How to Motivate a Dog to Retrieve

Posted on February 25th, 2021 by FetchMasters in Uncategorized

Dog training in Denver provides a never-ending smorgasbord of problems to solve. Most behavior issues arise from either over-exuberance or fear. However, there is another kind of problem that falls into neither of the above categories: those based on disinterest.

You can also listen to the content of this article via The FetchMasters DogCast episode below!

Why Dogs May Be Disinterested in Retrieving

One of the activities that many dogs enjoy — but some just simply have no interest in — is retrieving (i.e. playing fetch). Being both pet dog trainers and hunting dog trainers, we at FetchMasters work with a lot of dog owners that either want or need their dogs to retrieve.

Before discussing some ways to help dogs be more interested in retrieving, let’s have a look at some of the reasons dogs may be disinterested in the first place.

Weak Genetic Predisposition for Retrieving

Historically in the hunting dog world, many dogs were bred to have an innate desire to retrieve. This made training a structured, motivated retrieve quite easy. But with the advent of forced fetching and e-collars, many sporting dog breeders have abandoned selectively breeding for retrieving instinct. Perhaps this is because they assume that a trainer will put an e-collar on the dog and force it to retrieve regardless of the dog’s lack of natural desire to do so.

Additionally, there are many dog breeds not intended for hunting that are bred with very little genetic predisposition for fetching. Of course, pet dog breeders cannot be faulted for this. Retrieving is not high on the list of concerns for most non-sporting or non-working breeds.

All of that said, in today’s society, positive training methods have gained a lot of mindshare. Because of this, many dog owners now are actively looking for alternatives to “forced fetching,” which is a comparatively harsher method of training a dog to retrieve.

But if you are going to train a dog to fetch without using forceful methods, it becomes necessary that the dog’s primary motivation to retrieve is a desire to retrieve. But can you build a strong desire to retrieve into a dog who lacks the genetic predisposition for it? Sometimes. More on that below.

Previous Article: A Critical Look at Forced Fetching

Bad Experiences Related to Retrieving

Assuming you have a dog with a reasonable genetic predisposition for retrieving, bad experiences can dampen its desire to fetch. In my experience, there are two varieties of bad experiences. One comes at the hands of humans, the other from dogs.

When training a dog to retrieve, it is important to stay upbeat, even if your dog seems to not be getting it. Being very emotional creatures in nature, dogs can sense our displeasure. If you start getting hot under the collar while working or playing with your dog, it will almost certainly lead your dog to think that retrieving is not a very enjoyable activity.

Mostly in the hunting dog world, I’ve seen owners lose their tempers at dogs who botch a retrieving drill and smack the dog on the head with a retrieving bumper. Somehow the owners believe that this will get their point across to the dog, but it absolutely never does. It always makes the dog more hesitant to retrieve. I’ve never seen it work out otherwise.

Mostly in the pet dog world, I’ve seen owners play fetch when multiple dogs are present — in a dog park, for instance. Occasionally, the dog who first gets to the ball and grabs it will get attacked by another dog who is frustrated that he did not get it. Harsh scoldings by jealous dogs can turn the reprimanded dog off to retrieving altogether. Also in dog parks, I’ve seen slower dogs — who are rarely able to beat a hoard of faster dogs to a tossed ball — just give up on retrieving because they are unable to succeed relative to the faster dogs. Dog parks are bad new for lots of dogs — and certainly for those with low retrieving motivation.

Age Resulting in Lack of Motivation

I certainly would never say that an older dog cannot be a motivated retriever. That said, it is my experience that the older a dog is when it is introduced to retrieving, the less likely it becomes that the dog will be motivated to play fetch.

Puppies just tend to have higher energy levels and more interest in chasing things, playing and getting rowdy — all components of retrieving. As the energy level of a dog wanes (as is a symptom of age), the less likely it is to be enamored with high-energy activities like retrieving.

But then, dogs never cease to surprise us, and this certainly is not an immutable law of dogdom.

Ways to Build Your Dog’s Motivation to Retrieve

I would like to point out that you can teach any dog to retrieve — especially with modalities like clicker training, which can gradually shape a full retrieving sequence. However, there is a major difference between a dog knowing how to retrieve and a dog wanting to retrieve. This article is about helping dogs with low retrieving drive (i.e. motivation) want to retrieve. Big difference.

Previous Article: Four Reasons to Train Your Dog to Fetch — and How to Do It

The following ideas for building your dog’s motivation have worked for us at FetchMasters on many occasions. Not all of the suggestions below will work for all dogs. But chances are good that at least one of them will help your dog.

Help Your Dog See that You Enjoy The Activity

The more your dog enjoys something, the more likely it will be to partake in that activity. Retrieving is no exception.

Dogs cue off our emotions. If we are happy, they can sense that — and often they want to be part of the joy. If we are gruff or grouchy, the dog will probably want to keep its distance.

Whenever you are working on retrieving with your dog, act excited about it, and lavish praise on your dog for every little success. If your dog runs to the ball, looks at it and quits, praise the dickens out of your dog. You’ll be surprised at what happens next. Be persistently joyous when trying to help your dog learn to love retrieving.

Remove All Obedience from Playing Fetch (at least for now)

In a nutshell, obedience training is about teaching a dog to control its impulses. If you have a dog with low motivation for retrieving, you actually want it to cut loose! You want it to desire chasing and grabbing the ball. To do this, you need to remove all the stops. As it pertains to retrieving, control should come after the desire is built, not before.

By eliminating all obedience from retrieving, the dog is more free to just enjoy the activity with you. Examples of obedience-based behaviors that should be cut out are: making the dog sit for the toss, only retrieving when given permission to do so, or delivering the bumper or ball back to your hand in a structured way.

Once the dog finds retrieving to be generally fun, you can gradually re-introduce obedience-based concepts to the activity. But when you do, always be mindful of your dog’s motivation level and carefully balance the two.

Establish Rarity

When something is fun and rare, dogs get very excited about it. When things cease to become a novelty, dogs get bored with it. When building a motivation to retrieve, fun and rare is where it’s at — KEEP IT NOVEL!

If your dog will only retrieve twice, throw the ball just once. If your dog will retrieve it ten times, toss the ball five times. Then quit.

Do not leave a ball or bumper out like a common toy. Put it away when not using it for retrieving — another part of establishing rarity.

By making retrieving fun and never giving the dog enough of it, you should notice your dog getting more excited every time it sees the ball. And the number of times your dog can retrieve without getting bored should gradually increase.

Harness Imitation and Competition

Humans have devised all kinds of fancy techniques for teaching dogs to do things. However, dogs learn from each other by imitation. Not only can a dog learn a rudimentary retrieve by watching other dogs play fetch, but they can also learn that retrieving is a highly desirable activity if they watch a highly motivated retriever in action.

If you have, or have access to, another dog that enjoys retrieving, consider tethering your non-motivated dog and playing fetch with the motivated one. After the unmotivated dog watches the the motivated one for a while, tether the motivated dog and let the unmotivated dog give it a try.

If the unmotivated dog has a competitive nature, this particular approach can be doubly powerful.

NOTE: This particular suggestion should be used in moderation, as it also can cause a lot of frustration in some dogs. Give it a try, but don’t overdo it.

A Note on Food Rewards for Retrieving

At FetchMasters, we try to get dogs to to be so motivated to retrieve that retrieving is itself a rewarding behavior. Said another way, retrieving can be a self-rewarding activity requiring no secondary rewards, such as food or play. Once we have established a high level of motivation for retrieving, we then will use retrieving as the reward for other behaviors.

I mentioned above that clicker training is an amazing tool for teaching a dog how to retrieve. However, as it is commonly practiced, clicker training tends to only develop a level of motivation that is equal to the dog’s desire for the food treat being used as the reward during training.

Retrieving is primarily an outdoor activity that is practiced with the dog either on a long lead or off-leash. And while some dogs may be motivated enough by food treats to function in this sort of scenario, many are not; the distractions of the great outdoors just outweigh the appeal of food treats for some dogs.

For this reason, I recommend that, if you are using a clicker to teach your dog how to retrieve, you do not expect that particular training modality to result in a high level of motivation. Plan on using some of the above suggestions to build motivation once you have established a basic retrieve via clicker training.

In Summary

It has been my experience that almost all dogs can be trained how to retrieve. And it has been my experience that at least a good portion of dogs can learn to enjoy it.

That said, I’ve encountered many dogs that I do not believe will ever enjoy retrieving. It’s just not their thing, and that’s okay. Sometimes dog training is about training the dog to do certain things. But sometimes it is about helping the owner understand the nature of the dog they have.