will progress.

Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: Warnings
The formal retrieve is a difficult and frustrating behavior not only for your Service Dog to learn, but also for you to teach. Take breaks as necessary, keep the energy high and above all, relax. If you feel yourself getting frustrated, ask your parter to perform a couple of quick, easy, fun behaviors he knows well and then end the session. Be careful not to drop the dumbbell or whatever object your using on your feet or your Service Dog’s paws — it hurts!

Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: The Series
Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: Part One (The post you’re reading – covers proper tools/equipment, dumbbell introduction, and how to get your Service Dog to grab the dumbbell)
Train a Service Dog to Retrieve, Part Two (Covers “hold” and proofing the hold)
Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: Part Three (Covers picking items up, introducing new objects and retrieval seeding puzzles)
Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: Part Four (Covers object-specific retrieval, specifically retrieving a beverage on cue)



  • Madison April 25, 2017

    Hello, my 5-month-old GSD puppy is just starting to learn how to retrieve objects. We have only had 3 sessions on it, and so far he understands to put his mouth on it. Now, for some reason, he tries to take it from me (yay!) but then he just lays down with it and chews on it (boo.). He knows that the object (it is similar to the one in the video provided above) is not a toy, but for some reason, he just wants to chew on it. Is there anything I can do to fix this?

  • Abigail August 20, 2017

    This is so helpful! My SDiT won’t put anything in her mouth besides food (won’t even play with toys) so getting her to retrieve was difficult. All of the other methods started with marking the behavior of something in her mouth like when she was playing with a toy and that wasn’t going to work. but with this method she completely got it!

  • Rensu September 21, 2017

    Benson and I are struggling to master this command which my trainer has recently introduced as a means of stopping the dog before the retrieve to allow a change of direction. Normally Benson works well to the stop command reacting to a whistle blast and my raised hand. However, when sent to retrieve he is running away from me, hears the whistle blast but cannot see my raised hand and so chooses to ignore the command. Once he retrieves and turns towards me I can get him to stop. I have some sympathy for Benson because having been given a command to retrieve I can understand why he is reluctant to stop midway. We have tried using a long lead which is designed to physically stop him but he is not keen on this restriction. Any ideas? I hear that dog training tips from justin boldoni on facebook work better and feel want to try it out.

  • David Smith October 3, 2017

    This is great info! I loved the part on Teach a Service Dog to Retrieve: Targeting above. I’m working with a few trainers teaching their dog to service. Ill definitely share this article to them.


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